Adaptogens — non-toxic herbs, roots and other plants that are meant to help the body resist physical, chemical and biological stress — have been used in Eastern medicine for centuries. The term, along with the current definition, was coined in the 1940s by Russian scientists. But only recently have adaptogens reached the public lexicon, infiltrating everything from your local smoothie shop to your favorite wellness newsletter. So, what exactly do they do?
“Adaptogens claim they can help control the stress response through hormonal regulation,” says Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian and the founder of Abbey’s Kitchen. “It’s believed that they protect the mitochondria from stress-induced damage, regulate the immune system and balance the nervous system.”
Adaptogens encompass a variety of foods, including mushrooms, herbs, roots and tea. While there are dozens of different plants with adaptogenic properties, some are more common than others. You might find the following sold as powders, pills or teas online or at your local health food store.
- Ashwagandha is a plant that may lower cortisol levels, fight inflammation and promote sleep.
- Rhodiola rosea has been shown to decrease fatigue and increase cognitive function in nightshift physicians.
- Eleuthero, also known as Siberian ginseng, may be helpful for people suffering chronic moderate fatigue, but more research is needed.
- Panax ginseng, or Asian ginseng, is often said to boost energy, reduce stress and even lower cholesterol, but the National Institutes of Health currently shows no conclusive evidence supporting these claims.
- Holy basil may promote general antioxidant effects and reduce stress.
- Medicinal mushrooms like reishi, cordyceps and shiitake may bolster the immune system and help you manage stress.
According to a Swedish paper published in Pharmaceuticals, adaptogens may be useful in fighting fatigue, increasing attention and endurance and reducing stress-induced impairments and disorders. A 2017 Creighton University study found participants taking an adaptogen/vitamin product experienced a significant decrease in stress compared to the placebo group.
However, despite the many possible benefits, Sharp notes the research into adaptogens is sparse overall, leaving many of the claims unsubstantiated by science. And, like many medications and supplements, there’s a risk adaptogens could interfere with medications or other supplements.
“A lot of herbal supplements can negatively interfere with prescription medications,” warns Sharp, “so always disclose any adaptogens you’re taking to the pharmacist before you mix anything. It is also not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding or for those with conditions like diabetes or thyroid problems.”
If you drink tea and cook with herbs, roots and mushrooms, you may already be getting adaptogens in your diet. If you’d like to take things further, do your own research and proceed with caution. Sharp points to a 2015 study which found supplement misuse leads to 23,000 emergency room visits each year.
“We don’t have a lot of solid evidence on adaptogen supplements like powders or pills or their effectiveness as whole foods,” she says. “Because natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe, I recommend just trying to eat a well-balanced diet.”