Adaptogens are aptly named as they do just that—help your body adapt to stress. These botanicals can be both calming and energizing, depending on what your body needs in the moment. Herbalist Maria Noel Groves (2016) explains, “Generally speaking, adaptogens help you feel less stressed while increasing energy levels; some are zippy, while others are more balancing or calming” (p.45) (1).
How do Adaptogens Work?
As Groves highlights, depending on the herb, some adaptogens will stimulate energy and some will calm you down. Adaptogens do this by supporting the production of hormones and neurotransmitters that enable us to adapt or cope with stress (1). This prevents the exhaustion and burnout stage of stress, allowing you to stay in a coping state of equilibrium for longer (2).
Herbs in the adaptogen category have many traditional uses. For those who follow Ayurveda, you may recognize some as being rasayanas. The research backs up the broad application of adaptogens. Clinical trials demonstrate that adaptogens (3):
- Counteract fatigue
- Increase mental work capacity
- Support positive mood
- Are neuroprotective
- Are nootropic (cognitive enhancers)
- Stimulate the central nervous system (CNS)
Keeping the Balance: Adaptogens to Check Out
You can custom tailor your adaptogen choices based on your desired outcome. Are you needing more energy and motivation to deal with a stressful situation or the day-to-day challenges? Or do you need help with mellowing out and sleeping soundly? Furthermore, some adaptogens have a special affinity for specific organs or body systems such as the liver, adrenal glands, or sex hormones.
Let’s take a look at some popular adaptogens and how you might use them. By understanding each of these herbs you will begin to be able to answer the question of “what are adaptogens?“ and understand how they might benefit you.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen and rasayana with broad usages in Ayurveda and other herbal traditions. Contained in the classic ayurvedic superfood Chyawanprash, ashwagandha is a deeply nourishing root. It is quite versatile—usages include strengthening the nervous system, adrenal glands, and thyroid, as well as supporting immune function and libido (1).
You can take ashwagandha as a tincture, capsule, powder, infused ghee, or in herbal jams such as Chyawanprash. This starchy root can also easily be stirred into porridge and hot beverages such as hot cocoa and golden milk. Furthermore, ashwagandha has a regulating effect on circadian rhythms if taken over a period of a month or more.
Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
Ginseng is probably the most well-known adaptogen and has been used in Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years. As herbalist Maria Noel Groves (2016) puts it, use ginseng when you are feeling “old and cold.”
Ginseng is great if you are lacking energy and vitality. Furthermore, ginseng support the liver by protecting it from toxins, boosts libido, and may have a balancing effect on blood sugar levels (1). Ginseng can be taken as a tea, capsule, lozenge, or tincture.
Schizandra (Schizandra chinensis)
This is one of my personal favorites when it comes to adaptogens. Schizandra is a lovely red berry, and the color is exhibited in tincture form. This berry has a sour and bitter flavor. It stimulates digestive secretions so is helpful before meals, supports the adrenals, hormone balance, and the liver. Truly, what is not to like about schizandra?!
Schizandra is useful as both an energizer and relaxer—depending on what you need. It also supports cognition, mood, and libido (1). Take schizandra as a tincture, tea, or capsule. If the sour flavor is overpowering in tea or tincture form, you can sweeten with a bit of honey or maple syrup. If taking as a tincture, be sure to dilute in at least a small amount of water as the straight tincture can cause mild irritation to the throat.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)
A cooling nervine, gotu kola is an ayurvedic favorite. It is calming to the nervous system and helps cool the mind and promote sound sleep (4). Gotu kola is a spinach-like plant that also helps clear the skin and counteract early graying of the hair (4). This leafy green is quite useful for people who tend to run warm and be overly driven as it has a sattvic (clearing and purifying) effect.
Gotu kola can typically be taken in fairly large doses (3-30 grams per day) (4). Enjoy as a capsule, tea, tincture, or infused in ghee.
Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is another adaptogen found in Chyawanprash. Like gotu kola, it has a clearing or sattvic effect on the mind. However, gotu kola is has a warmer energetic compared to gotu kola. It is quite aromatic and makes a wonderful tea—either as a stand alone or combined with other herbs such as rose, licorice, ginger, or mint.
Holy basil calms with nerves without sedating. It is also useful for clearing excess phlegm from the respiratory tract and for dispelling grief held in the lungs (4). Think of tulsi for calming the nerves, strengthening the heart, and clearing the respiratory tract. Enjoy tulsi as a tea, tincture, capsule, or in Chyawanprash.
Lifestyle Support for Stress
Adaptogens are wonderful and versatile allies in dealing with stress. I hope that this article has helped answer your questions on “what are adaptogens.” Our plant allies are incredible, and perhaps it goes without mentioning that adaptogens can only get you so far if the cause of stress and lifestyle factors are not addressed. If you are feeling run ragged, worn out, and stressed out, consider adaptogens as a flashlight to help get you back on the path. Then, take a look at lifestyle tools such as yoga, mindfulness, and social support for bringing you back into balance.
(1) Groves,. M.N. (2016). Body into balance: An herbal guide to holistic self-care. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
(2) Chesak, J. The no BS guide to adaptogens for hormonal balance and stress. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/smart-girls-guide-to-adaptogens
(3) Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress—protective activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel), 3(1), 188-244. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph3010188
(4) Dass, V. (2013). Ayurvedic herbology: East & West. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.
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.
Reviewed by Dr. Jayant Lokhande, MD (Botanical Drugs), MBA (Biotechnology)