What Are Adaptogens and How Can They Help You Manage Stress?

by Edie Horstman

Adaptogens as Healing Herbs

More than just a buzzword in the wellness world, adaptogens are powerful healing herbs. Whether part of a meal, consumed as supplements or brewed into teas, adaptogens support healthy responses to a variety of stressors—whether physical, chemical or biological. Essentially, these non-toxic plants help to balance, restore and protect the body.

While the concept of medicinal plants has been around for thousands of years, "adaptogen" is a modern term, used to describe their therapeutic properties since the 1940s. Many of the herbs that we consider adaptogens were first used in Ayurveda (the traditional system of herbalism in India) and in traditional Chinese medicine. Used regularly, these herbs can improve the body’s ability both to respond to—and recover from—chronic and acute stress. Adaptogenic herbs normalize physiological functions and restore homeostasis.

How Do Adaptogens Work?

At a molecular level, adaptogens work their magic by helping to regulate the hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal glands. In other words, adaptogens target areas of the body involved in stress response. Typically, when our bodies are stressed and cortisol levels rise, we go through three stages of stress: an alarm phase, a resistance phase and finally an exhaustion phase. As we encounter a stressor, our body responds by releasing certain hormones, such as adrenaline. During this stage, we feel energized and clear-headed, thanks to the body’s natural boost that helps us to fight off the stressor.

As we fatigue, we enter the exhaustion phase. With the support of adaptogens, however, the body is able to prolong the sweet spot—the phase of resistance. These healing herbs allow us to resist stressors for a longer period of time. Research indicates that adaptogens have several other effects on the body, too, such as improving cognition. But overall, adaptogens work as stimulants of the central nervous system.

What Herbs Are Commonly Classified as Adaptogens?

Each stress-fighting super herb works in a unique way. And while more research is needed to understand the mechanisms behind these effects, the use of adaptogenic herbs is on the rise. For weak hair, poor complexion or brittle nails, pearl, chaga and cordyceps are helpful herbs. Pearl, the adaptogen of the sea, is a great source of amino acids to help nourish hair, skin and nails. Chaga, a superfood mushroom, is chock-full of antioxidants that help fight free radicals, keeping skin youthful. In addition to chaga, cordyceps is another anti-aging adaptogen. Not only does this mushroom increase antioxidant levels but it helps decrease inflammation.

For hormone balance and low sex drive, cordyceps, ashwagandha and licorice root are beneficial. In addition to its anti-aging properties, cordyceps help increase energy and stamina. Ashwagandha is known as the ultimate cortisol balancer, as it supports the brain-adrenal (HPA) axis. This herb is also a powerful ally to the thyroid. Licorice root, just like ashwagandha, helps to heal adrenal fatigue by balancing cortisol levels. For low libido, he shou wu increases sex drive and has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine.

Adaptogens for Stress Management

When it comes to managing stress, rhodiola is great for people with adrenal fatigue. This herb is commonly used for increasing energy, endurance, strength and mental capacity. Mucuna pruriens is a bean extract, packed with L-DOPA, the precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Think of mucuna pruriens as nature’s chill pill. And because ashwagandha has the ability to help regulate cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, it is a powerful herb to have on hand.

Edie Horstman is a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, wellness blogger and freelance writer. She works with health-focused brands, co-creating content in the digital marketing space. She lives in Denver, Colorado.