Adaptogens are a category of beneficial herbs that are gaining popularity—both in alternative wellness and in the mainstream. There are different types of adaptogens and their benefits and actions are quite varied. However, in a nutshell, these versatile plant allies help our bodies and minds adapt to stress. Given the levels of stress that many of us are subject to in modern life, it’s no wonder that more people are wondering about adaptogen benefits.
For those who are familiar with Ayurveda, you may notice that many herbs considered adaptogens are what we call rasayanas in Ayurveda. These are deeply nourishing herbs that build vitality and in some cases, ojas (the essential energy of the immune system). Some herbal compounds, such as Chyawanprash, contain more than one adaptogen. Here is a short list of ten well-known adaptogens, though this is by no means an exhaustive list.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Astragalus (Astragalus mongholicus)
- Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris)
- Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
- Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)
- Holy Basil/Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
- Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
- Schizandra (Schisandra chinensis)
If you want to learn a bit about the unique characteristics of some of the adaptogens listed above, you can read more in our post What Are Adaptogens. This post, however, discusses how adaptogens work in a broad sense.
How Do Adaptogens Help Us Adapt?
As I mentioned earlier, adaptogens vary, but one thing that makes an adaptogen an adaptogen is its ability to help us adapt to stress. How do these clever and helpful plants do this? Essentially, they support the production of hormones and neurotransmitters that help us cope with stress. When you are confronted with stress, your body (and its chemistry) goes through a three-phase process: alarm, resistance, and finally exhaustion. If you ever collapsed with exhaustion after completing a major project, presentation, or exam you are probably quite familiar with the exhaustion phase (2) .
One of the ways in which adaptogens work is by supporting the physical chemistry that keeps us in the resistance stage for longer. Hormones such as adrenaline are produced during the resistance phase of stress, and these hormones help us to think clearly and perform better under stress (2). By helping to regulate the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands, adaptogens keep us in that regulated, resistance phase longer (2). Thus, exhaustion is staved off.
Another key feature of adaptogens is that they have the ability to help regulate our hormones and neurotransmitters. This is why an herb like ashwagandha can both calm you down and boost your endurance.
Each adaptogen has a slightly different set of actions. Some like ashwagandha, gotu kola, schizandra and holy basil work especially well with the nervous system. These adaptogenic nervines can both soothe stress and boost low energy levels. On the other hand, maca and schizandra help balance hormone levels. Cordyceps and rhodiola are especially useful if you are feeling burnt out or low energy. Astragalus in particular is an excellent immune system regulator. You may notice that some herbs are multi-facted. For instance, schizandra is great for the nervous system, adrenal support, and hormone balance (1). There is still much to be learned about adaptogens, but if you are looking for herbal support to help you cope with short-term or long-term stress, consider how adaptogen benefits can support you.
(1) Groves, M.N. (2016). Body into balance: An herbal guide to holistic self-care. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
(2) Wilson, D.R. (2017). Adaptogenic herbs: List, effectiveness, and health benefits. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/adaptogenic-herbs
Greta Kent-Stoll is a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner (NAMA), as well as a writer, editor, and Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher. Her Ayurveda practice is based in Asheville, North Carolina and she is the co-owner of Iyengar Yoga Asheville.