Adaptogenic Guide: How to Use 10 Adaptogenic Herbs

What if your body had a shield that repelled the stressors that send you into meltdown mode? Well, that’s precisely what plants and herbs known as adaptogens have done for thousands of years (although Soviet scientists didn’t coin the term until the 1960s). Since then, research has shown that adaptogenic herbs have even more benefits when it comes to mental health and wellness.

What Are Adaptogens?

So, what makes an herb an adaptogen? “Adaptogens are thought to help the body fight off some kind of stressor—whether physical, chemical, or psychological,” says Dr. Candice Seti, a clinical psychologist, nutrition coach, and personal trainer based in San Diego, California. Used for centuries in the traditional medicines of many cultures, particularly in Russia and the Far East, adaptogens offer a simple, natural way to help the body stay calm and balanced.

“To be considered an adaptogen, the herb must meet three criteria,” says Ben LeVine, chief herbalist at Rasa, an herbal coffee alternative. “It must be nontoxic, normalizing, and nonspecific.” In addition, the adaptogen must act through either the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) or the sympathoadrenal system (SAS)—the two pathways that control the body’s stress response.

And couldn’t everyone stand to stress a little less? LeVine calls stress a silent epidemic. “Chronic stress leads to disruptions of our endocrine, nervous, and immune systems, effectively priming our bodies for patterns of disease,” he says. “The ability of adaptogenic herbs to bring us back into balance and help us respond to stress in a healthier and more robust way (1) is truly remarkable.”

10 Adaptogenic Herbs & Their Benefits

While each of these herbs has what LeVine calls the stress-protective effect common to all adaptogens, they also have their own distinct benefits. Here is your guide to adaptogenic herbs:

Rhodiola

Perhaps the most stimulating of the adaptogens, rhodiola is a central nervous system stimulant that helps balance the immune system and regulate hormones. Plus, it has an antidepressant-like effect (2). “Rhodiola works by regulating the amount of cortisol your body needs—whether that’s more or less,” Seti says. It’s particularly effective for those who are highly stressed (3).

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is one of the prized herbs of India’s Ayurveda and is known to be beneficial to the male reproductive system, says LeVine. It has a relaxing effect and is helpful for anxiety and disturbed sleep. A 2012 study found the herb reduced stress and anxiety in adults with a history of chronic stress by nearly 30 percent (4). It may also, be helpful for improving thyroid function, says Seti.

Shatavari 

The yin to ashwagandha’s yang, shatavari is an excellent female reproductive tonic, LeVine says. The name translates from Sanskrit as “she who possesses a hundred husbands,” (5) alluding to its powers as a traditional aphrodisiac.

Schisandra

Schisandra is a Chinese five-flavored berry (it tastes salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and pungent) that is known to boost liver function and improve heart health, as well as act on a wide variety of conditions (6).

Cordyceps 

Cordyceps is one of the best adaptogens for lung capacity and kidney support (7), according to LeVine. “I often take this mushroom before long runs at altitude to open up my breathing and give me extra endurance,” he says.

Reishi

Considered a well-rounded adaptogen, this mushroom once has wide-ranging effects including immune-regulatory, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and heart-protective actions, LeVine says. A study from 2005 showed reishi reduced fatigue and boosted a sense of well-being (8).

Tulsi

Also known as Holy Basil, this aromatic adaptogen calms, centers the spirit, and boosts mood, says LeVine. It also has antiviral and antibacterial properties, according to Seti, and in many cultures it’s used to relieve symptoms of a cold or virus.

Eleuthero

Once known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero was one of the first adaptogens to be heavily researched, Levine says. It’s great for helping combat muscle spasms and insomnia, says Seti. It’s also known for its fatigue-fighting and memory-boosting capabilities.

Asian Ginseng 

While considered very stimulating, this root actually stabilizes the sympathetic nervous system (9), which controls our fight-or-flight response, a 2018 study shows.

Codonopsis 

This herb’s chemistry is almost identical to that of ginseng, says LeVine, but is much gentler and exhibits profound gut-healing properties.

How to Use Adaptogens

Adaptogens are available as tinctures, powders, extracts, teas, and capsules. You can sprinkle the powder form on food, or blend it into smoothies. In addition, you can use whole roots in soup broths.

Although adaptogens are widely considered safe and nontoxic, they impact individuals differently. Try starting with small doses and gradually increasing. “I always recommend cycling supplements, particularly supplements taken for performance,” LeVine says. Lower doses taken over longer periods of time is ideal,, he adds. Like exercise, the more consistent you are with them, the better they work. High doses are helpful for more acute stress—think finals week or the start of a new job.

Because Ashwagandha is an immunosuppressant, those with auto-immune diseases should consult a health professional before taking supplements containing the herb. This is a good rule of thumb for anyone looking to see for themselves how adaptogens help mitigate stress, and boost both mood and energy.

LeVine also recommends finding out where your adaptogens come from so you can support companies that understand sourcing—and don’t use pesticides and heavy metals in their processing. And with the rising popularity of adaptogens, it doesn’t hurt to consider sustainability. Choose to buy from companies that regulate harvesting and are dedicated to making sure these stress-reducing plants are around long into the future

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