Have you noticed strangely named superfoods like astragalus and cordyceps popping up at your smoothie bar, in your protein powders, in fancy teas, or in the supplement aisle? If so, you’re not alone – popularity of adaptogens has skyrocketed in the recent past, and for good reason. Adaptogens help us deal with life’s stressors – both physical and stress and emotional stress – and it’s safe to say that stress is on the rise in almost all of us. If you’re curious to learn more, read on! In this post, I’ll dissect what adaptogens are, who they’re for, and review the benefits of 10 popular adaptogens.
What are adaptogens?
The simplest definition of an adaptogen is a non-toxic plant that helps the body balance out physical, chemical, and / or biological stressors. The Cleveland Clinic defines them as “plants and mushrooms that help your body respond to stress, anxiety, fatigue and overall wellbeing.” Basically, the adaptogen helps bring the body back into balance. An adaptogen might lower a hormone that is high, or raise the same hormone that is low, helping the body back into homeostasis. Adaptogens help our bodies withstand the stress of daily life, as well as any exceptional stressors that could otherwise reduce our health or quality of life.
Adaptogens have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine and are beginning to creep into Western culture as well. They’re not yet widely studied, but existing research suggests that they work via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to regulate and mediate stress response. Their non-toxic nature and devout following by their proponents (including me!) are helping them reach a broader audience of people and making them more “mainstream.”
Who benefits from adaptogens?
Anyone who is under any form of stress (so, anyone) can potentially benefit from adaptogens! Whether you’re experiencing emotional stress, physical stress like allergies or overtraining, or chemical stress like hormonal imbalance, there is likely an adaptogen to help. That doesn’t mean I recommend buying and trying them willy-nilly, though. Just like any supplement, they’re unregulated by the FDA, meaning that it’s important to check out the quality of a particular supplement before trying it, and to know why you’re trying it before just tossing it into your pillbox without reason.
Are adaptogens dangerous?
Of course, this is not medical advice, and I recommend speaking with a practitioner who knows you individually before adding anything in, but overall, there is very little risk in taking an adaptogen. Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical Director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, notes that there isn’t evidence that adaptogens can cause side effects or health problems, but also advises caution to ensure that adaptogens don’t interact with prescriptions you’re taking, cause GI distress, or make you think the issue is cured when the adaptogen is only serving as a band aid. I frequently recommend specific adaptogens to clients whose medical history I know, but in the absence of this direct guidance, please do your own research.
10 Adaptogens that Might Support Your Health
There are many adaptogens with a myriad of benefits, but the below are some of my favorites, along with their benefits and how I prefer to consume them.
- Ashwagandha is one of the two adaptogens I consume most regularly (tied with Tulsi, below!). It helps me manage my anxiety, reduce cortisol, and feel more stable and grounded during the day. In true adaptogenic nature, though, it can also help elevate the energy of those suffering from low energy. It has been shown to enhance sleep quality, improve endurance, and has “anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antistress, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, hemopoietic, and rejuvenating properties,” all with no associated toxicity. I take ashwagandha from Organic India, use code Megan for 15% off!
- Astragalus helps support the immune system, lower blood pressure, protect the liver, and has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Mt. Sinai reports that it can also help treat diabetes and protect the body from cancer and diabetes. I like these capsules.
- Chaga is best known for its immune system benefits, but also has antioxidant properties and can support overall well-being. I like the Four Sigmatic Defend coffee (use code LYONS for 10% off), which also has cordyceps for energy, is organic, and only has 50 mg caffeine.
- Cordyceps is an energizing and stimulating adaptogen that has been shown to have benefits for athletic performance and mental focus. I like the Four Sigmatic Defend coffee (use code LYONS for 10% off), which also has chaga for immune support, is organic, and only has 50 mg caffeine.
- Lion’s mane. Lion’s mane is great for focus, and I often take the plain Mushroom Elixir from Four Sigmatic when I want to sit down to write a blog post (like this one!) or record a podcast episode. It has been shown to enhance memory as well.
- Maca is best known for its libido-boosting benefits, and also can help balance hormones and increase energy. It has tons of nutrients, like vitamin C, copper, potassium, iron, and anthocyanins, and it’s easy to add to smoothies. I like Navitas Organic Maca powder. Note for this one: if you have thyroid imbalance, this is one to stay away from or check with your health practitioner on first.
- Reishi is a great stress management herb, that has also been suggested to reduce inflammation, stimulate the immune system, and lower high blood pressure. I like the Reishi Hot Cacao from Four Sigmatic with only 2g of sugar.
- Rhodiola has been shown to support the brain and many of the neurotransmitters that help us feel energized and stable. It can help balance dopamine and serotonin, fight fatigue, and prevent burnout. I like the Thorne capsules.
- Tulsi / holy basil. If you had asked me 3 years ago, Tulsi would have been my favorite adaptogen, and it’s still near the top of the list. A review of clinical literature suggested beneficial “therapeutic effects on metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, immunity, and neurocognition,” all without any adverse effects. I find it to be soothing and calming, and use it mostly for stress management. Organic India Tulsi teas (particularly the Masala Chai, Honey Chamomile, Tulsi Ashwagandha, and Tulsi Hibiscus) are my favorite way to consume Tulsi – use code Megan here for 15% off.
- Turkey tail. Turkey tail mushroom is a soothing adaptogen, and I love the Organifi Gold powder, which also contains reishi for calming and soothing properties and turmeric for anti-inflammatory properties, right before bed when I know I’ll need some help with great quality sleep. Turkey tail has tons of antioxidants, may improve gut health, and helps reduce inflammation.
Now it’s your turn … Do you take any adaptogens? Which ones are your favorites?
🎙️ Want to hear about this topic in audio format? → Check out the podcast episode here!
I’m very curious to try some of these adaptogens. Do you know if they are safe to take when pregnant and/or nursing?
Hi Jordann! Many adaptogens have been used for centuries by pregnant and breastfeeding women. However, different adaptogens may have different impacts based on your specific situation, and different practitioners have different recommendations. So, as always, I advise that you check with your own doctor or nutrition practitioner! Best of luck with the pregnancy!