What are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are touted for their stress-relieving properties. Here's what you need to know before taking them.

February 12, 2021

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Photo by: joannawnuk/Getty Images

joannawnuk/Getty Images

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. If you're wondering whether or not to give them a try, here is a look into the function of adaptogens and if they’re really legit.

What are Adaptogens?

Stress can lead to a variety of ailments including chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, depression, cancer and premature aging. Recently folks have been turning to adaptogenic herbs to cope with stress. According to Ayurveda, taking adaptogens regularly can help enhance the body’s ability to maintain balance when faced with a variety of stressors. The concept of adaptogens in Western medicine has been around for about 60 years. In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined adaptogens as “a new kind of metabolic regulator that has proved to help in environmental adaptation and to prevent external harms.” However, the science on adaptogens is rather new and is continuously evolving. The FDA advises that consumers consult with an informed health care professional before taking any herbal or botanical supplement.

How Adaptogens Work

Adaptogens are believed to work as “good stressors” that mimic mild stress in the body. This causes a reduction of the chronically high levels of the body’s stress hormones cortisol and corticosterone, in turn, decreasing acute stress. The complex mechanism of how adaptogens work is still being investigated.

3 of the Most Popular Adaptogens

You've probably seen a variety of adaptogens in ingredient lists. Below is a look at three popular adaptogens that you may have recently seen at the market. They can be sold as a single ingredient (like in a supplement) or added to a food, beverage or supplement. Many do interact with medications and other supplements, so always check with an informed health care provider before taking.

Ashwagandha

Used in Ayurvedic medicine, this herb has been used for stress management, boosting energy, improving cognitive health, and to reduce inflammation, anxiety, and depression. There have been several clinical trials with ashwagandha and several health conditions, including stress. A 2019 study looked at various dosages of the herb on 60 healthy men and women with high stress levels. The results revealed that dosages of 250 mg/day and 600 mg/day had a reduction in perceived stress and cortisol levels (the stress-related hormone).

Ginseng

The antioxidant compounds in ginseng are known as ginsenosides, and it may be involved in controlling stress hormones. This herb shows promise with persistent stress and chronic inflammation. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health cautions taking ginseng when on medications like blood thinners, sugar-lowering drugs, and blood pressure reducing drugs.

Turmeric

Many people think of turmeric as a spice rather than an adaptogen, since turmeric root is part of the ginger family. Turmeric contains curcumin, which is thought to have adaptogic properties and help reduce cortisol. How it works is rather complicated and still being examined. Turmeric is also known for to help fight inflammation. It can be used fresh from the root, or dried, or in a blend of spices like curry powder. Used with black pepper, it helps increase the absorption of the curcumin.

Should You Take An Adaptogen?

There are a wide array of adaptogens on the market sold alone or in combinations like in teas, smoothies, protein powders, juices, supplements and more. How much you should take and how they work in combination varies and is still being researched. If you choose to take any adaptogen, check with an informed health care provider or registered dietitian (RD) to make sure the ingredients do not interact with medications or other supplements you may be taking. Pregnant and breastfeeding women shouldn’t take adaptogens as they can affect hormone levels. Remember, the FDA doesn’t approve supplements for safety before being sold — so make sure whatever you choose to pick up is from a reputable manufacturer or ask for recommended brands from your informed health care provider. If you are looking to control your daily stress, also remember that there are many ways to do so through a healthy lifestyle including food, exercise, sleep, and mental health exercises (like deep breathing).

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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