There’s a lot of things out there that promise to make you feel, look, and perform your best—and even keep you living longer. Lately, one of the terms on that list has been something called an “adaptogen.” But what are adaptogens? They’re not a magic pill, but rather a class of herbs and mushrooms with a wealth of anti-inflammatory and anti-stress benefits. They have esoteric names—things like lion’s mane, ashwagandha, rhodiola and chaga—and products have popped up on shelves of health food stores everywhere. Getting your hands on these allegedly life-changing supplements has never been easier (or tastier) thanks to smoothie packets, teas and coffees or even baked goods that turn earthy funghi into delectable good-for-you snacks. But are they really all they’re cracked up to be?
At the most basic level, adaptogens are the umbrella term for fungi and plant-derived compounds that help the body adapt to stress. If it sounds a little out-there, it’s actually not so far-fetched after all.
The thing about wellness trends is that the science backing them up is often murky. Such was the case for a while with adaptogens. Though they’ve been used for centuries in Eastern medicine in China and Ayurvedic traditions, their case in the Western counterpart has remained largely unproven beyond anecdotal evidence. Recently, though, a growing body of science has emerged that’s beginning to both validate the claims around adaptogens and explain the physiological mechanisms behind them, making them a useful clinical intervention.
To understand how adaptogens work, we must first understand how stress works.
Researchers agree that our bodies today are existing in a prolonged state of stress, says Dawn Jacobson, MD , a doctor at Parsley Health San Francisco who specializes in preventive and integrative medicine. In addition to the kind of anxiety that comes with office deadlines, packed schedules, and feeling overextended, there’s also stress at the most basic physiological levels. Stressors like sleep deprivation, sedentary workplace environments, and exposure to toxins through our food and environment can have both short- and long-term impacts on our physical and emotional wellbeing.
One of the major ways psychological and physical stress impacts us is through the stress hormone, cortisol . “Our bodies don’t have a way to get the stress out of our body, so cortisol is being released long term. When that happens, certain systems like our adrenal glands —which control a lot of our hormone response and basic functionality—stop being effective,” Jacobson explains. “At any given moment, they’re either over-producing cortisol in order to keep revving at a high level when we otherwise shouldn’t be, or they’re in a depletion stage, where they aren’t producing nearly enough.”
Our bodies’ responses to everyday toxins and stressors are largely governed by a central stress response system, known as the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis or HPA axis. It’s responsible for connecting our brain to our hormone system which, in turn, impacts everything from mood and energy to metabolism, immunity, and sex drive, Jacobson says. If those are unbalanced, our most basic systems like adrenal function, thyroid and more can be compromised.
That’s where adaptogens can help. “They’re very aptly named because they literally adapt to what your body needs,” according to Jacobson. Adaptogens help your body, through the HPA axis, stabilize your existing cortisol levels and regulate their production. Essentially, they help teach your body how to reach equilibrium again. “It doesn’t take away the stress response,” Jacobson notes. But it will act on the cortisol curve—how your cortisol naturally undulates throughout the day—and help it recalibrate so that it better supports your body in a way that more closely mimics your true biological needs.
“If your body is revved up, the right adaptogenic herb blend will help bring your cortisol curve down. If it’s too low and you’re depleted, you would take a different blend or a different dose and bring the energy bank back up,” she says.
“Some of their greatest power is that they don’t just impact one organ, they have the ability to affect multiple or an entire system,” Jacobson explains. In doing so, they help the body to balance itself and support a broad range of natural functionalities like cognition, mood, thyroid and adrenal health, memory, and stress relief.
As research continues to grow, so does the list of adaptogens that could have a positive impact. Below, though, are some of the most common, which means they’re scientifically backed—with tests on human subjects—and relatively easy to find in a store near you.
This mushroom derivative is gaining traction as an herbal alternative to traditionally prescribed antidepressants for its anecdotal power in addressing symptoms often associated with mild or moderate depression. A study from the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry showed rhodiola’s effectiveness in mitigating signs of depression as well as improving insomnia and emotional instability. It’s especially useful in the morning for those who have a hard time getting out of bed, Jacobson says. She recommends trying it out in the morning if you’re a person who just can’t get going.
“Of all the adaptogens, this is the one that’s going to even things out. It’s not going to boost your energy, but it will help you calm and rest,” Jacobson says. Ashwagandha has been shown to substantially reduce cortisol levels, placate anxiety, and alleviate symptoms in those with chronic stress conditions. In a 2019 study , adults who self-identified as “stressed out” took a daily dose of ashwagandha for 60 days. Afterwards, their morning cortisol levels — the best indicator of your body’s steady state — had dropped as had their perceived anxiety, stress and depression metrics. Other ashwagandha benefits include aiding memory, and it’s in the early stages of being tested as a possible alternative treatment for dementia. “We’re beginning to see that it can cross the blood barrier to impact brain chemistry,” Jacobson says.
This powerful mushroom has been shown to reduce internal oxidative stress—basically the damage caused to your cells by free radicals in environmental toxins—by as much as 55 percent . Keeping oxidative stress levels low protects our bodies against a host of inflammation -related health issues like IBS, arthritis, heart disease, and much more.
“Technically, we’re supposed to rise with the sun and go to bed with the sun,” according to Jacobson. “We’re chronically living a non-solar life, and we’re starting to see the effects of that.” Something like ginseng can help adjust those less-than-optimal cortisol curves. Jacobson recommends it for those who have low energy or can’t wake up refreshed.
Adaptogens are also becoming popular within the circle of endurance athletics. This year, a study from Nutrients put two groups of sedentary twenty-somethings through identical eight-week exercise regimens, but gave rhodiola supplements to just one of the groups. While both groups saw improvements in their endurance capacity and comparable reduction in oxidative stress markers, those who took the supplements saw significant improvement in body composition—lower body fat percentage and increased muscle mass—which could lead to performance gains over time.
Cordyceps blends are quickly becoming the darling of the sports world, thanks to a number of studies showing it increases “breathing threshold” and endurance as well as boosts resistance to high intensity exercise. A 2015 study showed participants who regularly supplemented with cordyceps took longer to get tired during rigorous efforts and had a greater VO2 max.
According to Jacobson, the first and most important thing to note is that for real clinical benefits of adaptogens, it’s crucial to work with the help of a practitioner who is trained in integrative, functional, or herbal medicine. Jacobson, who received herbal training through the University of Arizona Integrative Medicine fellowship, says this is especially important if you’re on prescriptions that could impact some of the systems targeted by adaptogens—things like thyroid medication, birth control , etc.
“These are potent, and you need to be careful,” Jacobson cautions. “If you’re going to do it alone, you need to treat it as if you were on a new medication. Track things like heart rate, stools, or a skin rash.”
A clinician will assist you in dosing at different times of day—crucial to figuring how to address the ebbs and flows in your cortisol curves—as well as experimenting with various blends.
If you are going to try it alone, Jacobson says you need to try for at least three months to know if they’re working. Adaptogens are not fast-acting and have a more subtle effect. “These don’t work like medicines. While you might feel a little better in two weeks, the therapeutic arc is different, and you need to wait at least three months to really know if you’re addressing the core issue,” she says.
Carly Graf is a San Francisco-based journalist with experience covering health, fitness, social justice, and human rights. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a graduate degree and a focus in social justice reporting. Her work has been published in the Chicago Reader, YES!, South Side Weekly, and Social Justice News Nexus, Outside Magazine, and Shape. When she's not reporting, she's almost certainly running or playing in the mountains with her dog, Chaco (yes, like the sandal).