Natural medicine has long appreciated the benefits of herbs and food as medicine. One such example of this is adaptogenic herbs, or “adaptogens,” which can positively impact one’s response to stress.
As you probably know, your body is built to release the hormone cortisol when faced with stress, but elevated cortisol levels over long periods of time (aka chronic stress) can affect every physiological system in your body, including your thyroid and adrenal glands.
While most researchers and doctors agree that an approach to reduce chronic stress is many-layered, I believe that one powerful approach to naturally relieving stress as well as reducing long-term cortisol levels is by using adaptogenic herbs.
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants, including certain foods and herbs. Today they are most commonly consumed as supplements and herbal products, such as capsules, powders and tinctures.
Their main purpose is to help balance, restore and protect the body. They are used as part of a “phytotherapy” approach to healing, which refers to the use of plants for their therapeutic abilities.
According to naturopath Edward Wallace, an adaptogen doesn’t have a specific action. It helps you respond to any influence or stressor, normalizing your physiological functions.
The term adaptogenic herbs or substances was first recorded in 1947 by N.V. Lazarev, a Russian scientist, who used it to describe this non-specific effect that increases the body’s resistance to stress. Defined by two other Russian research scientists in 1958, adaptogens “must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism, must have a nonspecific action, and usually [have] a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the pathological state.”
This effect has been observed in animal studies, finding that various adaptogens have the ability to create this generally increased tolerance to stress.
How They Work
Do adaptogens really work? Research suggests that they are in fact pretty good at promoting restful sleep, boosting energy during the day, and helping with things like athletic performance, recovery and concentration while at work or school.
Just like the name implies, adaptogens help you adapt to various forms of stress. Another way to describe how they work is that they “normalize” many of the body’s processes and help keep the body in homeostasis.
One way they do this is by interacting with the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis), which controls the release of many of hormones. One such hormone is cortisol, a primary “stress hormone” that also contributes to symptoms associated with aging.
When cortisol levels rise, you experience the “fight or flight” response, which stimulates your sympathetic nervous system and your adrenal glands.
People who experience the fight-or-flight response on a regular basis, many times a day, may experience a state of constant stress, which can put pressure on the adrenal glands, tax the digestive tract, and cause a number of issues like fatigue, weight gain, low libido and acne.
Some people at the highest risk for adrenal issues include:
- young parents
- university students
- primary caregivers, like nurses or family members who care for invalid relatives or patients
Essentially adaptogens buffer us against harmful effects tied to stress and in the process make us feel more resilient and overall healthier.
Top 9 Adaptogenic Herbs
What are the most powerful adaptogens? In his book “Adaptogenic Herbs,” certified herbalist David Winston gives a list of 15 recognized adaptogens. Today, I’ll discuss the types I believe to be most beneficial as part of a stress-relieving lifestyle (in addition to other natural stress relievers).
Please note: I am reviewing evidence on individual adaptogenic herbs, not combinations of them often marketed as cortisol blockers.
1. Panax Ginseng
Ginseng is one well-known adaptogen, and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is considered by many to be the most potent. In humans, Panax ginseng has been shown to successfully improve feelings of calmness and some aspects of working memory performance in healthy young adults.
A 2018 review found that both American and Asian ginseng may be viable treatments for fatigue in people with chronic illness.
Another study observed that this herb helped reduce the ulcer index, adrenal gland weight, blood glucose levels, triglycerides, creatine kinase (an enzyme that points to stress- or injury-related damaged of the circulatory system and other parts of the body) and serum corticosterone (another stress-related hormone).
The scientists came to the conclusion that it “possesses significant anti-stress properties and can be used for the treatment of stress-induced disorders.”
Interestingly, multiple studies on Panax ginseng have found that it doesn’t directly alter cortisol levels, at least in the short term, but does affect various other stress response systems, such as blocking ACTH action in the adrenal gland (a hormone that stimulates production of glucocorticoid steroid hormones).
Just one dose showed a 132 percent increase in working capacity in one rat study. Saponins found in ginseng may affect the monoamine (neurotransmitter) levels in mice in which stress was induced, reducing the amount of noradrenalin and serotonin released as part of the stress response.
A 2004 lab study in the Journal of Pharmacological Sciences confirms that, in a lab, the effects of ginseng seem to be particularly motivated by their saponin content.
This red ginseng also has antioxidant effects (in a lab), has been found to improve mood and mental performance in small studies, may reduce fasting blood sugar levels, and may even aid newly diagnosed diabetic patients in losing weight.
2. Holy Basil
Also called tulsi, holy basil is known in India as a powerful anti-aging supplement. Holy basil benefits have long been an integral part of Ayurvedic medicine to treat a large number of conditions, such as “infections, skin diseases, hepatic disorders, common cold and cough, malarial fever and as an antidote for snake bite and scorpion sting.”
In recent years, researchers around the world have investigated the impact of holy basil on the body. Specifically, multiple studies have been conducted in mice and rats to observe its immunomodulatory effects and anti-stress activity.
A January 2015 study in humans tested the cognition-enhancing benefits holy basil is thought to have and found that reaction times and error rates improved compared to placebo.
One reason holy basil may be effective in improving stress response is the presence of three phytochemical compounds. The first two, ocimumosides A and B, have been identified as anti-stress compounds and may lower blood corticosterone (another stress hormone) and create positive alterations in the neurotransmitter system of the brain.
The third, 4-allyl-1-O-beta-D-glucopyronosyl-2-hydroxybenzene (say that five times fast!), is also able to lower stress parameters in lab studies.
There is also evidence that holy basil may help prevent recurrence of canker sores, which are thought to be induced by stress, as well as other types of ulcers, such as gastric ulcers.
In addition to these stress-related benefits, holy basil may potentially help:
- lower blood pressure
- reduce seizure activity
- fight bacteria
- kill certain fungi
- combat viral infections
- protect the liver
- promote immune system function
- reduce pain response
However, most of these have not been studied extensively and are in their infancy, as far as research goes.
Ashwagandha is often referred to as Indian ginseng. Its effects on cortisol, stress tolerance and internal stress responses have been studied for decades.
In rats and mice, ashwagandha root extract seems to stop the rise in lipid peroxidation caused by bacteria-induced stress. Lipid peroxidation is the process by which oxidative stress can eventually cause cell damage within blood cells.
Also in mice, it may prevent stress-related gastric ulcers, prevent weight increase of the adrenal glands (a sign of chronic stress), help stabilize cortisol levels and aid in the non-specific stress resistance common with adaptogenic herbs.
You might be interested to know that ashwagandha hasn’t only been studied in animals and labs, but in humans as well. A double-blinded, randomized, controlled trial (RCT, considered the “gold standard” of research) of 64 subjects found that it “safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”
Another RCT in humans discovered that this herb successfully regulated thyroid levels in “subclinical thyroid patients,” while a 2020 study found that it has neuroprotective effects that buffer against various brain disorders.
4. Astragalus Root
Used in Chinese medicine, astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) is known to boost immunity and potentially buffer the effects of stress.
Studies suggest that because astragalus is rich in polysaccharides, flavonoid compounds, saponin compounds, alkaloids and other protective chemicals, it has the potential to treat various ailments, including many that affect the immune system. It’s been shown to support immune regulation, such as by promoting proliferation of immune cells, stimulating the release of cytokines, and affecting the secretion of immunoglobulin and conduction of immune signals.
It also has positive effects on blood glucose levels, plus lipid-lowering, anti-fibrosis and antimicrobial activities.
5. Licorice Root
Licorice root can increase energy and endurance, plus help boost the immune system and support gut health.
It may affect blood pressure and potassium levels, so traditional licorice root is typically recommended in cycles of 12 weeks, although this isn’t the case when taking DGL licorice, which is considered safe for long-term use. Those with hypertension ought to consider using other adaptogens.
In human volunteers, supplementation with licorice root helped regulate hormone levels associated with stress, including cortisol. One potential outcome of this is the observed effect of this adaptogenic herb to help prevent ulcers.
Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea), or golden root, is a potent adaptogen that has been the focus of much research. Like the other adaptogens, studies show rhodiola provides a biological defense against stress.
A study in roundworms suggests that it actually acts as a mild stressor when ingested, allowing the organism to boost its stress defenses (similar to how astragalus root works).
A human trial tested rhodiola’s impact on people “suffering with stress-related fatigue.” Researchers found that repeatedly administering rhodiola rosea “exerts an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate, and decreases cortisol response to awakening stress in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome.”
Interestingly, rhodiola may even have an impact on acute stress responses, as explained by a 2012 study in human subjects. Giving the individuals rhodiola rosea resulted in a small reduction in cortisol (tested in saliva) and a very large reduction in the acute stress caused by “intense short duration physical exercise in sedentary persons.”
This adaptogenic herb also functions as an antioxidant in lab and animal research.
A review conducted in 2010 noted the promising results of initial research and pointed out the fact that rhodiola rarely interacts with medications or causes serious side effects, meaning it’s an attractive candidate as a generally safe supplement.
7. Cordycep Mushrooms
They may not be adaptogens in the classic sense, but each has adaptogenic, anti-tumor and immune-enhancing properties.
In particular, cordyceps have been observed for their impacts on cortisol levels and oxidative stress. For example, a 2006 trial involving the use of a powdered cordycep supplement found that sedentary adult males had better regulated cortisol levels after exercise-induced stress and that the supplement had anti-fatigue qualities.
In rats, cordyceps helped slightly increase the cortisol and testosterone levels in healthy male rats, giving them an edge of protection from physiological stress.
Another human trial found that cortisol levels of both men and women were lower over time when taking cordyceps extract compared to a placebo in subjects recovering from motion fatigue, a form of stress.
Again, it seems that the adaptogenic effect of cordyceps involve a temporary higher boost in cortisol when exposed to stress, followed by a large drop during non-stress periods when compared with no treatment.
The same was true for a three-month trial in endurance cyclists conducted in 2014, where the testosterone/cortisol ratio significantly protected the athletes from the chronic stress and related fatigue to which they often succumb. In this trial, researchers also noted that the blood of the participants confirmed an increase in antioxidant activity, quelling excessive oxidative stress.
8. Schisandra Berry
Also called magnolia berry (Schisandra chinensis), schisandra is a medicinal berry that can help boost endurance and mental performance.
This berry has healing properties that have been utilized in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. It’s most well-known for supporting the adrenal glands as well as the liver function.
It may also help with focus, concentration, memory and mental energy, while also potentially improving digestion and supporting hormonal balance.
Research suggests that schisandra works by positively impacting levels of nitric oxide and cortisol present in blood and saliva. In animal studies, it’s also been shown to help modify the response to stress by suppressing the increase of phosphorylated stress-activated protein kinase, which raises inflammation.
Turmeric root (Curcuma longa) is a plant that is not only sued as a culinary spice, but also as a natural remedy for reducing inflammation and boosting brain function. Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric responsible for so many of its benefits.
Why is turmeric an adaptogen? Certain studies suggest that it may be effective at reducing depression symptoms due to the way that curcumin impacts neurotransmitter function through the brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
It’s also been shown to help reverse amyloid pathology and associated neurotoxicity, which contribute to neurological diseases related to chronic inflammation, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Additionally, anti-inflammatory properties in curcumin seem to be effective at suppressing processes that contribute to obesity — plus it can be used to decrease pain associated with wounds, burns, arthritis and neuropathy.
Supplements and Dosage (Plus How to Add to Diet)
Adaptogens typically come in powder, tincture or capsule forms. There’s also a growing market of adaptogen-infused foods, drinks and tonics that are now available.
In some cases, you may also be able to find whole functional mushrooms to make mushroom tea, and you can obtain turmeric root to cook with.
Because each adaptogen works a bit differently, always follow instructions that come with the specific product you’re using. If you’re new to using adaptogens, start with a low dose, and increase after several days as needed.
Generally speaking, adaptogens are meant to be taken for short periods of time, about six to 12 weeks. It’s also recommended that you rotate the types you take every couple of months so your body benefits from exposure to multiple types of compounds.
Here are some ideas for adding adaptogens to your diet and routine:
- Take stimulating adaptogens early in the day, such as with breakfast or before a workout. These include ginseng, cordyceps and rhodiola, which can give you energy for your day. They can be taken with tea, in capsule form, or as powder that is added to beverages, coffee or smoothies.
- Adaptogens like ashwagandha and holy basil may be better suited for nighttime, such as to help with sleep. Try them in tincture form, essential oil form or capsule form depending on your preferences.
- Try making herbal tea using turmeric or a turmeric latte, which is sometimes referred to as moon milk or golden milk. You can also make “turmeric eggs” for breakfast and use ground turmeric in soups, stews, sauces and to bread chicken or sprinkle onto ground meat.
- Licorice root can also be taken in powder form, mixed into liquid or used to make a digestive aid tea.
- Two adaptogens that are great for cooking with are astragalus and schisandra. These can be used in sauces, soups and stir-fries to provide a complex, earthy taste.
Risks and Side Effects
As always, you should discuss any new supplements or medications with your doctor before beginning a regimen. This is especially true with adaptogenic herbs, as several of them interact with prescription medications and are not recommended for people with certain conditions.
Be sure to do your research on any new supplements you are considering to find out whether or not they may conflict with any medications or conditions you may have, and only purchase high-quality, organic varieties from trustworthy sources.
Pregnant women are also advised to avoid adaptogen products unless working with a doctor, since some can impact reproductive hormones in a way that is potentially problematic during pregnancy.
- Adaptogenic can help protect you from the effects of chronic stress. They are thought to work by balancing releases of stress hormones, including cortisol, and by supporting the body’s ability to stay in homeostasis and adapt to illnesses or fatigue.
- What foods and herbs are adaptogens? Examples of adaptogenic foods and herbal products include ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, astragalus root, licorice root, rhodiola and cordyceps.
- The main benefits of using these products include supporting sleep, energy, focus, exercise performance and recovery, and more.