As a nutritionist one of my favorite ways to help support my clients as they manage their stress and balance their hormones is through the use of adaptogenic herbs. You’ve likely seen this term crop up many times around the health and wellness sphere in the last few years, but you may not know exactly what it means.
Essentially, adaptogens are natural substances that are non-toxic over the long term and generally help the body adapt to and cope with stress, while helping to normalize other bodily processes.
Because we live in a world where chronic stress is the rule, not the exception, it is important to look at how we can naturally support our bodies’ responses to such experiences. While I always focus on ways to diminish stress overall, incorporating adaptogens can be a great way to help lower cortisol levels, improve immune function, support the digestive tract, and keep hormones stable and happy.
With so many different adaptogens to choose from, how do you decide which is best for you? Read on to discover my top 11 adaptogens and which may suit your needs!
Long used in Ayurvedic medicine as a tonic and general rejuvenator, ashwagandha has the reputation as an herbal preparation that promotes a youthful state of physical and mental health and expands happiness.
Nutritionists and naturopaths refer to it as an adaptogen, whose primary function is supporting your body and adrenal glands during times of stress by enhancing your body’s natural resilience to physical and emotional stress.
I will often recommend this one to my clients when they have been experiencing long-term physical and emotional stressors because it’s easy to incorporate into your daily routine without having to rely on supplements. It’s been shown to help lower blood sugar and cholesterol,(1) can help normalize levels of thyroid hormone,(2) and can improve immune function.(3)
Try buying the powdered root to incorporate into this Stress-Busting Hot Cocoa.
This Peruvian root vegetable grows in the Andes, so you know it comes from hardy stock! It’s another one of my favorite adaptogens to use because it is so ridiculously easy to incorporate into recipes.
Maca has a sweet, caramel-like flavor and is great in desserts, baking, chocolate, healing elixirs, and smoothies.
This herb is best used in cases where sex hormone balance have been affected because it has a nourishing and modulating effect on the endocrine system through its action on the hypothalamus and pituitary glands.
These glands are basically the bosses of the whole endocrine system, so if they’re functioning optimally, it can help ensure all the other glands down the line are receiving the proper signals on how they should be functioning as well, ensuring the proper amounts and ratios of steroid and sex hormones are being released.
I drink licorice tea every day because not only is it delicious, but it also has a broad-spectrum effect on everything in the body from improved antioxidant levels to sex hormone balance in women.(6)
It can also promote a reduction in fat deposition in the liver, weight management,(7) improvement in symptoms of diabetes,(8) or supporting the health and function of the heart.(9) These conditions are all collected under the umbrella of metabolic syndrome, which can be caused by excessive inflammation, stress, and blood-sugar dysregulation.
Like most other adaptogens, it doesn’t simply focus on one system in the body, but on strengthening and supporting you from head to toe.
It has a lovely, naturally sweet taste, which makes it a perfect addition to your herbal tea repertoire.
If fatty liver, diabetes, hypertension, or weight gain are some of your main concerns, then licorice may be the perfect adaptogen to incorporate into your wellness routine.
4. Holy basil
You may have seen this herb at the store under the name of tulsi and it is another adaptogen frequently used in Ayurvedic medicine. It has a really light, delicious flavor and I combine it with my licorice tea every morning to create a supercharged herbal infusion.
Not only does holy basil support adrenal function(10) and subsequent blood sugar balance(11) in stressed out people, but it may also boost mental focus(12), improve symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder,(13) and provide your body with powerful antioxidant support.(14)
This herb is best for those whose stress manifests neurologically.
Drink 1-3 cups daily or look for it in supplement form.
5. American/Asian Ginseng
Perhaps one of the most well known adaptogens is American, or Panax, Ginseng.
It has long been celebrated for its ability to help stimulate energy production, likely thanks to its anti-oxidative properties and improvement of mitochondrial function in muscle cells.(15) The mitochondria are the engines of our cells, so anything that improves their function is going to be an excellent way to naturally boost energy.
Some research demonstrates that this herb can help protect the brain and improve cellular resistance and plasticity,(16) which leads to anti-depressant-like effects in the body.
If you find that stress is sapping your energy and taking a toll on your mood levels then Panax ginseng may be the right adaptogen for you!
6. Siberian Ginseng (Eleuthero Root)
Though it comes from a different family than Panax ginseng, Siberian ginseng has a lot of similar benefits.
One of its most potent effects on the body is how it helps improve exertion and working capacity, likely by increasing oxygen metabolism.(17)
If you are someone whose life is full of long days of hard physical work that require focus, eleuthero root may be the perfect adaptogen for you!
The next few adaptogens all have something in common: they’re powerful mushrooms!
Cordyceps helps support immune function, increase energy, improve your overall stamina, and can even help with relaxation, thereby promoting a rejuvenating night’s sleep.(20)
Getting adequate sleep is crucial to allow the body to heal and balance itself, so if you’re looking for an adaptogen to help improve your nightly Zs, try cordyceps!
Chaga is one of my favorite adaptogens because it is so readily available right in my own backyard! I’ve had fun exploring the forest with friends foraging for this medicinal mushroom on birch trees.
Much of the published literature on chaga focuses on its powerful anti-cancer effects in the body, but it also has some generalized benefits in terms of regulating the composition of the microbiome, the bacteria that live in your gut, towards a diversity of health-promoting species.(21)
It also supports the health of your digestive tract,(22) which is incredibly important because stress can cause the integrity of the gut to weaken, leading to leaky gut syndrome and a host of associated issues from auto-immunity to inflammatory skin conditions.
It also helps protect against oxidative stress, which can cause premature signs of aging.(23)
If you’re looking to support your digestive health and function then chaga may be the adaptogen for you!
One common effect of chronic stress is its impact on your blood sugar balance and regulation. Thanks to circulating levels of cortisol and underlying inflammation, those of us with more stress on our plates than we can physiologically handle may end up with pre-diabetes, blood sugar imbalances, or insulin insensitivity.
Researchers have found that maitake extract can help enhance peripheral insulin sensitivity, thereby improving glucose levels and circulating insulin.(24)
If you have been told to watch your sugars and you’ve already worked on balancing out the protein, carbs, and fats in your meals and snacks, adding maitake can be a great addition!
Many functional mushrooms have therapeutic benefits in terms of cancer treatment and reishi is no exception. However, it also does so much more!
It helps protect the liver, boost antioxidant levels, and has all-over anti-aging benefits, making it a powerful adaptogenic tonic to add to your cabinet.(25)
I mentioned above that one of the side-effects of chronic stress can be the development of leaky gut syndrome or intestinal permeability. This condition is being studied for its role in many modern issues such as autoimmune disease, eczema, arthritis, neurological dysfunction, and many more.
Current research on reishi suggests that it can help regulate intestinal barrier function(26) and help modulate inflammation in the colon(27), which is commonly found in Crohn’s and Colitis sufferers.
IBS is commonly associated with and/or caused by excessive stress, so anything to help alleviate inflammation in the gut is going to be great for sufferers.
If your stress manifests as digestive distress then consider adding reishi to your routine!
You may have noticed that mushrooms make up quite a few of the most powerful adaptogens on this list, and for good reason!
Even using this mushroom in a culinary manner can have powerful anti-inflammatory and digestive immune function, leading to an overall boost in immunity.(31)
Since you know how important digestive health is to the immune system (did you know 70-80% of your IS is located around your gut?!), adding functional mushrooms such as shiitake and reishi that support the gut(32) will give you an extra edge when it comes to fighting off illness. Supporting natural immunity is a crucial act of adaptogens as chronic stress can dampen the immune system, leaving you more susceptible to illness.
As a bonus, this mushroom is also being studied for it’s promising antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral effects in the body!(33)
You can see there is no shortage of adaptogens to choose from and you can even combine a couple of them to achieve the best results. Working with a qualified practitioner can ensure you’re taking the right amounts and types for your needs. Thanks for reading!