What Are Adaptogens?

Ayurvedic Herbs Said to Promote Anti-Aging and Anti-Stress

Adaptogens capsules, dried herbs, tincture

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

In the modern-day world of health and wellness, “adaptogens” are beginning to gain quite a bit of attention. Adaptogenic herbs are being offered in everything from supplements and tonics, to coffee, hot chocolate, and juice bars. But what are adaptogens, where can they be found and perhaps most importantly, do they really work?

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are components of herbal medicines that are said to help the body's resilience in dealing with physical and emotional stresses. Adaptogens are also said to have anti-aging properties.

Adaptogens have been used for hundreds of years in Ayurvedic healing practices. But adaptogens are becoming more accessible for use in the Western world as well.

Some adaptogenic herbs are too bitter to be enjoyed as food, so they are made into powdered supplements (and taken as a capsule), smoothies, teas, or herbal drinks or integrated into tinctures (herbal supplements dissolved in alcohol and ingested in a liquid form).

In a laboratory setting, adaptogens may have chemical actions, such as triggering the production of hormones or altering stress chemicals. For example, one herbal adaptogen is said to raise or lower the level of estrogen in different biochemical settings. Proponents of adaptogens suggest that these chemical actions could help the entire body (from the brain to the immune system) function optimally.

How Adaptogens Are Said to Work in the Body

Adaptogens are said to help the body overcome the influences of physical, chemical, or biological stressors.

They have been recommended by some practitioners to:

  • Improve attention
  • Increase endurance in situations caused by fatigue
  • Lower stress-induced disorders and impairments in the body
  • Balance hormone levels
  • Keep cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and other hormone levels in check
  • Fight fatigue that results from excessive physical or emotional stress 
  • Combat the impact that stress has on cognitive function
  • Stimulate mental performance that has been impacted by stress
  • Normalize body functions
  • Boost the immune system
  • Fight the symptoms caused by elevated cortisol levels (such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and obesity)
  • Increase physical stamina and improve energy levels
  • Improve the function of organs, such as the liver and adrenal glands
  • Improve the function of body systems, such as the gastrointestinal system

Adaptogens and Stress

Adaptogens are any substance said to improve the health of the body’s response to stress. Of course, they do not impact a person's experience of stressful events, but rather, are said to improve the way the body responds physically to stress. 

Stress is considered a physiological condition, associated with the nervous, endocrine (hormones), and immune systems. Stress can be precipitated by an external event, environmental condition, or a chemical or biological agent that triggers the body to release stress hormones which result in physiological changes.

Examples of changes that occur due to the release of stress hormones include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. This sudden flood of hormonal changes is called the fight-or-flight response.

Experiences that may induce the fight-or-flight response in the body include:

  • Environmental factors, such as extremely high or low temperatures
  • Biological factors, such as an illness or injury
  • Chemical agents, such as tobacco, alcohol, or drugs
  • Mental issues (such as focusing on negative events [like the loss of a job or a divorce] or perceived threats)
  • Physical events, such as chronic loss of sleep
  • Day-to-day stressful events, like driving in heavy traffic

When stress is too overwhelming or prolonged, it can contribute to disease and may even reduce life expectancy. This is referred to as maladaptive stress, and it’s what adaptogens are said to help the body overcome.

Are Adaptogens Effective?

Although there is limited evidence from medical studies to back the claims of effectiveness for each type of adaptogen, some new studies are beginning to emerge.

For example, one study suggested that adaptogens “may be regarded as a novel pharmacological category of anti-fatigue drugs that: induce increased attention and endurance in situations of decreased performance caused by fatigue and/or sensation of weakness, reduce stress-induced impairments and disorders related to the function of stress.” 

And a scientific review that examined previous adaptogen studies (specifically involving Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and Bacopa) suggested that these herbs could potentially benefit people during periods of chronic stress.

Although there is some limited research suggesting that various adaptogens could be effective, some experts caution that it’s important to understand that all-natural supplements are not necessarily what they say they are. According to Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, “A lot of supplement companies put small amounts of this and that in a pill. I think they are just assuming or wishing for a synergistic effect.” 

Examples of Adaptogenic Herbs

There are many different adaptogens, each said to have its own specific action. But keep in mind that there are still only limited clinical research studies supporting the safety and effectiveness of these natural supplements.

Examples of common adaptogens and the action they are said to produce in the body include:

  • Astragalus root: to help reduce stress and aging by protecting the telomeres (structures linked with aging, located at the end of each chromosome)
  • Ashwagandha: to help the body cope with daily stress, and as a general tonic
  • Siberian ginseng: to provide energy and help overcome exhaustion
  • Holy basil: to promote relaxation, relieve stress and anxiety
  • Rhodiola rosea: to lower anxiety, fatigue, and depression
  • Cordyceps: a specific type of mushroom which is said to fight stress and help balance hormones
  • Reishi: a specific type of mushroom which is said to help the body adapt to stress and promote a healthy sleep pattern
  • Maca: to improve mood and increase energy
  • Wild yam: to regulate female hormone levels
  • Licorice: to increase energy and endurance and help boost the immune system, stimulate the adrenal glands and promote healthy cortisol levels 
  • Bacopa Monnieri: to protect the brain and improve memory and improve other aspects of cognitive function
Adaptogen dried herb

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Supplements

Many adaptogens are available in a capsule form. When possible, it's best to select an herbal supplement that is organic, all-natural, and ethically wild-harvested. Look for products that are certified by a third party, such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab.com. These organizations evaluate and report on a product’s level of purity and potency.   

Supplements, including adaptogens, are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety or effectiveness. This puts the responsibility on the consumer to ensure they are buying products that are pure, safe and effective.

Side Effects

Any type of herbal supplement can interact with other supplements, over-the-counter medications, or prescription drugs. Be sure to consult with your healthcare provider before taking adaptogens.

While some adaptogens are said to have health-promoting abilities, some can produce side effects, particularly if taken for too long or in too high of doses. There are very few long-term studies that have examined the safety of taking specific adaptogens over time and there are very few well-known side effects of taking adaptogens.

Some people experience stomach upset from taking certain types of adaptogens, others may have allergic symptoms. 

Licorice root may cause elevated blood pressure and hypokalemia (low potassium levels) when taken over a long time-span. It’s recommended to take licorice in 12-week cycles, taking a break between each cycle. Those with high blood pressure may want to avoid it.  

A Word From Verywell

While it may be safe to take adaptogens, it’s important not to overlook other natural health-promoting measures, such as eating a healthy diet and maintaining regular exercise. Employing other measures (like meditation or mindfulness practice) to lower the impact of stress on the body is also important. Although it's easy to simply take a supplement every day, adaptogens (and other natural supplements) without lifestyle changes may not be enough to make a long-term impactful difference.

Keep in mind that adaptogens don’t eliminate stress from a person’s life, rather, they may enable the body to use its own abilities to change and adapt to stress in a manner that promotes healthy aging. More scientific evidence is needed to definitively prove this and the other health-promoting claims of adaptogens.

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Article 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. Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel); 3(1):188-224. doi:10.3390/ph3010188

  2. Ajala TO. The Effects of Adaptogens on the Physical and Psychological Symptoms of Chronic Stress. DISCOVERY: Georgia State Honors College Undergraduate Research Journal. 2017;4:2. doi:10.31922/disc4.2

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