The Science Behind Adaptogenic Herbs

Adaptogens capsules, dried herbs, tincture

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Key Takeaways

  • Adaptogenic herbs are said to help the body balance hormones and stress.
  • Research on adaptogenic herbs is limited. While they're generally safe, experts recommend working with a trained provider to choose the types of herbs that work for you.
  • Adaptogens may interact with certain medications, such as immunosuppressants and thyroid hormones.

Adaptogenic herbs are said to reduce stress, promote cognitive function, and boost the immune system, but research on these herbs is limited in the United States.

Popular adaptogenic herbs, like ashwagandha, maca, and holy basil, are sold as tinctures, tea, capsules, and powders. Some people turn to these herbs as a natural alternative or complementary stress management practice.

Experts say adaptogenic herbs are generally safe but it’s important to work with a trained healthcare provider before starting a new herbal regimen.

“Research on adaptogenic herbs is limited but promising. As a naturopathic doctor, I take it case by case,” Alexander Aponte Davila, ND, a naturopathic doctor at the Bastyr University Clinic in San Diego, told Verywell.

How Do Adaptogenic Herbs Work?

Understanding exactly how adaptogens work is complicated, but researchers believe they can regulate the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA axis), which is responsible for balancing hormones and stress response.

“A visual metaphor may be to think of them as chameleon-like, they have the ability to adapt or adjust according to the needs, but in a very non-specific way against stress or interruptions to homeostasis, or balance,” Monique Richard, MS, RDN, LDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Johnson City, Tennessee, told Verywell.

For example, if you have a high level of stress hormones, adaptogens can help to lower it. On the flip side, if your body has a low stress response, adaptogens might increase it to restore balance.

Adaptogens are believed to help protect the body against physical and mental stressors. However, they can interact with some medications. For example, ashwagandha may be inappropriate for someone who’s taking immunosuppressants after surgery since the herb may boost the immune system and reduce the effectiveness of the drugs.

Despite growing consumer interest in adaptogenic herbs, research on their long-term safety and efficacy is limited partially due to a lack of funding.

A study published last year examined the effect of ashwagandha on sleep, cravings, and perceived stress in college students. This was one of the few U.S. studies on ashwagandha recently.

The study only lasted a month, but the researchers said that ashwagandha might need six weeks to provide the most benefits for stress relief. However, they believe the herb can help manage the negative impact stress has on sleep and cravings in just 30 days.

“This could be something that we can have in a student’s toolbox to help them cope with stress, maybe get a little bit better sleep,” said Margaret Harris, PhD, MS, HC, an associate professor of nutrition at The University of Colorado Colorado Springs and a co-author of the study.

Another small study published in Nutrients in 2018 suggested that a supplement made from an ashwagandha extract could improve both upper and lower body strength in men engaging in strength training, but the study authors noted that the workouts were not supervised, which could have impacted the results.

A 2022 study found that a supplement made from rhodiola, magnesium, green tea, and B vitamins could help people manage stress.

Should You Take Adapotgenic Herbs?

In practice, healthcare providers might recommend multiple herbs to meet a patient’s needs, but Harris said that most studies are conducted on a single adaptogenic herb.

“The formula would be individualized to each person and that would be difficult to research,” she said.

Aponte Davila said adaptogenic herbs are generally considered safe, but they could interact with other medications, especially antidepressants, stimulants, antipsychotics, or sedatives. Licorice root, for example, can raise blood pressure and may interact with certain blood pressure medications.

Anyone who wants to take adaptogenic herbs should consider speaking with a healthcare provider first. “Potential side includes allergic reactions, nausea, diarrhea, stomach upset, dry mouth, headaches or upset stomach,” Aponte Davila said.

Some providers might recommend extracts or tinctures, while others can help you determine how to integrate these herbs into your diet. Richard said to be aware of "marketing gimmicks" when it comes to supplements since they're not regulated and they could “cause more harm than good.”

What This Means For You

Some research shows that adaptogenic herbs can offer health benefits but studies are limited. If you want to start taking adaptogenic herbs, consider speaking with a healthcare provider who can discuss the benefits and risks specific to your medical history.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Todorova V, Ivanov K, Delattre C, Nalbantova V, Karcheva-Bahchevanska D, Ivanova S. Plant adaptogens—history and future perspectivesNutrients. 2021;13(8):2861. doi:10.3390/nu13082861

  2. Liao L ying, He Y fan, Li L, et al. A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwideChin Med. 2018;13(1):57. doi:10.1186/s13020-018-0214-9

  3. MedlinePlus. Ashwagandha.

  4. O’Connor J, Lindsay K, Baker C, Kirby J, Hutchins A, Harris M. The impact of ashwagandha on stress, sleep quality, and food cravings in college students: quantitative analysis of a double-blind randomized control trialJ Med Food. 2022;25(12):1086-1094. doi:10.1089/jmf.2022.0040

  5. Ziegenfuss T, Kedia A, Sandrock J, Raub B, Kerksick C, Lopez H. Effects of an aqueous extract of withania somnifera on strength training adaptations and recovery: the STAR trialNutrients. 2018;10(11):1807. doi:10.3390/nu10111807

  6. Boyle NB, Billington J, Lawton C, Quadt F, Dye L. A combination of green tea, rhodiola, magnesium and B vitamins modulates brain activity and protects against the effects of induced social stress in healthy volunteers. Nutr Neurosci. 2022;25(9):1845-1859. doi:10.1080/1028415X.2021.1909204

  7. Mount Sinai. Licorice