The Top 6 Adaptogens and How They Benefit Health

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Adaptogens are herbs and plants that help the body respond to and resist stress.

You may have heard the word “adaptogen” before but not quite known what the term entailed. Although adaptogens are becoming increasingly trendy, they have actually been around for quite some time. 

These ancient herbs and plants have been used in traditional medicinal and healing practices around the globe for thousands of years. And for good reason — adaptogens’ benefits range from fatigue-fighting to fertility-promoting to free radical-scavenging.

This article will go over the top six adaptogens that have been studied for their role in human health, longevity, and disease reduction, and how best to use them.  

What Are Adaptogens? 

Adaptogens are plants, herbs, or roots that help the body resist stressors and maintain overall homeostasis. They are a unique set of plants, in that they can both reduce stress and promote energy at the same time, unlike caffeine, which boosts energy but also increases stress in the body.

When we encounter a stressful situation, such as tension at home, loss of a job, or anxiety from an ongoing pandemic, our bodies produce a physiological stress response, called the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).

There are three stages of GAS: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. The alarm stage is the fight-or-flight response, which increases heart rate, adrenaline, and release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. The second stage, resistance, is just what it sounds like: your body becomes more resistant to the stressor. Lastly, exhaustion is the result of chronic stress; it typically results in burnout. 

In response to stress, adaptogens work to keep your body in the “resistance” phase for longer than it is in “alarm” or “exhaustion.” This resistance provides a calming yet stimulating effect to help you get through stressful situations and become more resilient, which relieves the adrenal glands and reduces cortisol levels.

Chronic stress can lead to burnout and exhaustion.

The Top 6 Adaptogens For Health

The majority of adaptogens’ benefits are related to how they relieve stress and help the adrenal glands, but there are several other ways that these herbs have been found to promote health. 

1. Ashwagandha 

Ashwagandha, also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng, is a plant in the nightshade family used for centuries, beginning 6,000 years ago in Ayurvedic medicine practices from India.

Ashwagandha is most studied for its adaptogenic effects on reducing stress and anxiety. In a study of adults with a history of chronic stress, those who supplemented with 600 mg of ashwagandha per day had significantly reduced levels of cortisol, stress, and anxiety over 60 days. 

In addition to its calming properties, ashwagandha benefits body composition. Supplementation with 600 mg of ashwagandha daily has been shown to increase muscle mass and reduce muscle fatigue after exercise. 

2. Tulsi

Tulsi, also known as holy basil, is an herb that is referred to as the “Elixir of Life” in Ayurvedic practices and is commonly consumed as a tea. 

In a randomized controlled trial, individuals who took tulsi had a 39% reduction in overall stress symptoms and improved sleep quality and sexual function, compared to those taking a placebo. 

In addition to calming emotional stress, tulsi also protects against toxic stress, such as from pesticides, pollution, or heavy metal exposure. Tulsi has antioxidant properties, which enable the herb to scavenge for free radicals and reduce cellular damage from these external toxins. 

Tulsi is immunomodulating and anti-inflammatory, which is shown in its ability to improve clinical symptoms of metabolic syndrome (including high blood pressure and sugar) and neurocognition, as discussed in a March 2017 systematic review published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine

3. Asian Ginseng 

Asian ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng or Korean ginseng, is an adaptogenic root that displays anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

Ginsenosides are the primary active components in Asian ginseng, which may fight fatigue, improve mood, boost brain health, and strengthen the immune system. 

In a study published in April 2013 in PLoS One, individuals with idiopathic chronic fatigue were randomized to receive a daily dose of either 1 gram Asian ginseng, 2 grams, or a placebo for four weeks. At both doses of Asian ginseng, the participants experienced improvements in mental fatigue, as well as increases in glutathione (our master antioxidant) and reductions in oxidative stress markers. 

Commonly studied adaptogens include ashwagandha, ginseng, rhodiola, and tulsi. 

4. Rhodiola

Rhodiola, also known as rosenroot or by its scientific name Rhodiola rosea, is an herb whose roots have been used in traditional healing for centuries. 

Rhodiola has been studied for its anti-stress, antidepressive, fatigue-fighting, and neuroprotective properties. The greatest benefits, especially in regards to fatigue, occur when low doses are given over longer periods of time.

In a study of individuals with self-reported high stress, those who took 400 mg of rhodiola for 12 weeks had significant improvements in their symptoms of burnout, stress, anxiety, and lack of concentration. 

Salidroside, the main bioactive component of rhodiola, has been shown to reduce oxidative stress, and levels of amyloid-beta plaque in the brain in animal models, risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and neurodegeneration. 

5. Schisandra

Schisandra chinensis, also known as five-flavor-fruit, is a berry but is most often consumed in supplemental form as a powder, pill, or extract. 

As detailed in a February 2019 review published in Nutrients, schisandra is known for its ability to ameliorate stress, improve metabolic functioning, and increase endurance and muscle strength. These factors allow schisandra to protect against two common age-related disorders, osteoporosis and sarcopenia. 

The adaptogenic fruit is also studied for its anti-aging effects due to its strong antioxidant properties. One of its bioactive compounds, schisandrin B, has been shown to reduce DNA damage, cell death, and oxidation in cellular models. 

Similarly, the fruit has exhibited neuroprotection through reducing inflammation in the brain, regulating neurotransmitters, and modulating pathways related to brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that promotes the growth and survival of neurons. 

6. Eleuthero

Eleutherococcus senticosus, commonly referred to as eleuthero or Siberian ginseng, is a lesser-known herb that still has plenty of health benefits. The majority of the research looks at its anti-aging, anti-stress, and metabolic effects. 

In a small trial, college-aged men who took 800 mg of Eleuthero for eight weeks had improvements in their endurance capacity, cardiovascular functions, and metabolic markers during cycling tests. Additionally, some research in cellular or animal models has shown a beneficial impact of eleuthero on cognition and brain health; however, more studies are needed.  

How to Use Adaptogens

Most adaptogens are available in the form of pills, teas, tinctures, tonics, or powders. The dosage or serving size varies by adaptogen. 

Adverse effects tend to be minimal if you are using the product as instructed. But the most common side effects are related to the gastrointestinal system, including nausea or diarrhea.

Adaptogens are typically not recommended in those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. If you are taking medications that thin the blood, lower blood pressure, or reduce blood sugar, consult your physician first, as some adaptogens can further reduce those markers.

Key Takeaway

  • Adaptogens are plants, herbs, or roots that help the body resist stressors and become more resilient by relieving stress and fighting fatigue simultaneously.
  • For stress and anxiety relief, ashwagandha, tulsi, and rhodiola are the most effective. 
  • For increased energy, endurance, and stamina, try Asian ginseng, schisandra, or eleuthero. 
Show references

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