science

What Exactly Is an Adaptogen and Do They Really Work?

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

5 min read

A cup of tea and leaves on a white circle patter

Adaptogens help mediate the body’s response to stress. Read on to learn about some popular ones and how they work.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are herbs that help mediate your body’s response to stress. They can both calm and energize and sometimes do both at once. To qualify as an adaptogen, the herb must help the body respond to various adverse conditions, counter the physical impact of stress, and not harm the usual functioning of the body. Adaptogens can be consumed in many forms, including tea, capsules, glycerite extracts, and tinctures.

Plant-based adaptogens vs synthetic adaptogens

Adaptogens generally come in two types: plant-based or synthetic. Plant-based adaptogens usually contain their plant sources within them, while synthetic adaptogens usually consist of an extract that’s made to mimic those found in plants.

Regulation of adaptogens

Adaptogens are not considered to be in the same category as a medical drug, however they are considered supplements and are reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).When deciding whether to take adaptogens, you should be sure you’re getting them from a reputable, established brand with a proven track record – and one that, like Care/of, employs third-party testing. It is also important to consider the doses being used and parts of the plant being used are effective to ensure optimal quality and outcomes.

How do adaptogens work in the body?

To understand how adaptogens work in the body, you first need to understand how the body responds to stressors. When you encounter a physical or mental stressor, your nervous system activates a three-stage process known as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).

When you face a physical or mental stressor, your body goes through a process known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS). The stages of the GAS are:

  1. Alarm
  2. Resistance
  3. Exhaustion

Adaptogens help your body increase the state of non-specific stress resistance through a stimulating effect that keeps the exhaustion phase at bay. In other words, you’re able to achieve balance in the moment and keep going. Adapting well to stress helps you maintain composure and perform well no matter the situation, which in turn supports your overall health and well-being. Thus the effects of adaptogens in your body can be both short- and long-term.

Foods high in adaptogens

Some foods are high in adaptogens, including:

  • Certain mushrooms (reishi)
  • Goji berries
  • Wild blueberries (although not commonly called an adaptogen, blueberries do contain several antioxidants which have several beneficial properties similar to adaptogens
  • Licorice Root
  • Raspberry Leaf Maca

More often, you add adaptogens to food and drinks.

Popular adaptogens and their benefits

Ashwagandha

Commonly known as “Indian Ginseng,” ashwagandha has for thousands of years been part of the Indian practice of Ayurvedic medicine. Some of ashwagandha’s benefits include:

Care/of’s ashwagandha – a.k.a. “The Chill Pill” – is harvested in India and comes in 30-day supplies.

Bacopa monnieri

Bacopa monnieri is an herb native to the wetlands of southern and Eastern India, Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and South America. It’s nootropic, which means that it can help support memory. It’s also been shown to have antioxidant properties that support brain health.

American ginseng

American ginseng is a herbaceous perennial plant in the ivy family that was historically used by Native American tribes. Some of its health benefits include:

Care/of offers a 30-day supply of American ginseng – dubbed “The Study Buddy” – that’s sustainably sourced on small scale farms.

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Asian ginseng is an herb native to China, Korea, and far-eastern Siberia. There are two kinds of Asian ginseng: red and white. In general, red is considered more effective. One study, in particular, found red ginseng superior to white ginseng when it came to improving attention, memory, and perceived stress.

Rhodiola rosea

Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb that grows in the mountainous regions of Asia and Europe. It’s increasingly popular as a supplement because of its many health benefits. Some of the benefits include:

Care/of’s Rhodiola – a.k.a. “The Cosmonaut” – is sourced from the Altai Mountains of Siberia and Russia and is available in 30-day packs.

Tulsi

Tulsi is a type of basil, regarded with reverence in the Hindu faith. It is sometimes called an “elixir of life.” Its long traditional use suggests that it is safe for daily ingestion. Studies suggest that it can help with psychological and immunological stress. A clinical trial also found that it boosted cognitive ability, short-term memory, and attention in 40 healthy young adults.

Schisandra chinensis

Schisandra chinensis is a plant that bears small fruits that are used in traditional Chinese medicine. It’s one of the oldest medicinal plants used in East Asia. Some of its health benefits include:

  • Increasing energy
  • Improving cellular health
  • Modulating blood pressure already within normal limits
  • Improving digestion
  • Boosting mental health
  • Supporting muscular activity

Siberian ginseng

Siberian ginseng is a species of small woody shrub native to Northeastern Asia. Studies suggest that its health benefits may include improving focus and supporting energy. One 8-week study found that it may also enhance endurance capacity.

How to take adaptogens

It’s generally okay to take adaptogens once per day, although that depends on the particular dose. The key, as with any supplement routine, is consistency. Try working your adaptogen intake into a regular routine.

Possible side effects

Side effects from adaptogen use are rare. However, in some cases, people can experience overstimulation when taking more than one adaptogen at a time. A great way to avoid potential overstimulation if taking multiple adaptogens at once, is to take them at separate times of the day.

Medication interaction and contraindications

It’s possible for adaptogens to interact with medications you’re taking. If you’re taking any pharmaceutical medications, be sure to talk to your doctor before you add an adaptogen into your routine.

Final takeaway: Do adaptogens actually work?

There’s a lot of evidence – both empirical and historical – to support the notion that adaptogens can help your response to various stressors. If stress is a problem for you, you may want to look into trying some of the adaptogens listed above. You may also want to try our shatavari, known to help with hormonal breakouts; our adaptogenic mushrooms, which support immune health; or our maca, which supports energy and fitness performance.

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