Adaptogens: Your Superstar Stress Busters

People worldwide are looking for ways to overcome stress. Adaptogens are plants that help you directly resist stress. To face any short-term or chronic stress, add adaptogens to your meals or daily drinks and supplements to boost your energy, immune system, brain function, and more.

Key takeaways:

Adaptogens boost health and bust stress

Adaptogens are plants that help you adapt to and avoid the damage of stress.

There are an endless number of plants to support your health, but adaptogenic plants uniquely impact your hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis — a complex network where the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands communicate to release necessary hormones like cortisol.

The HPA axis helps you adapt to stress by releasing cortisol and other hormones to face a dangerous situation. When your HPA network senses it no longer needs cortisol to adapt to that stressor, it will return your stress hormones to normal levels.

Chronic, unrelenting stress, however, causes your HPA axis to continue releasing cortisol, which keeps stress hormones dangerously pumping through your blood rather than returning to lower levels.

By definition, a plant is an adaptogen when it directly supports your HPA axis' ability to manage cortisol levels in your body, returning you to a peaceful and stable state when the time is right.

6 benefits of plant adaptogens

A USSR scientist first offered the term "adaptogen" in 1940, according to a 2018 review published in Chinese Medicine, the official journal of the International Society for Chinese Medicine. During the past 20 years, adaptogen research has grown significantly.

Based on that growing evidence, studies show that adaptogens offer impressive benefits, according to Chinese Medicine's review.

1. Improved stress response and energy levels

As mentioned earlier, a unique feature of all adaptogens is how they affect the HPA axis and energy within your cells.

Stress causes a cascade of physiological events within the HPA axis. Adaptogens interact with this cascade in several ways to help you remain more restful and feel more focused and less pressured under stress.

One way adaptogens improve your function is by increasing your body's use of nutrients like oxygen, protein, fat, and sugar, boosting your energy and inner calm.

Because of these effects, adaptogens, in general, are great for athletes and people who feel fatigued by physical activity. Studies show that consuming plant-based adaptogens before exercising helps keep stress hormone levels in check.

2. Defense against adrenal fatigue

Adrenal glands are sometimes called the glands of stress because they help you cope with stress by mobilizing chemical responses to triggers. This helps you adapt and overcome stressors.

However, adrenal fatigue occurs when chronic stress overworks your adrenal glands to the point they no longer secrete enough hormones to meet your stress demands. This can lead to metabolic syndrome — a dangerous cluster of health issues that develop into type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease when left unaddressed.

Adaptogens help the adrenal glands reduce cortisol production when a stress trigger cools off, effectively reducing chronic stress. They also inactivate unnecessary stress hormones, boost your cells' energy, and reduce oxidative damage.

Here's a list of adaptogens to help stabilize your adrenal glands:

Panax ginseng, also known as Asian ginseng, Chinese ginseng, or Korean ginseng

  • American ginseng
  • Ashwagandha root
  • Codonopsis
  • Eleuthero
  • Jiaogulan
  • Licorice root
  • Reishi mushroom
  • Rhodiola

3. Reduced pain and inflammation

According to some studies, plant-based adaptogens may offer relief from pain with their anti-inflammatory properties.

This list of adaptogens may relieve pain from inflammatory conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia:

  • Ashwagandha root
  • Panax ginseng
  • Jiaogulan
  • Reishi mushroom
  • Rhodiola
  • Licorice root

4. Improved sleep and jet leg

Insomnia and other sleep-related problems plague many people. Because stress disturbs normal levels of circadian cortisol, adaptogens can help people sleep better by impacting the HPA axis' production of cortisol. They can also help restore circadian rhythms disrupted by jet leg.

These adaptogens may help you sleep and ease jet lag:

  • American ginseng
  • Schisandra
  • Jiaogulan
  • Rhodiola

5. Boosted immunity and cancer prevention

Adaptogenic plants have both a direct and indirect impact on your immune system.

Stress weakens your immunity. Since adaptogens improve your stress response, they indirectly bolster your immune system, helping you ward off various types of threats.

But that's not all they do for the immune system. They directly affect immunity by activating immune cells, like macrophages and T-lymphocytes, which can help block tumor growth, among many benefits. Research shows that adaptogens encourage healthy cell death, promote cellular repair, and slow cancer cell production.

Evidence also suggests that adaptogens may offer robust, supportive therapy alongside cancer treatments. Preliminary studies show that American ginseng may improve fatigue for cancer patients, whether they are receiving treatment or not. Rhodiola may also soothe chemotherapy-induced mouth discomfort and damage.

Research also suggests that adaptogens strengthen the cancer-killing effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Mice studies have shown that tongkat ali and panax ginseng help reduce chemotherapy drug resistance.

In addition, ashwagandha helps address cancer treatment side effects by aiding the body in producing marrow and red blood cells as well as reducing infection.

6. Improved focus and mental energy

Adaptogenic mushrooms — different from psychedelic mushrooms — also support your mind and body in many ways. They are perhaps best known for enhancing brain function.

For example, one 2020 study showed reduced stress-caused brain inflammation after treating mice with a reishi mushroom supplement. Experts believe reishi may protect against nerve damage and memory loss.

Like other adaptogens, adaptogenic mushrooms help you feel better under stress and after heavy physical activity. They may also boost dopamine and serotonin levels and reduce inflammation and fatigue, among many other benefits.

Here's a list of well-researched adaptogenic, non-psychedelic mushrooms:

  • Lion's mane
  • Reishi
  • Cordyceps
  • Turkey tail

Risks of Adaptogens

While adaptogens are safe for most people, some do interact with prescription medications. As is always the case, especially if you're pregnant, talk with a health provider and check your medication list to see if any interact with adaptogenic herbs.

If you're a biohacker who loves experimenting on your own with wellness tools, experts recommend fully researching adaptogens first and sticking to the dosing advice to "start low and go slow." As you increase your dose, healthcare providers advise documenting your response until you're sure you've found the minimally effective dose for your unique needs.

Rather than going it alone, however, it's always recommended to biohack with a trusted practitioner to listen and help you find your best health.

Biohacking with adaptogens

There are untold ways to incorporate adaptogens into your health routine. How you use them and which you choose depends on your health needs and, possibly, taste buds.

Adaptogens are available in powder, capsule, tincture, and tea forms. You can cook with whole adaptogenic mushrooms and herbs and buy adaptogenic-infused drinks and foods.

Consider using particular adaptogens for only a few months and then rotate different ones into your diet.

Add these adaptogen hacks to your diet:

Here are a few ideas on how to incorporate adaptogens into your diet:

  • Bedtime tea. Infuse calming adaptogens, like holy basil and ashwagandha, into a bedtime mug of moon milk, a turmeric latte also known as golden milk.
  • Smoothie. Add energizing adaptogens like ginseng, Rhodiola, and cordyceps to a hydrating smoothie.
  • Coffee. Mix adaptogenic mushroom powder into your daily coffee or tea.
  • Soup. Simmer astragalus root into a broth for several hours, a traditional Chinese way of using the plant.
  • Meals. Add an adaptogenic root, mushroom, or plant powder to any earthy-tasting dish.
  • Mocktail. Make a mocktail infused with adaptogens instead of mixing a cocktail.

You can try these different ideas with various adaptogens from endless recipes online.

Get creative, have fun, and use the adaptogenic herbs wisely. You'll feel a difference as they infuse your body with strength and energy.

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