Last Update: February 17, 2023
Stress is nothing new. Even though our ancestors didn’t have to deal with a constant flow of work emails and social media–fueled feelings of FOMO, they still had plenty of their own challenges (predators, famines, or the like). So while the sources of tension and fear have changed over time, the existence of stress—and the human body’s response to it—hasn’t.
Ancient medical traditions like India’s Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine have long sung the praises of adaptogens—certain herbs that may help the body adapt to stress. Despite the long use of adaptogens in other cultures, they’re something of a new phenomenon in the U.S. as researchers are starting to look into claims that traditional healers have been making for a long time. Below, we’ll get you up to speed on adaptogens, what they’re believed to do, why they’re gaining popularity in the Western world, and how to incorporate them into your self-care routine.
Adaptogens are a special class of plants (mostly herbs, though there are some exceptions) that, according to proponents, have a normalizing effect on the body. While that may sound vague, it’s precisely what makes them unique—they don’t serve a single function. The belief is that adaptogens may be able to adapt to whatever the body is dealing with (stress, anxiety, fatigue), and help alleviate or lessen the symptoms.
By now, many of us are aware that stress—particularly when it becomes habitual—can really throw us out of whack. That’s because our bodies treat stress as a serious threat every time we feel it, initiating a series of behavioral and physiological changes to help address the danger—either through confrontation or by making a run for it! Stress hormones like cortisol are regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, an important network of glands that play a central role in the endocrine system. When constantly activated, the HPA axis can easily get off balance and tax the adrenals.
The good news is that adaptogens are thought to help the body handle stress more efficiently, working along the HPA axis to regulate the stress response. The same study noted adaptogens help “increase endurance and attention in situations of decreased performance caused by fatigue.” In other words, whether you’re feeling high-strung and frazzled, or, conversely, overwhelmed and lethargic, adaptogens appear to help. In fact, there are several recent studies suggesting that adaptogens may help positively impact the immune system and improve cognition.
There are more than a dozen herbs that are considered adaptogenic—here are a few of the most popular. If you’re interested in adding adaptogens to your natural stress management arsenal, this list would be a good place to start.
Medicinal mushrooms (like cordyceps, reishi, and maitake) contain beta glucans, a type of sugar that may help support the immune system. A study published in Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin reported that the cordyceps fungi helped lower blood sugar in diabetic mice.
Fenugreek’s name comes from the Latin word demulcere, meaning “to caress.” True to its name, this adaptogen with origins in Asia and Europe has been used for soothing digestion and reducing gas. While more studies are needed, Fenugreek is believed to promote lower blood sugar and boosting milk supply in lactating women.
Maca has been cultivated in Peru for thousands of years. It’s commonly found as a dry powder that’s often used to support fertility and reproductive health.
Pine pollen (the male spore of pine seeds) boasts amino acids, polyphenols, and vitamins like D3, magnesium, and calcium. It’s been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and mouse studies report potential anti-aging benefits.
Although very few adaptogens are associated with adverse side effects, some can interfere with prescription medicines or aren’t recommended for those with certain health conditions. Therefore, we suggest consulting with your doctor before trying them (as with any new supplement). A medical professional can help determine which herbs are right for you and suggest appropriate dosages, too.
Most adaptogens are available in capsule form to be taken as a regular dietary supplement. Alternately, you can add powdered or liquid versions to a daily smoothie, or brew special tea blends.
Regardless of how (or how often) you decide to take them, keep in mind that adaptogens don’t work like pharmaceuticals. Champions of adaptogens find them to be really effective in maintaining energy and managing stress—but note that the effects are subtle and felt over the long-term. So think of them not as a quick fix, but rather, a complement to other self-care practices like yoga, meditation, aromatherapy, and a healthy diet.
Browse our shelves for a wide assortment adaptogens to incorporate into your routine. From cacao blends to convenient capsules, here are some of our most-loved supplements.
Low on energy? Cordyceps has been used for centuries to help support endurance and may help you feel less drained. Our mushrooms are grown in California and feature a complete spectrum of bioactive nutrients.
Reishi is known as “the king of mushrooms” and has been used for centuries to support the immune system. Grown in California, this organic powder features the whole fungi (and a complete spectrum of bioactive nutrients). Member Laurel from Kentucky adds it to her morning beverage and Brittany from South Carolina uses it in hot chocolate.
Made with organic fenugreek seeds, this supplement is rich in B vitamins, vitamin C, and beta carotene. Stefanie from California relied on it after her baby was born, saying, “It helped me get my milk to come in and helped me keep up my supply early on.”
This potent herb is believed to help your body adapt to stress and its earthy flavor pairs well with cacao for supercharged lattes and hot chocolates.
Anima Mundi’s drink mix gives you a sampling of several superfood mushrooms—including reishi, chaga, and lion’s mane—mixed with cacao for a comforting blend. Shannon from Texas says “I have an autoimmune disorder and this product makes me feel better, longer and helps to reduce my anxiety.”
To support occasional stress, call on a caffeine-free blend of adaptogens from Four Sigmatic. Mix one scoop into coffee, tea, or smoothies and you’ll be treated to tulsi, ashwagandha, reishi, amla, and more.
For a comforting cuppa that targets tension, cocoa from Moon Juice is the answer. Each serving serves up several of its proprietary adaptogenic blends (like Spirit Dust, made using goji, mimosa bark, astragalus, and reishi) plus cacao powder and coconut sugar for a touch of sweetness.
To formulate its holy basil leaf supplement, Gaia Herbs uses dual extraction technology to ensure each serving delivers the broadest spectrum of herbs available. Each bottle comes with 60 capsules; take 1 per day.
Organic holy basil, reishi, ashwagandha, and goji berry make up this balancing tincture from Wooden Spoon Herbs formulated to support the nervous system.
Be advised that research is still ongoing, and the FDA has not evaluated any of these claims. Additionally, we are not, in any way, suggesting that adaptogens are intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Melinda writes about health, wellness, and food for the Thrive Market blog. She started her career as a financial journalist in NYC and has written for Where Magazine, Worth, Forbes, and TheStreet.com. When she's not reading or writing, she enjoys working out, sketching, and playing with her daughter and mini-dachshund, Goliath.
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