Adaptogens are natural substances that are known to help the body adapt to stress and promote overall well-being. Generally, adaptogens work by regulating cortisol levels–lowering cortisol when it is too high or raising cortisol when it is too low–which can help to reduce stress-related symptoms, like fatigue, anxiety, overstimulation, trouble focusing, and more.
Some adaptogenic compounds also have nootropic benefits, meaning they regulate neurotransmitter production in a positive way to improve cognitive health.
Adaptogens are remarkable little herbs and botanicals that can enhance the body's resilience to physical, emotional, and environmental stressors to help you lead a healthier, more fulfilling life–but which adaptogens are true to their name? If you’re looking for the full list of adaptogens and their benefits, we’ve laid it out for you down below.
Table of Contents
Adaptogens are compounds that regulate the way the body handles stress.
Some adaptogens are relaxing, while others are known to fight off stress-related fatigue.
Adaptogens can be paired together to create a full-coverage wellness regimen, but always consult your doctor first.
Popular Adaptogens and Research-Based Benefits
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is a popular adaptogen that has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It is known for its ability to reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance mental clarity.
Ashwagandha has been studied for its potential benefits in managing anxiety, improving cognitive function, and supporting adrenal health. It is also believed to possess anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating properties.
In fact, studies (2014, 2019) have repeatedly observed Ashwagandha’s positive impact on stress and anxiety levels. One study even found that ashwagandha may improve sleep quality in the same manner when compared to placebo doses.
Ginseng is a well-known adaptogenic herb that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It is available in various forms, including Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Ginseng is revered for its ability to enhance vitality, boost energy levels, and improve physical and mental performance. It is also believed to support immune function and promote overall well-being.
A 2017 study confirms that Ginseng may provide a “potential approach to regaining homeostasis after abnormal physiological changes caused by the stress of everyday life.” More specifically, it may have a positive impact on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and the production of hormones, such as cortisol.
Some research shows that Panax Ginseng may even help to reduce fatigue, which may be a side effect of its ability to promote cortisol production when needed. A lack of cortisol causes low motivation and fatigue. The same evidence suggests that Ginseng may be useful for fighting off mental fatigue, too, which is why many people consider it a nootropic.
Rhodiola, also called Arctic root or golden root, is a perennial herb native to high-altitude regions of Europe and Asia. It is renowned for its stress-reducing properties and its ability to enhance mental performance and stamina. Rhodiola is believed to improve cognitive function, boost energy levels, and alleviate symptoms of fatigue and exhaustion.
Rhodiola contains over 140 active ingredients–but most notably contains rosavin and salidroside, two compounds known to be potent adaptogens.
Traditionally, Rhodiola has been used to treat psychological conditions, but now we believe it to have benefits for the whole brain. In fact, one large review of 36 animal studies concluded this to be true–stating that “R. rosea L. can improve learning and memory function” possibly due it’s “antioxidant properties, cholinergic regulation, anti-apoptosis activities, anti-inflammatory, improving coronary blood flow, and cerebral metabolism.”
Thanks to its adaptogenic effects, taking it daily has been linked to reduced mental fatigue and increased feelings of well-being while under stress.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is one of a handful of adaptogenic mushrooms that’s most well known for its immune-boosting properties. Some cultures today even use Reishi as an immune system stimulant for patients with certain immune-system disorders, like HIV or cancer. A 2014 study highlighted Reishi as one of four functional mushrooms with prominent immune stimulating effects.
Reishi also has potent adaptogenic benefits. One study found that Resihi supplementation improved the pain and mood changes surrounding a condition caused by chronic exhaustion.
Other evidence suggests that Reishi, as well as other adaptogenic mushrooms, may also help to improve mood. In this survey of nutritional habits, those who regularly consumed mushrooms reported significantly lower rates of depression. Various smaller trials have verified similar results, claiming that consuming more mushrooms in general may help reduce both depression and anxiety.
Cordyceps is one type of mushroom that has been studied for its potential adaptogenic effects. Human trials are limited, but one animal trial suggests that cordyceps can help reduce stress markers while increasing the ability to handle stress-related activities. Another similar study confirmed these results, stating that cordyceps may be useful for combating stress-related fatigue.
A 2014 human trial examined the use of cordyceps in combination with another herbal remedy said to have adaptogenic effects–rhodiola crenulata. This study also confirmed stress-relieving effects and an improvement in fatigue levels after only 2 weeks of dosing. Another study combined cordyceps with reishi mushroom and found the pair to help reduce the effects of physical stress on athletes caused by overtraining.
Although these studies do shed some light on the potential stress-regulating effects of cordyceps, more evidence is needed to understand the full extent of its adaptogenic nature.
Hericium erinaceus, commonly known as lion’s mane, is another mushroom thought to offer adaptogenic effects. One study found that Lion’s Mane may help reverse stress-related changes impacting crucial neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin. It may also help reduce certain inflammatory markers known to increase when experiencing stress.
Another study suggests that Lion’s Mane may prevent the downregulation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) when experiencing a stressful event, which may help decrease the chances of experiencing stress-related depression.
One study even found that Lion’s Mane extract may encourage the growth of new nerve cells and may stimulate faster healing within the nervous system, which may help to reduce the impact of stress-related damage to the brain.
Lion's Mane coffee is becoming a popular way to enjoy the mushrooms' cognition-boosting, nootropic benefits and may also provide some adaptogenic support when choosing a low-caffeine option, or when pairing the caffeine with L-Theanine, another powerful adaptogen known for its sleep-enhancing benefits.
Some evidence suggests that maitake may have significant brain-boosting and antidepressant effects thanks to its interactions with AMPA receptors, or neuroreceptors that help to regulate emotions. It’s also known to have a fair amount of beta-glucans, which may also offer significant antidepressant effects.
One trial found that when maitake was combined with ashwagandha, it could significantly decrease the cortisol production (or the stress response) in animal models. More research is needed to verify maitake’s adaptogenic potential.
Some people disagree on whether Ginkgo Biloba belongs in the adaptogen category or in the nootropic category. This age-old health-boosting supplement is derived from one of the world’s oldest trees and has traditionally been used for improving kidney health, treating asthma and bronchitis, and for managing senility in older adults.
Researchers have also found that Ginkgo may keep cortisol and blood-pressure levels low during stress-related experiences, which can help decrease the risk of tissue damage and improve overall performance. Researchers aren’t sure what makes ginkgo effective, but they theorize that it has something to do with its ability to improve blood flow to the brain.
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi, is considered a sacred plant in India and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. It is revered for its ability to promote mental clarity, reduce anxiety, and enhance overall well-being. Holy Basil is believed to have adaptogenic properties that help the body cope with stress and promote a balanced mood. It is also known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
According to research, holy basil has pharmacological properties to help your body cope with many types of stress, including chemical, physical, infection, and emotional stress. One study even found that animals experienced increased endurance, enhanced metabolism, improved swimming time, reduced tissue damage, and less stress markers overall, even when in a stressful environment, after taking holy basil.
Another study published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine shows that holy basil may have antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties comparable to popular antidepressant medications.
Another study found that just 500 milligrams (mg) of holy basil extract each day helped people feel less anxious, stressed, and depressed. People in this study also reported feeling more social.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
Maca is a root vegetable native to the Andes Mountains of Peru. It has been used for centuries as a medicinal plant and is considered an adaptogen due to its ability to support the body's stress response. Maca is known for its potential benefits in boosting energy, improving mood, and enhancing sexual function. It is also believed to support hormonal balance and may help alleviate symptoms of menopause and improve fertility in both men and women.
Like other adaptogens, maca may help stimulate the body’s stress protection system by regulating actions in the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA is responsible for how the central nervous system and hormone systems respond to stress, or produce cortisol, the stress hormone.
According to one study, maca has been shown to keep cortical levels from rising in mice, even when placed in stressful situations that would usually cause a cortisol spike. Another animal study found that similar mechanisms may make maca capable of improving depression in mice by regulating the dopamine response.
Furthermore, some evidence shows that maca may improve energy. In one study, people who took a dose of three grams of maca powder daily reported feeling more energized compared to the control group. That means that while maca can be an all-around stress supporting herb, it may be one adaptogenic herb you want to take earlier in the day.
Adaptogen Side Effects
It’s important to understand that adaptogens are classified as substances that are non-toxic at normal doses, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot cause side effects. In some cases, using the incorrect dosage, drug interactions, or allergic reactions can be the cause for side effects.
Luckily, side effects caused by adaptogens are rare and usually mild. The specific side effects vary by supplement, but the most common side effects associated with adaptogenic compounds include:
- Allergic reaction
- Abdominal pain
Some adaptogenic supplements may also have drug interactions, meaning they interfere or interact with certain medications, especially those used to treat hormone-related illness, hypertension, diabetes, mental illness, or other related conditions. Some of the side effects that may come from adaptogen drug interactions include:
- Change in appetite
- Increased blood pressure
- Decreased sleep latency or quality
- Increased thyroid activity
- Reduced efficacy for medications (especially antidepressants)
How to Get Started With Adaptogenic Herbs
From enhancing stress resilience and promoting relaxation to improving cognitive function and boosting energy levels, adaptogens have gained popularity for their ability to support overall well-being. While there are many adaptogens on this list with their own unique benefits and drawbacks, it's important to note that people often stack herbal supplements together to create a more full coverage routine.
If you decide to try one or more adaptogenic compounds from this list, you should consider the following:
- Start with low doses: Taking small doses is a great way to get your body accustomed to new herbal supplements. It also allows you to more gently gauge your reaction.
- Check for quality: Only purchase supplements that are made by a cGMP compliant manufacturer and are lab tested for quality assurance. For mushroom supplements, consider the difference between mushroom mycelium and fruiting body extracts. For all herbal supplements, you should also consider whether you want a whole powder or concentrated extract dose.
- Consider a stack: Herbal stacks offer a multi-faceted dose that may have more expansive benefits than any one adaptogen alone. It can also take the guesswork out of choosing specific herbs and adjusting their individual dosages when pairing them together.
- Talk to your doctor: Always discuss changes to your medication and supplementation routine with your doctor. They can help you decide if you are at risk for adverse reactions or drug interactions and may even be able to help you determine the best dosage.
Incorporating adaptogens into a balanced lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management techniques can contribute to overall health and vitality. As with any wellness practice, it is essential to listen to your body and make adjustments as necessary to achieve optimal results.