Adaptogens 101


Learn why these ancient restorative herbs are having a modern moment.  


If you feel like you’re walking around either stressed or fatigued at this very moment, you’re not alone. In today’s go-go-go society, it’s hard not to be. The multitude of demands we face (along with those we place on ourselves) can literally wear us down. Unfortunately, stressors in life will always be present; it’s unrealistic to think that life can exist without any form of stress (and some stress is good for us!). It’s how we face and handle stress that can influence its toll on our wellbeing. Finding that release on the bike is a great way to let go and recharge. Adaptogens are an additional tool to boost vitality and help mitigate adverse health effects caused by stress.


What the heck are adaptogens and why all the hype?

Adaptogens are a class of unique plant herbs that can “adapt” their function depending on your body’s biochemical needs. Chronic fatigue and stress—whether major life-changing events or consistent daily stressors—can add up and take a toll on your adrenal system. The adrenal glands produce hormones that help your body respond to stress and control processes that regulate your metabolism, immune system, and blood pressure. Ongoing hormonal imbalance can lead to both mental and physical ailments over time. Adaptogens take the load off of your adrenal glands by reducing the output of stressful hormones. When your stress hormones aren’t constantly ramped up, you are in a better state (less anxiety and brain fog, more energy and clarity) to face life’s challenges. What’s more, these powerful plants can increase energy while simultaneously providing a sense of calm, bringing you back to balance.

Adaptogen herbs have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. Unlike medications typically prescribed in Western medicine, adaptogens do not target or treat a specific action in the body. Rather, they work in a subtle fashion to heal your body as a whole, strengthening its ability to respond to stress. Further, they come without harmful side effects that can accompany many medications. Once they’ve served their purpose, adaptogens are absorbed and excreted by our bodies without harm. They do their job and bounce.

For an herb to be classified as an adaptogen, it must meet the following criteria:

  1. It’s nontoxic, even with long-term use,
  2. It offers nonspecific, widespread support, treating the body as a whole so it can better resist multiple forms of stress (physical, chemical, and biological), and
  3. It has a normalizing influence, which helps bring the body back into balance.


How to use these powerful plants

Adaptogens work best when taken in small doses over long periods of time. They are gentle and slow acting, so it may take several weeks or more to notice their effect. Available in powder or capsule form, you can purchase individual herbs or combination products that group together several herbs with overlapping benefits. Adaptogens have varying tastes, but the powdered form can easily be added to smoothies, coffee, matcha lattes, or other tonics. You can get creative and add them to certain foods such as energy balls or pancakes.

Here is a list of just some of the many amazing adaptogens out there, along with brief snapshot of their potential benefits:

Eleuthero: supports the immune system, can enhance cognition, improve the quality of sleep, and promote a general sense of wellbeing. Great for athletes, eleuthero boosts endurance and shortens recovery time.

Ashwaganda: can ease anxiety, promote better sleep, fight fatigue and exhaustion, support the immune system, and enhance endocrine function.

Astralagus: strengthens immunity and boosts energy. Astralagus can help shield the body from the damaging effects of stress.

Cordyceps: a mushroom with anti-aging and immune enhancing properties. It supports kidney and lung health and may enhance athletic performance.

Asian Ginseng: used for thousands of years, this stimulating herb is known for helping the body withstand stress. It can promote longevity, protect against some cancer, and restore the body’s immune response.

Holy Basil: can protect the heart from stress, lower cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar, and regulate hormone levels. It also supports memory, and may be helpful for allergies.

Reishi: a medicinal mushroom with antioxidant properties. It reduces inflammation and supports immune function, increases resistance to colds. It can ease chronic pain, improve sleep, relax muscles and help reduce cholesterol.

Rhodiola: this brain booster helps with mental clarity, memory, stress reduction and depression. It also helps balance cortisol levels in the body, raising or lowering as needed. It boosts energy too, so better to take in the morning!


A note of caution

It’s important to note that adaptogen herbs are not evaluated or approved by the FDA. Consult with your doctor before taking any adaptogens (or other herbs) to review any potential interactions with medication or health issues. Several adaptogens are not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Just as our bodies have individualistic needs and sensitivities with food, the same can hold true for herbs. Your best bet is to meet with a qualified herbal specialist to find what will work best for you.

Side note: I plan to meet with a qualified herbalist here in Del Ray to find the best herbal concoction for me. If you’d like to hear more about my experience, hit me up!


Blogpost written by Ascend content expert, Ashley H.