Stress can be a good thing. It can motivate us and help us meet deadlines. But when it becomes constant, it takes a toll on our physical and mental health. Long-term excessive stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and other serious health problems (24). One way some people try to combat stress is by using adaptogens, herbs that are thought to help the body adapt to stressors by reducing the negative effects of stress. Adaptogens are claimed to help improve your mood, increase energy levels, and boost immunity. Let’s look at how your brain and body react to stress, as well as how adaptogens are said to hack that response to help you better cope with stressors.
What Happens In Your Body When You’re Stressed?
As described by one scientist in the 1930s, the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) is the body’s way of responding to stressors. It consists of three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion (14).
The alarm stage is when you first experience stress.
This “fight-or-flight” response is designed to help you deal with the threat. It increases your heart rate and blood pressure, releases energy-boosting hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and increases blood flow to your muscles. All these changes help you deal with a stressful or dangerous situation (25).
The resistance stage is when your body adapts to the stressor and tries to return to normal. Think of it as the sweet spot; you’re not alarmed, but you’re not yet exhausted. You’re coping with the stress and perhaps trying to find ways to avoid it in the future
The exhaustion stage is when your body can no longer cope with the stressor. This is when you may experience burnout, anxiety, or depression. Your immune system also weakens, making you more susceptible to illness. This can lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and anxiety.
Fortunately, there might be ways to prevent stress from progressing to the exhaustion stage. One of them may be by using adaptogens. Adaptogens can’t prevent stress but they are thought to lengthen the resistance stage, giving you more time to deal with the stressor, find a solution, or remove yourself from the situation.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Adaptogens are a unique class of healing herbs that may help the body resist physical, chemical, and biological stressors (15). They are thought to do this by modulating the release of stress hormones like cortisol and by helping repair the damage caused by chronic stress.
These herbs have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to help people cope with stress, anxiety, and fatigue (15).
Today, adaptogens are gaining popularity in the west as more people are looking for natural ways to improve their health (11).
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular adaptogens and their potential benefits.
Ashwagandha is an ancient herb that’s derived from the nightshade family of plants. It’s also known as “Indian ginseng” because of its rejuvenating properties.
The herb has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, stress, and low energy levels.
Recent studies have shown that ashwagandha may have the following benefits (1):
- Reduces stress and anxiety. It is thought to influence the mediators of stress and the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a system in your body that regulates the stress response.
- Improves athletic performance. This herb has been seen in rats to enhance swimming endurance.
- May reduce symptoms of some mental health conditions. It may have some antidepressant effects, but should not be used as a substitute for antidepressant medication.
- Reduces inflammation. It contains compounds, including withanolides, that have anti-inflammatory effects.
- Improves brain function, including memory. The withaferin A, a compound in ashwagandha, has been shown to reverse induced cognitive defects in an Alzheimer’s disease model..
- Improves sleep. Ashwagandha may promote restful sleep and help you feel more alert when you wake up (10).
- May boost testosterone and increase fertility in men. It may increase sperm count and motility (6).
Some side effects that have been reported from taking ashwagandha include (3):
- gastrointestinal discomfort
This herb may also affect the thyroid, so people with thyroid conditions should use it with caution and only after discussing with their doctor. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s best to avoid ashwagandha as well.
Despite its name, Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is not related to true ginseng (Panax ginseng). This herb is native to Russia and China and has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine.
Siberian ginseng has been traditionally used to treat fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
Siberian ginseng is generally safe to take, but it can cause some side effects, such as anxiety, insomnia, and headaches. It can also interact with certain medications, so it’s important to speak to your doctor before taking it.
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Cordyceps is a type of fungi that is known to have many health benefits. They are commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and have been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments.
Some of the most well-known benefits of cordyceps are thought to include:
- Boosting energy levels and endurance. Cordyceps are often referred to as “natural energy boosters” because they contain compounds called cordycepin and adenosine. These compounds may help to increase ATP production in the body, which leads to more energy (12).
- Improving respiratory function. This herb has also been used traditionally for those with respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis. This is because it is believed to have the ability to open up the airways and improve oxygen utilization in the body (8).
- Enhancing immune function. Some of the compounds in cordyceps have demonstrated immunomodulatory activity, which is the ability to control or stimulate the immune system (8).
- Anti-aging effects. Cordyceps contain compounds which may act as antioxidants, helping to protect cells and DNA from damage, which can theoretically help to reduce the signs of aging (7).
Cordyceps are available in many forms, including capsules, powders, and tinctures. They can also be found in some energy drinks and supplements.
While cordyceps are generally considered safe, there are a few potential side effects to be aware of. These include an upset stomach and dizziness (7).
Cordyceps can interact with some medications, such as blood thinners and immunosuppressants. If you are taking any medications, it is best to speak to your doctor before taking this adaptogen.
Tulsi (Holy Basil)
Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is sometimes referred to as the “queen of herbs,” which is a popular adaptogen in Ayurvedic medicine. This herb is considered sacred in Hinduism and is often planted in front of homes and temples.
This herb has a long history of use in treating a variety of conditions, including anxiety, stress, and headaches. It’s also been used to boost immunity and as a digestive aid.
- Reduces stress and anxiety. It may inhibit the activity of stress-causing enzymes and reduce the levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
- Improves brain function. It contains compounds that may improve blood flow to the brain and protect brain cells from damage.
- Reduces inflammation. It contains compounds that may have anti-inflammatory effects, such as ursolic acid, eugenol, and rosmarinic acid.
- May lower blood sugar levels. It contains compounds that may help regulate blood sugar levels.
- May protect heart health. It may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
- Good for coughs and colds. It contains compounds such as eugenol and beta-caryophyllene that have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects, making it potentially helpful for treating coughs and colds.
Side effects of tulsi are rare but may include:
- Unusual bleeding or bruising
- Skin rash
- Stomach upset
This herb is generally considered safe for most people. However, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s best to avoid tulsi. People with diabetes should also use caution when taking tulsi as it may lower blood sugar levels. Always talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements.
Rhodiola Rosea is an herb that’s native to the Arctic regions of Europe, Asia, and North America. It’s also known as “golden root” or “arctic root.”
This herb has been used for centuries in traditional medicine to treat a variety of conditions, including fatigue, low energy levels, and anxiety.
- Reduces stress and anxiety. It may help regulate the stress response by inhibiting the activity of stress-causing enzymes and reducing the levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
- Boosts energy levels. It may increase the production of ATP, the energy molecule used by cells.
- Enhances physical performance. It may improve oxygen utilization by the muscles.
- Has anti-aging effects. It may reduce the levels of oxidative stress and inflammation.
Side effects of Rhodiola Rosea are rare but may include headache, dizziness, and nausea. If you experience any of these side effects, stop taking the herb and consult a healthcare professional.
Schisandra refers to the petite berries of the Schisandra chinensis plant. These berries have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine for their purported medicinal properties. They have a distinct sour-and-sweet taste and are often used to flavor teas and other beverages (22).
For years, these berries have been used as a natural remedy for a variety of health conditions.
Recent research suggests that they have the following health benefits (9):
- Improve liver function. It contains high levels of antioxidants, which may help protect your liver from damage.
- Reduce inflammation. The lignans in Schisandra have anti-inflammatory effects and may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.
- Protect from cognitive decline. Some of the lignans in schisandra may help protect against neuronal cell death and cognitive impairment in neurodegenerative disorders.
While Schisandra is generally safe and well-tolerated, some people may experience side effects like headache, dizziness, and an upset stomach.
Maca is a root vegetable that’s native to the Andes Mountains in Peru. It’s often sold in powder form and has a nutty, slightly sweet taste.
This root vegetable has been used for centuries in traditional medicine to enhance energy levels and treat sexual dysfunction.
More recent studies have suggested that maca root may have the following benefits (13):
- Boosts energy levels. It is rich in nutrients and antioxidants that can help increase energy levels.
- Enhances sexual function. It has been shown to improve sexual desire, libido, and erectile dysfunction.
- Improves fertility: It may improve sperm quality and count, as well as increase the chances of conception.
- Boost mental performance: It has been shown to improve memory and learning.
Side effects of maca root may include nausea, bloating, and diarrhea. However, these side effects are rare and usually go away on their own.
Ginseng (Panax Ginseng)
Ginseng is an herb that’s native to Asia and North America. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to treat a variety of health conditions.
Ginseng is rich in compounds known as ginsenosides, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects (16).
Ginseng has been suggested to have the following benefits (5):
- Reduces stress and anxiety. It may help relieve stress, reduce anxiety and improve mood.
- Boosts energy levels: It is thought to be a natural energizer which can help increase energy levels, stamina, and physical performance.
- Improves brain function: It has been shown to help improve memory, cognitive function, and attention span.
Panax ginseng is generally well tolerated. The most common side effects are mild and include headache, insomnia, and diarrhea.
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Licorice root is one of the most popular and well-known adaptogens. It’s gotten a reputation for being a “cure-all” herb, and while it’s not quite that powerful, it does offer a wide range of possible benefits, including (4):
- Improving digestion. It is sometimes used to relieve symptoms of indigestion and may help treat peptic ulcers.
- Reducing inflammation. It has anti-inflammatory properties thanks to its glycyrrhizin content. This may help reduce inflammation throughout the body, including in the skin and gut.
- Soothing common ailments. It is traditionally used to help relieve coughs and sore throats.
Licorice root is generally considered safe, but it can cause some side effects, especially in large doses, including (17):
- High blood pressure
- Muscle weakness
- Water retention
How To Get Adaptogens To Work For You?
Each adaptogen has unique benefits and works in different ways. To get the most out of these herbs, it’s important to choose the right one for your needs, as well as:
Talk To Your Doctor First
It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before taking any new supplements, especially if you are pregnant, may become pregnant, breastfeeding, have a history of any medical conditions or are taking any medications. Every adaptogen comes with its own risks and potential interactions.
Following Dosing Instructions Carefully
Too much of anything, even the good stuff, can be bad for you. When it comes to adaptogens, more is not necessarily better. Start with the lowest possible dose and increase gradually as needed.
Paying Attention To How You Feel
Adaptogens are not miracle cure-alls, and they don’t work the same for everyone. Pay attention to how you feel after taking an adaptogen, and if you don’t notice any benefits, try a different one.
Remembering That They Take Time To Work
Adaptogens are not immediate fixes. They need to be taken regularly over a period before you will start to see and feel the benefits.
Adaptogens can be taken in many different forms, from capsules and tablets to powders, teas, and tinctures. Find the form that works best for you and you enjoy taking.
You can also add adaptogens to your diet by incorporating them into recipes. For example, maca powder can be added to smoothies, soups, and baked goods.
Some adaptogens have a stimulating effect while others have a calming effect. To get the most out of these herbs, it’s important to take them at the right time of day.
For example, if you’re looking for an energy boost, it’s best to take a stimulating adaptogen like ashwagandha in the morning. If you’re hoping to improve your sleep, a calming adaptogen like holy basil is best taken in the evening.
The Bottom Line
With all of that being said, adaptogens are a powerful tool that can be used to support the body in times of stress. When used correctly, they can have a profound impact on your overall health and well-being.
It is important to note the relevance of learning about these awesome adaptogens before taking them. Although they majorly have minor side effects, it is better to consult your doctor if symptoms persist. Always talk to your doctor before taking any new supplements, especially if you are pregnant, may become pregnant, breastfeeding, have any medical conditions, or are taking any medications.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
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- Ashwagandha (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
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- Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands (2012, hindawi.com)
- Evaluating the Role of Hans Selye in the Modern History of Stress – Stress, Shock, and Adaptation in the Twentieth Century (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
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- Ginseng Compounds: An Update on Their Molecular Mechanisms and Medical Applications (2010, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Licorice abuse: time to send a warning message (2012, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Naturally Lignan-Rich Foods: A Dietary Tool for Health Promotion? (2019, mdpi.com)
- Protective effects of ginseng on neurological disorders (2015, frontiersin.org)
- Rhodiola rosea for physical and mental fatigue: a systematic review (2012, biomedcentral.com)
- Rhodiola rosea L.: an Herb with Anti-Stress, Anti-Aging, and Immunostimulating Properties for Cancer Chemoprevention (2017, link.springer.com)
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- The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature (2017, hindawi.com)
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- The Fight-or-Flight Response: A Cornerstone of Stress Research (2016, sciencedirect.com)
- Tulsi – Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)