Adaptogenic herbs can alternately calm or energize. Their unique abilities help counteract stress and improve mood, mental clarity, and physical stamina.
It’s no secret that stress can make you sick and profoundly impact your mental health and quality of life.
It’s thought that stress plays a part in 90% of all illnesses. (1)
But what is a well-kept secret is a group of natural substances, known as adaptogens or adaptogenic herbs, that can neutralize the effects of stress.
These herbs are not new; in fact, they’ve been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.
And now, with so many people searching for ways to minimize the effects of stress on their lives, these herbal remedies are as relevant as ever.
Adaptogens have the unique ability to calm you down and increase your energy without being sedating or stimulative.
What Are Adaptogenic Herbs?
Adaptogens are herbal remedies that make you more resilient to stress of all kinds — mental, physical, and environmental.
They are so named because they help you adapt.
To be considered a true adaptogen, an herb must meet these requirements:
- It must be safe.
- It must work by reducing your body’s stress response.
- It must support overall health by helping the body achieve a state of balance known as homeostasis.
- It must be neither stimulating nor sedating.
A simple analogy is that adaptogens work like a thermostat.
They fine-tune your body to stay in the perfect “Goldilocks zone” where you feel calmly energized.
Adaptogen is not a medically recognized term. (2)
Before the term adaptogen was coined, these substances were usually referred to as tonics.
The Dangers of Cortisol and Stress
Before we look at specific adaptogenic herbs you can use, it’s important to understand how stress is doing you harm.
The stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are produced on an as-needed basis during very stressful situations.
You’ll feel a surge of these hormones if you’ve had a close call while driving or are being chased by a wild animal. 😉
But once the crisis is over, these chemicals soon dissipate.
Cortisol, on the other hand, is constantly being released in response to low-grade stressors.
While physical exercise can help dissipate cortisol, if you are stuck at a desk or in traffic, cortisol builds up.
Chronically high cortisol is extremely dangerous to your health. (3)
It can cause you to age prematurely.
Cortisol is created in the adrenal glands, which also produce numerous other hormones that regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, response to stress, and other essential functions.
If these glands are constantly pumping out cortisol, they eventually get worn out from excessive demand.
Overworked adrenal glands will leave you feeling wired but tired.
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The Benefits of Adaptogenic Herbs for Stress
If you struggle with stress, high cortisol, or worn-out adrenals, adaptogenic herbs might be the answer.
Adaptogens normalize levels of the stress hormone cortisol and support overburdened adrenal glands.
Adaptogens work regardless of the underlying cause of your stress.
It doesn’t matter whether your stress is caused by a demanding boss, a hectic schedule, a noisy workplace, illness, or environmental toxins — adaptogens can help.
While each herbal adaptogen offers a slightly different set of benefits, here are some of the fundamental ways adaptogens work to protect your brain and body from stress: (7)
- They normalize levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones.
- They exhibit neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties.
- They are natural mood enhancers that are both anti-anxiety and anti-depressive.
- They help normalize the immune system, the nervous system, and blood sugar metabolism.
- They improve energy, stamina, muscle tone, and strength.
9 Top Adaptogenic Herbal Supplements
Currently, a few dozen herbs qualify as adaptogens.
There is no official list of adaptogenic herbs, but the following herbs are well regarded, well researched, and generally easy to find.
And, while all adaptogens improve your resilience to stress, some target specific problems like fatigue, memory loss, or anxiety better than others.
So when picking an adaptogen, look for one(s) whose effects best match your particular set of symptoms.
And if you can’t decide, there’s no harm in taking more than one, since adaptogenic herbs generally work synergistically, enhancing each other’s effects. (8)
Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
Ginseng is truly the king of adaptogenic herbs.
This plant lives up to its name Panax, meaning “panacea” or “cure-all.”
It’s one of the most popular herbal remedies worldwide.
Ginseng has been used medicinally in Asia for over 5,000 years. (9)
It’s sometimes called “true ginseng” to distinguish it from other ginseng varieties.
Ginseng may be termed Asian, Chinese, or Korean ginseng depending on where it’s grown. (10)
Ginseng is one of the most widely studied herbal remedies.
In South Korea alone, 1,000 researchers are devoted to the study of ginseng and annually publish more than 100 research papers. (11)
Ginseng has a long list of proven health benefits in addition to stress reduction.
Best uses: Improves mood, cognitive performance, sleep, energy, sexual function, and immunity.
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
American ginseng belongs to the same genus as true ginseng (Panax), but is a different species.
American ginseng bestows all the benefits of true ginseng and maybe more.
In a surprising twist, American ginseng is now considered the best in the world and is preferred to Chinese ginseng, even by the Chinese. (12)
American ginseng, especially that grown in Wisconsin and Canada, is known for its superior quality. (13)
It not only meets the most rigorous purity standards, but is prized for its proven ability to enhance brain function. (14)
Best uses: Enhances memory and mental clarity, while reducing stress.
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Arctic Root (Rhodiola rosea)
Arctic root, as the name suggests, is found in cold regions of the world.
It’s used in traditional Scandinavian and Chinese medicine. (15)
It’s one of the most popular adaptogenic herbs, second only to Panax ginseng.
It goes by many common names such as golden root, rose root, pink stone crop, and king’s crown.
Best uses: Increases physical stamina and lessens fatigue and exhaustion due to stress. (16)
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is one of the most important Ayurvedic herbs.
Its name literally means “smell of a horse” (it smells a bit horsey).
This name serves a dual purpose since it is said to bestow the strength and stamina of a horse on anyone who uses it.
All adaptogens reduce cortisol, but ashwagandha’s ability to do so is superior to the rest. (17)
Best uses: Relieves anxiety, insomnia, or stress-related depression. (18)
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
Bacopa is another highly esteemed Ayurvedic herb that is used to enhance memory, learning, and concentration.
Besides reducing cortisol, it works by balancing the brain chemicals dopamine, serotonin, and GABA.
This herb is especially good for age-related mental decline.
It is exceedingly safe, making it ideal for vulnerable populations, including children and seniors. (19)
This versatility makes it a popular addition to both nootropic (brain-boosting) formulas and memory supplements.
Be patient when using bacopa — it can take 2 to 3 months before you’ll experience its full benefits.
Best uses: Remedies memory loss, lack of focus, anxiety, and insomnia. Slows age-related mental decline.
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
Holy basil is yet another herb used in the Ayurvedic healing tradition.
It can be consumed either as a supplement or as a tea known as tulsi tea.
Because it fosters relaxation and well-being as well as yoga, tulsi tea has been called “liquid yoga.”
It’s one of the most revered plants in India — tulsi means “the incomparable one.”
Traditionally, holy basil has been used as a tonic to promote general health and well-being and to build resilience to stress.
It has also been considered a panacea, used to treat almost anything ailing you — from malaria to snake bites. (23)
Studies now confirm that holy basil builds the immune system, alleviates depression and anxiety, and stabilizes blood sugar levels. (24)
Best uses: Strengthens immune system and stabilizes diabetes or pre-diabetes. (25)
Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Siberian ginseng is in the same plant family as Asian and American ginseng, making it a ginseng “cousin.”
Siberian ginseng’s benefits are very similar to those of true ginseng.
It’s widely used in Russia and has long been a favorite of their athletes to increase physical performance.
After the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, some who were exposed to radiation were given Siberian ginseng to offset its effects. (26)
Best uses: Boosts immunity against colds and flu, and increases overall physical stamina. (27)
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
Schisandra (or schizandra) is a brilliant red berry that is sometimes called “five flavor fruit” because it simultaneously tastes sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and sour. (28)
It has a long history of medical use throughout Russia and Asia, most notably for liver health and mental performance.
Chinese folklore claims that it “calms the heart and quiets the spirit.”
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White Mulberry (Morus alba)
White mulberry is a small ornamental tree native to China that’s widely cultivated to feed silkworms.
In traditional Chinese medicine, its stems and leaves are used to increase vitality and treat fever, cough, and diabetes. (32)
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sparks motivation and rules the body’s pleasure-reward system.
An excess of dopamine has been linked to risk-taking behavior, impulsiveness, overactive libido, and addictions of all kinds.
Best uses: Mitigates self-destructive behaviors.
15 Lesser-Known Adaptogenic Herbs
There is no official list of adaptogens — every author, website, and natural health authority gets to decide which herbs meets the adaptogen criteria.
Below are some additional herbs that are not as well known as the ones above, but are considered to be adaptogenic.
We’ve also listed the most notable feature or benefit of each.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
- Fundamental remedy in traditional Chinese medicine (35)
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)
- Herbal remedy and food that means “fountain of youth” in Chinese (36)
Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia)
- Excellent for alleviating allergy symptoms (37)
Jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi)
- Neuroprotective, cognitive enhancer, similar benefits as bacopa (38)
Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum)
- Shares similar compounds and benefits with ginseng (39)
King of Bitters (Andrographis paniculata)
- Used in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to treat the common cold (40)
Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
- Referred to as Peruvian ginseng, offers similar benefits but is no relation to Asian ginseng (41)
Maral Root (Rhaponticum carthamoides)
- For muscle growth and male sexual enhancement (42)
Potency Wood (Muira puama)
- As the name suggests, this is a traditional Brazilian aphrodisiac (43)
Puncture Vine (Tribulus terrestris)
- Recommended for male health, including virility and vitality (44)
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), Shiitake (Lentinus edodes), and Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
- Adaptogenic mushrooms (45)
Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
- Traditionally used for heart health (46)
Suma (Pfaffia paniculata)
- Sometimes called Brazilian ginseng but is no relation to Asian ginseng (47)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
Yuan Zhi (Polygala tenuifolia)
- For depression and memory improvement, especially in seniors (50)
Not All Herbal Remedies Are Adaptogens
Note that not all healing herbs are adaptogens.
There are many herbs that have remarkable qualities but fail to qualify as an adaptogen, usually because they are stimulating, sedating, or mildly toxic to some people.
For example, licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is sometimes listed as an adaptogen, but I don’t think it qualifies since it raises (rather than normalizes) blood pressure.
This can be good if your blood pressure is low, but dangerous if your blood pressure is high.
Adaptogen Side Effects and Warnings
If these herbs sound too good to be true, you might wonder if there are any side effects or situations when you shouldn’t use them.
There are a few.
It’s generally recommended that adaptogenic herbs be avoided by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding since these herbs have not been adequately studied for safety in these circumstances.
And if you take any prescription medications, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking any adaptogenic herbs since there is always a chance of negative interactions.
Adaptogenic Herbs: Take the Next Step
Adaptogenic herbs can help you win the battle against chronic stress.
They have the unique ability to simultaneously calm and energize.
They work, in part, by reducing the stress hormone cortisol and supporting adrenal gland function.
By definition, they are safe, increase resilience to stress, and promote overall health, but are neither stimulating nor sedating.