April 12, 2022

What Are Adaptogens and Are They Healthy?

These plants and herbs can help reduce stress

various bowls with different adaptogens including mushrooms, ginger and blueberries

Stress affects us all at different times and in different ways.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

You might be worried about a big work presentation. Or maybe you feel exhausted from dealing with in-laws. Or it could be something as simple as forgetting milk at the grocery store.

Whatever it is, managing stress can be difficult.

That’s where adaptogens come in — they’re here to help you deal with life’s stressful moments.

Adaptogens help your body’s resilience against physical, emotional and environmental stress. And adaptogens, like ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea and Siberian ginseng, have been used for centuries. But how do you know if they’re right for you?

Registered dietitian Sarah Thomsen Ferreira, MS, MPH, RD, IFNCP, explains how adaptogens work and which ones you should try.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are a group of plants and herbs that can reduce stress. They do so by increasing your resistance and tolerance to tense situations.

There are more than 70 plants and herbs that fall into the adaptogen category. The use of adaptogens can be traced back to Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine. They were also used throughout Europe during World War II.

Since then, various adaptogens have been studied. But more research is needed to truly understand how they work.

What do they do?

Adaptogens can affect how much cortisol is released in your body when you’re stressed. Less cortisol can mean less of a physical stress reaction.

As stress is connected to your nervous, endocrine and immune systems, it can cause physiological changes like an increased heart rate. Again, adaptogens can help how your body responds physically to stress.

“Some of these plants that fall into the adaptogen category also seem to be able to increase attention and endurance,” says Thomsen Ferreira.

Adaptogens may also help with:

Best adaptogens to take

With more than 70 options to choose from, it can be hard figuring out where to start. Thomsen Ferreira suggests trying these.

Ashwagandha

Also known as Indian winter cherry or Indian ginseng, ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub. It’s grown in India, Africa and some parts of the Middle East.

Research shows that ashwagandha may reduce cortisol levels and inflammation. It also has antiaging properties and may improve your memory and immune function.

Advertisement

“What researchers found is that taking 300 milligrams per day of ashwagandha not only reduced cortisol, but also reduced food cravings, perceived stress and body weight,” says Thomsen Ferreira.

Other research shows that ashwagandha can help reduce anxiety and improve sleep.

Bacopa monniera

This plant, which grows in tropical areas, has been used for centuries in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.

Bacopa monniera is also known as water hyssop, herb of grace and brahmi.

According to research, bacopa monniera may improve brain function, reduce stress and anxiety.

“Bacopa monniera protects the brain are through antioxidants,” says Thomsen Ferreira. “It helps to stimuli enzymes in our body’s own antioxidant defense system.”

Panax ginseng

Also called Asian ginseng, this herb is grown in Korea, China and Siberia.

Panax gingseng contains ginsenosides, a chemical that may affect insulin levels and help lower blood sugar.

Research shows that panax ginseng may also reduce the severity of fatigue. It can also increase glutathione reductase and total glutathione.

“Glutathione is considered our body’s master antioxidant,” notes Thomsen Ferreira. “It helps regulate our natural detoxification systems.”

Rhodiola rosea

This plant has been long used in traditional medicine. It grows in Europe and Asia’s colder regions.

Research indicates that rhodiola rosea may increase energy and relieve fatigue, exhaustion and burnout. It can also help reduce unrest, irritability and tension.

“Rhodiola rosea can trigger your body’s ATP synthesis,” says Thomsen Ferreira. “This is the chemical energy produced in your mitochondria and it’s an essential energy source inside your cells.”

Schisandra chinensis

This fruit-bearing vine is native to northern China. It’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Its berry, known as the five-spice berry, has a unique taste. It’s been described as sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent all at the same time.

Advertisement

Schisandra chinensis research shows it may help decrease blood glucose and cortisol levels, as well as also decrease interleukin production.

“If interleukin levels are too high, it can create cellular damage,” explains Thomsen Ferreira.

Siberian ginseng

Also known as eleuthero, Siberian ginseng has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. It’s also been studied in Russia in the ’60s and ’70s.

It has different active chemical components than American ginseng and Asian ginseng, and research shows that Siberian ginseng may help with fatigue, weight reduction and support physical activity. It may also help increase your cognitive function.

“One study with 130 men and women looked at fatigue, exhaustion, sleep and restlessness,” says Thomsen Ferreira. “They saw improvements in all those areas.”

Side effects

Adaptogens are well tolerated by adults, but some noted common side effects include:

  • Nausea.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Headache.
  • Upset stomach.

“Ashwagandha falls in the nightshade family,” says Thomsen Ferreira. “For some individuals, nightshades can trigger symptoms like joint pain and inflammation.”

If you’re pregnant, it’s best to avoid adaptogens, advises Thomsen Ferreira. She also recommends talking to your doctor before using any adaptogens.

And remember, adaptogens aren’t a cure-all. You should continue any stress management techniques and practices like meditation and yoga. But adaptogens may give you an added boost.

How do you use adaptogens?

Adaptogens are available as supplements, tonics, liquid extracts, teas and powders.

One way you can incorporate them is in beverages like coffee and smoothies. For example, try an ashwagandha green tea latte.

You can even mix adaptogens in to your recipes. Thomsen Ferreira likes using them in energy bites or granola with almonds and seeds. There are even recipes online for adaptogenic cookies.

“There’s really no shortage of ways to use adaptogens,” says Thomsen Ferreira. “Incorporating adaptogens into our daily regimen can be a supportive way to decrease daily stress.”

Related Articles

Male consults with pharmacist about herbal supplement
February 13, 2024
Herbal Supplements: Why To Check With a Healthcare Provider First

Besides questionable effectiveness, herbal supplements aren’t safe for everyone

Natural antibiotics, pills and herbs, displayed on bamboo spoons on wooden table.
December 4, 2023
Why You Shouldn’t Self-Treat With ‘Natural Antibiotics’

Natural doesn’t mean they’re safe or effective

chopped basil
September 19, 2023
5 Health Benefits of Basil

This herb not only helps prevent chronic diseases, but also elevates every meal

Plate with cordyceps.
March 9, 2023
Cordyceps Is a Killer Fungi With Potential Health Benefits

With anti-fatigue, anti-aging and anti-cancer claims, this fungi still needs more studies

The Mullein flower.
December 18, 2022
How Mullein Benefits Your Lungs

For centuries, people have been drinking mullein tea for respiratory conditions

A bowl of cream-colored Ashwagandha powder, a brown root and olive-colored capsules
October 16, 2022
Benefits of Ashwagandha and How Much to Take

The herbal medicine can increase energy, improve overall health and reduce inflammation, pain and anxiety

Three slices of an aloe plant sit next to a wooden container holding a clear liquid.
August 25, 2021
Is It Safe To Use Herbal Weight Loss Supplements?

Find out what these options can do to the body

A hand ladling a spoonful of herbs into a pot
February 17, 2021
What You Should Know About Chinese Herbs

Learn how Chinese herbalism works and how to find a qualified practitioner

Trending Topics

White bowls full of pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and various kinds of nuts
25 Magnesium-Rich Foods You Should Be Eating

A healthy diet can easily meet your body’s important demands for magnesium

Woman feeling for heart rate in neck on run outside, smartwatch and earbuds
Heart Rate Zones Explained

A super high heart rate means you’re burning more than fat

Spoonful of farro salad with tomato
What To Eat If You’ve Been Diagnosed With Prediabetes

Type 2 diabetes isn’t inevitable with these dietary changes

Ad