Asking for a Friend: What Are Adaptogens, Exactly?

March 10, 2020

If you’ve taken a stroll through your local health food store, scrolled through your favorite wellness blog, or have been served a sneaky targeted ad on Instagram recently, you’ve likely heard a lot of talk about adaptogens, how they’re amazing, and how you absolutely need to be incorporating them into your life. This brings up the same question we asked when TikTok first emerged as a platform: What are they, exactly? 

No need to consult (and subsequently be roasted by) your younger, cooler sibling — we have all the information you need to know about adaptogens, right here. Keep reading to find out more, and to see how they can benefit you. 

Give it to me straight — what is an adaptogen?

Simply put, adaptogens are a group of non-toxic herbs, mushrooms, and minerals that help to boost your body’s resistance to whatever ails you. Whether you’re stressed, tired, or fighting off a cold, there’s an adaptogen to help with that. While they’re a relatively new discovery to Stacy from your spin class (that she just won’t shut up about), they’ve been part of Ayurvedic, Chinese medicine, and Western herbalist healing practices for centuries. The term “adaptogen” in particular was coined in 1947 by Russian scientist Dr. N.V. Larazrev, and is used to describe a substance that increases resistance to stress and adverse influences 

You hear that? You’re not special, Stacy. 

How do they work?

Adaptogens work through two systems in your body — the HPA axis (hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal), which controls some immune functions as well as endocrine and immune function, and the SAS (sympatho-adrenal system), which controls your fight or flight response when placed in a stressful situation. On a cellular level, they keep the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell, what’s up) functional by preventing any imbalances triggered by cortisol, which your body produces when you’re stressed. 

What are some commonly-used adaptogens I can look into?

While there are lots of adaptogens and adaptogen blends on the market, the following seven are the most popular of the bunch.

Ashwagandha - The roots of the ashwagandha plant are super-effective at reducing the effects of mental and physical stress, and can actually help to balance your cortisol levels when used for post-workout recovery.

Turmeric - The hero ingredient of the trendy golden latte, turmeric is packed with antioxidant compounds, namely circumin, which helps with reducing inflammation. Turmeric has also been shown to help boost brain function and level out mood. 

Reishi Mushroom - Feel a cold coming on? Reach for a reishi mushroom-based adaptogen, particularly one of the red reishi variety. Reishi mushroom has been shown to boost the immune system and has been shown to help increase the production of white blood cells. 

Ginseng - Praised for being one of the most potent adaptogens, ginseng promotes a calm sensation and is helpful for moments you’re feeling particularly stressed out. 

Holy Basil - You know those days where you just can’t seem to wake up, and you float through the morning in a cloudy fog? Consider holy basil the ultimate remedy for combating that feeling. In addition to promoting a relaxing feeling, the herb can help with focus and clarity.

Maca Root - That maca topping at your smoothie shop can do a lot more than make your acai bowl look pretty. Maca is rich in calcium, vitamin C, healthy fatty acids, and amino acids. It simultaneously boosts energy while also helping to relieve tension and anxious feelings. 

Rhodiola Rosea - Rhodiola rosea has a great track record of helping to enhance brain function and prevent mental fatigue, and for athletes, the adaptogen is used to help physical performance. Just keep in mind that the ingredient is a stimulant, so if you have trouble sleeping or tend to get jittery, start off with a small amount and limit your intake after a certain hour.

How can I incorporate them into my life?

If you drink coffee, that’s a great starting point. Because some adaptogens have a pretty strong taste, we wouldn’t recommend taking them with just water (unless of course you’re into that sort of thing, in which case, do you). Mixing them into your morning coffee, green juice, or post-workout smoothie is an easy way to incorporate them daily and make them more palatable. If that’s too involved for you, many companies have capsules containing adaptogens you can take daily, as well as pre-mixed drinks infused with adaptogens. 

That said, adaptogens aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution — you have to start by determining the issue you want to address, then research options that could work for you. For example, an adaptogen that can be stimulating may not be the best option if you already feel on edge, just as ones that have a drying effect aren’t a good idea to use if you have dry skin. Research which adaptogen or adaptogen combination can fit into your lifestyle, and proceed from there.

It also goes without saying that adaptogens aren’t a complete substitute for living a healthy lifestyle. They can help in situations where you aren’t getting enough sleep, or you need to veer your diet in the right direction, but you know, you should probably continue to get your 8 hours in, eat a healthy diet, and practice stress reduction techniques as you see necessary. Yes, you should still go to the gym if you’re using adaptogens, but you know what? A little maca might help take the edge off the grueling trek there, not to mention, help boost your overall fitness performance. We’ll call that a win.