The 3 Most Popular Adaptogens for Stress, Explained

What you need to know about holy basil, ashwaghanda and rhodiola.

February 23, 2021

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Photo by: ajaykampani/Getty Images

ajaykampani/Getty Images

Sixty-two percent of Americans feel more anxious than they did this time last year, according to a Public Opinion Poll released in October 2020 by the American Psychiatric Association. Much of the anxiety stems from the current pandemic. The top causes of anxiety included keeping oneself and one's household safe, COVID-19, and one's health. Traditional Chinese medicine, as well as Ayurveda, the oldest medical system, encourage taking adaptogenic herbs to help the body maintain balance in the midst of stress, including anxiety.

Adaptogens are herbs that have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine to help the body cope and fight a wide range of stressors, like chemical pollutants, physical overexertion, anxiety and more. They have recently made their way into a plethora of food, beverages and supplements claiming to cure anxiety, sleep issues and mood swings. Here's how they might be used to help with stress and anxiety relief. Be sure to consult with a medical professional before starting an adaptogen regimen.

Popular Adaptogens for Anxiety and Stress

Stress is a physiological condition that can lead to numerous other health issues including chronic inflammation, neurological impairment, depression and premature aging. Adaptogens have been seen in Western medicine for about 60 years, and the science on adaptogens is just beginning and continuously evolving. The FDA advises consumers to consult with an informed health care professional before taking any herbal or botanical supplements, including the ones listed below which claim to help with stress and anxiety.

Holy Basil

Also known as tulsi, Holy basil is highly valued in Eastern Medicine and has been called the “elixir of life.” It is also sometimes called "hot basil" because of its peppery taste. It's often added to Southeast Asian dishes, like Thai stir fries and spicy soups. Hundreds of in vitro human and animal studies have reported its ability to help promote homeostasis and adaptation to stress. It is believes that Holy Basil helps the body and mind cope with a wide range of stressors and restore physiological and psychological function. Although there is some evidence to its stress-reducing role, more human studies are needed to determine proper dosage, preparation, and who are the best candidates for use. Reported short-term side effects include nausea and diarrhea and long-term side effects are unknown. Holy Basil shouldn’t be used during pregnancy, when breastfeeding, in people with diabetes and hypothyroidism, and those who are having surgery.

Ashwaghanda

Withania somnifera, which goes by the common names “ashwagandha," "Indian ginseng," or “winter cherry," is a common herb used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Ashwagandha means “the smell of a horse” in Sanskrit (the root is known for smelling like a horse). This adaptogen is commonly used for stress, but few human studies have been done. As such, there is limited evidence that ashwaghanda has anti-stress benefits. Short-term side effects of ashwaghanda include drowsiness, upper gastrointestinal discomfort, and loose stool and it’s considered possibly safe when taken short term. Long-term safety of taking ashwaghanda supplements is unknown. It should not be taken during pregnancy, or while using sedatives. You can find ashwaghanda in powder form made from the root of the plant, or in teas and capsules.

Rhodiola

Rhodiola rosea is a plant that grows in cold regions and at high altitudes in Europe and Asia. It’s considered to be an adaptogen due to its supposed ability to increase resistance to chemical, biological and physical stressors. Rhodiola rosea is commonly used for depression, anxiety, fatigue and other conditions, however there is not enough scientific evidence to support these uses. Reported side effects when used short-term include dizziness and changes in saliva production. It shouldn’t be used during pregnancy, while breastfeeding, if you have an autoimmune disease, diabetes, or low blood pressure. You can find Rhodiola rosea in capsules, tablets, dried powder and liquid extract. The dosage and amount of extract varies between brands and product types.

Should You Take Adaptogens for Stress?

If you're feeling stressed and anxious, we recommend talking with your doctor about the right method of relief for you. Before taking any herbal or botanical supplements, including adaptogens, check with your doctor or an educated health care professional.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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