Adaptogens are a growing niche of nootropics and herbal supplements that have versatile uses as physical and mental performance aids and "balance-restoring" agents. (Most adaptogens are herbs, hence the term "adaptogenic herbs.") Adaptogens are so-named because they help your body “adapt” to — and overcome — stress. In this regard, adaptogens are stress-protective agents that promote overall health and wellness.
People throw the term "stress" around a ton in everyday life, but what exactly does it mean in a biological sense? After all, stress isn’t exclusive to humans. Many life forms undergo stress, the process by which environmental demands strain an organism’s adaptive capacity.
As humans, we commonly experience stress due to variables that are more or less out of our control. For example, someone might get into a car accident on the way to work as an unfortunate scenario of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In reality, that lack of control makes the consequences even more stressful. The good news is that adaptogens can help your mind and body stay resilient and keep you in harmony when things get crazy.
Read on to learn what adaptogens are, how they work, and which adaptogenic herbs are most effective at reducing stress, balancing hormone levels, and improving mood.
Adaptogens are herbs (or other compounds) that reputedly ease tension and stress, whether physiologically or psychologically . Many adaptogenic herbs have been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Animal and clinical studies suggest that adaptogens have myriad health benefits, acting as anxiolytics, antidepressants, neuroprotectants, and more .
For an herb or compound to be considered an adaptogen, it must meet the following criteria:
- Protect the brain and body from stress
- Provide stimulating effects that assist cognitive performance
- Normalize biological functions, irrespective of the direction of change
- Must not negatively impact the body’s normal functions
In short, adaptogens help keep your mind and body in good health by attenuating stress responses.
In a broad physiological sense, adaptogens work by modulating your HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis — a major component of your neuroendocrine system . This axis is how your body controls the stress response, primarily by secreting catecholamines and glucocorticoids (especially cortisol).
A research review also concluded that a common mechanism of action among adaptogens is immunostimulation . In other words, adaptogens boost the immune system (which plays a role in stress responses).
When the HPA axis is overactive and the immune system is compromised due to chronic stress and anxiety, the body produces more stress hormones like cortisol and fewer immunocytes. Consequently, this can lead to:
Due to the negative side effects of rampant stress, it’s imperative to prepare your body for all the unexpected challenges life can bring; this is where adaptogens shine.
The sections below break down the research of five renowned adaptogens and how to dose them properly:
We’ve written about ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) rather extensively, particularly KSM-66 and Sensoril ashwagandha powder. Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is arguably the most popular adaptogenic herb, and for a good reason.
Research consistently demonstrates that ashwagandha root extract effectively reduces stress-induced cortisol elevations and the risk of neurodegenerative disease . It's also a promising adaptogenic herb for hormone balance and boosting testosterone levels in men .
The root of the ashwagandha plant contains many therapeutic compounds, including choline, saponins, alkaloids, and withanolides. A particularly important withanolide in ashwagandha is withaferin-A; this steroidal lactone remains one of the most promising plant constituents in nature, working to reduce cancer risk, protect against excessive oxidative stress, and promote feelings of well-being .
When choosing an ashwagandha supplement, look for a product that contains either Sensoril® or KSM-66® so you get a generous amount of withanolides. A clinically effective dose of KSM-66® is 600 mg per day; Sensoril® is 250 mg.
Schisandra chinensis, commonly known as Chinese magnolia vine, is a woody vine indigenous to mainland China that bears fruits (fructus schisandra) with a deep red color; the fruits of schisandra are potent adaptogens, having been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries as a means of reducing fatigue, treating insomnia, supporting immune function, and enhancing cardiovascular health .
Schisandra fruit contains a multitude of bioactive substances, particularly lignans, which are polyphenols with estrogen-like structures. Research contends that schisandra can effectively blunt stress hormone secretion, thereby alleviating anxiety and promoting relaxation .
One study in healthy adults found that subjects taking 360 mg of 30:1 schisandra fruit extract had 200% lower post-exercise cortisol levels than pre-exercise values . Contrarily, subjects taking a placebo had higher cortisol levels after exercise than before. These findings suggest that schisandra all but abolishes exercise-induced cortisol increases.
Even for those who don’t exercise regularly, schisandra is a great adaptogen for attenuating stress response.
However, be wary of schisandra extract supplements that contain minimal bioactive constituents. For example, using 1500 mg of 5:1 schisandra fruit extract is less effective than taking 300 mg of a 30:1 extract.
Green tea (Camellia sinensis) is among the most commonly consumed health beverages in the world. Not surprisingly, the leaves of green tea plants are rich in polyphenol antioxidants and adaptogenic constituents, such as L-theanine and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG).
EGCG has immense therapeutic potential as an anti-cancer, anti-angiogenic, anti-fatigue, and thermogenic micronutrient . Likewise, L-Theanine, a non-proteinogenic amino acid found in green tea leaves, is a popular nootropic supplement with demonstrable anti-stress properties .
Theanine also promotes a sense of “alert relaxation.” Research demonstrates that consuming L-theanine in conjunction with caffeine is more effective for mood and cognitive performance than caffeine alone .
The beauty of green tea is that it's readily available. If you're not a fan of drinking tea, look for a green tea leaf extract supplement that's standardized to at least 45% EGCG and take 500 - 1,000 mg per day. Alternatively, you can supplement with pure L-theanine — 100 - 400 mg per day should suffice.
Relora® is a trademarked supplement ingredient comprised of Phellodendron amurense and Magnolia officinalis. These particular plants have a growing body of evidence supporting their capacity to balance the HPA axis and reduce stress hormone production in humans [13, 14, 15].
Thus, Relora® is an adaptogenic supplement we highly recommend for thwarting stress and anxiety. An evidence-based dose of Relora® is 600 mg per day, split into three doses taken with meals.
Rhodiola rosea is a perennial flowering plant containing adaptogenic compounds known as salidroside and rosavin (found primarily in the plant's roots). Similar to ashwagandha, research demonstrates that rhodiola suppresses stress-induced cortisol secretion .
Further evidence suggests that rhodiola can support healthy thyroid function . Rhodiola also appears to promote cognitive abilities, making it a prudent adaptogen for people who want to improve mental performance throughout the day .
When shopping for rhodiola root extract supplements, look for products that contain at least 3% salidroside and 1% rosavin; consume 250 mg one to two times per day on an empty stomach.
Stress is an intrinsic part of life, both biologically and philosophically speaking. We can't control everything that’s going on around us; the universe is full of chaos. There will be moments where something unexpected happens, and the feelings of anxiety and stress start to overtake our mind and body.
Adaptogenic herbs are tools for making those experiences less intense. Now, this is not to say that adaptogens will magically make your life all sunshine and rainbows. Rather, adaptogens can help you work through stressful situations and protect your health in the process.
Given the many physical and mental health benefits of adaptogenic herbs, supplementing with them can support overall well-being and longevity in numerous ways. Notable medically reviewed benefits of adaptogens include :
Give one (or all five) of the adaptogenic herbs discussed herein a shot, and let us know your experience! Odds are you’ll feel less tense and be in a brighter mood throughout the day. The adaptogens listed above are generally well-tolerated and won't cause side effects.
However, the quality of herbs/extracts you use will also play a role in the outcomes. It's best to avoid adaptogen supplements that use generic herbal extracts, especially if they don't list any explicit bioactive ingredients standards.
If you're new to adaptogens and nootropics, we recommend starting with KSM-66® Ashwagandha since it's a patented organic root extract of Withania somnifera that's been clinically studied. You can find KSM-66® in Transparent Labs Vitality.