What are adaptogenic herbs?
Adaptogenic herbs are a superior class of herbal substances derived from plants, fungi and minerals that have been utilized within many systems of medicine including Indian Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years. (1-3)
The emersion of these powerful substances in the West arose when the USSR began searching for a competitive and strategic advantage for their soldiers and Olympians athletes. They began studies and exploring herbal tonics that would possess an individual with superior physical and mental qualities.
That’s when they discovered Eleuthero root.
Eleuthero root was found to possess many similar qualities to Asian Ginseng including the enhancement of stamina, endurance, cognition, recovery and increased energy.
At this time, adaptogenic herbs began to migrate from traditional medicine systems into the Western world of herbalism (Naturopathy) and eventually, biohacking. (1-3).
Prior to the rise of modern medicine as we know it today, herbal medicine was the reliant healing modalities in ancient times. Herbal medicine is largely the foundation of all modern-day medicine.
Indian Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine are the oldest documented and most comprehensive medicine systems to exist in the world today. These herbs play a pivotal role in the understanding of these advanced medicine systems.
What do adaptogenic herbs do? They help the body to adapt – literally.
Adaptogenic herbs work to support the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis), buffer the physiological stress response, preserve cortisol and decrease inflammation and imbalances caused by chronic stress.
Their intelligence also work to bring the body closer to equilibrium and homeostasis. Adaptogenic herbs help us find balance by up-regulating or down-regulating vital systems in the body depending on what it needs in that current state of health.
They also work as everyday tonics, long term superfoods that strengthen multiple systems in the body in a non-specific way (meaning they offer more than one benefit).
Overall, these herbs really are key to thriving in this fast-paced modern-day world, supporting, nourishing and protecting us in a multifaceted way.
What is an adaptogenic herb?
Adaptogenic herbs are yet to be accepted into the world of allopathic medicine, although the term “adaptogen” is a name coined by science since these substances are unable to be standardized or controlled like a pharmaceutical drug.
Mother Nature varies in properties and amounts, in appearance, potency and size - because that’s how nature works. We cannot control it (5).
However, it’s worth noting that 25% of today’s pharmaceuticals are derived from plants that were first used in herbal medicine (3). For example, Aspirin is derived from salicin, a compound isolated from the White Willow plant (4).
To be classified as a true adaptogen, the properties of the plant, fungi or minerals must exhibit these key beneficial functions;
In ancient times, adaptogenic herbs were traditionally only reserved for the wealthy and regal families of advanced societies. Their consumption was often associated with longevity, youthfulness, restoration and fertility.
Over 2000 years ago (BCE), the emperors of China revered Reishi mushroom and Ginseng so much that it was a capital offense to possess these longevity tonics if you were not connected to the Chinese royal family (5).
It was thought that leaders wanted to ensure that they would live long, be strong, healthy, and become more effective rulers of their dynasties.
Many traditional and ancient medicine recordings were passed down orally and not through written documentation. However, the utilization of adaptogenic herbs goes back even further to Ancient Egypt and papyruses found documenting the use of herbs to treat every day illnesses such as digestive upset (6).
In India, around 200 BCE, it was recorded in the Charaka Samhita (Sanskrit text on Ayurveda), the identification of key herbs–Amla, Holy Basil and Shilajit as potent medicines used to restore balance and wellbeing (5).
Knowledge of these potent tonics then expanded throughout the globe in Ancient Greek writings recording the medicinal application of Rhodiola and Licorice root, amongst many other medicinal plants chronicled in the Materia Medica (5).
The use of Chaga mushroom was also described by The Khanty People of West Siberia 1000 years ago and Rhodiola was consumed by the Vikings to enhance physical and mental strength (5, 8).
Mother nature has always provided us with natural medicines through the abundance of plants and fungi available to us. However, with the rise of the patriarchy era and modern Western medicine, much of this plant wisdom and knowledge was discounted and rejected.
With the wave of modern and Western medicine as we know it, adaptogenic herbs began being used as “alternative” modes of healing; such as TCM, naturopathy and functional medicine.
The conversion of eastern philosophy and medicine to western medicine has seen a rise in popularity and controlled study into the benefits of these tonics. Modern studies have discovered many extensive health benefits and applications which are still being understood by the scientific community (7).
The popularity and resurgence of these powerful herbs in today’s society is impressive. Through the 1920’s-60’s there was a “Herbal Dark Ages” of sorts, in which, there was very little use (if any) of these tonics in the West, particularly USA, Canada, UK and Australia (3).
Adaptogens popped onto the radar in the West around the time of the Second World War by the USSR (1938-1945).
The USSR was motivated to discover herbal tonic substances that would rival that of Chinese Ginseng. They expressed desire to improve the stamina, endurance and energy levels of important key figures and personnel in their culture. Essentially, they wanted to create superhumans that could dominate in all areas of life such as the military, athletics, science and politics (2, 8).
The USSR recruited scientists Nikolai Lazarev and Israel Brekhman to lead the search to discover new adaptogenic substances.
Nikolai Lazarev coined the term "adaptogen" and also noted the first modern recording of Schisandra berry within military journals. Later, during the 1960’s Israel Brekhman discovered Eleuthero root. Previous to this, adaptogenic herbs would have been categorized as “tonic herbs” that restore and tone specific organs within the body (3).
Further interest continued with studies and researching different herbal substances to learn how their application could be further utilised within the military and athletic world. The lead to Rhodiola studies and documentation throughout the 1970’s (8, 10).
These pioneering individuals gave adaptogenic herbs a definition and explanation of how they work and can enhance the body; in western terms and within branches of pharmacology, phytochemistry, pharmacognosy, phytomedicinal and nutraceuticals (7).
With the rise of the internet, supplementation and eastern philosophies of healing and medicine have migrated to the West much faster. Today, adaptogens are on the scene; and they’re only going to get bigger and more common place (7).
The research studies and effects of adaptogens demonstrate numerous health benefits, navigating the necessary requirements of every individual.
As their name implies, they are very good at helping the body adapt dual-directionally.
For example, an individual suffering with health problems such as chronic fatigue and exhaustion, consuming these herbs will nourish and support the adrenals, and increase energy.
For an individual who is wired, over-stimulated and flighty, these herbs help calm the central nervous system, preserve cortisol and bring the individual back to a more balanced state.
Adaptogenic herbs work in three specific ways;
It’s almost hard to define these powerful herbal substances because they truly are other-worldly and contain so many unique and combined benefits that work to improve our resiliency.
When it comes to a person that is suffering from adrenal fatigue, using adaptogens in fatigue conditions can be highly beneficial for that individual.
There are many reasons for fatigue but adaptogenic herbs work to restore balance to the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal).
Stress is a perceived threat, whether it be an argument with a partner, a deadline, running late to work, toxic plastics in our water, internal inflammation, allergies – all these stressors register to the physical body as a threat.
This threat is then processed by the brain, signalling the hypothalamus to released CRTH – corticotropin releasing hormone. CRTH signals the pituitary gland to release ACTH – adrenocorticotropic hormone, which signals the adrenal cortex to release cortisol and the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline and noradrenaline. This cycle puts the body activates the sympathetic nervous system, that fight of flight response.
These tonics work on this communication pathway, alleviating the communication from our brain to our adrenals, preserving cortisol – our anti-stress hormone – along with adrenaline and noradrenaline which decrease that fight-or-flight activation.
When the body is constantly exposed to cortisol, over time, we become adrenally fatigued. The role of cortisol is to actually shut off the stress response that we typically only experienced acutely, not chronically like we do in modern day life.
The best adaptogenic herbs for adrenal fatigue include; Ashwagandha root, Schisandra berry, Eleuthero root, Asian Ginseng, Astragalus, Holy Basil, Cordyceps mushroom and Reishi Mushroom.
The stress protective activity of adaptogens work to relieve stress by increasing resilience, making the body more robust, adaptable and less “sensitive” to perceived threats and stressors.
Stress relief also plays back into adrenal fatigue. If we alleviate the original stressor and “threat” that is perceived, the entire stress cascade can be minimized or disabled.
Many stressors can be caused by stress induced activities or lifestyle. However, chronic stress can also be biological, for example, imbalanced blood glucose, invading viruses and bacteria and gut inflammation.
Use the best stress adaptogens like Shilajit, Astragalus root and Licorice root work to nourish the liver and pancreas, support immune function and gut health, thus, aiding in decreasing additional stressors that may occur internally.
Adaptogenic herbs work beautifully on restoring balance to the sex hormones to help restore hormonal balance.
Hormones are metabolized through the liver. Herbs such as Schisandra berry and He Shou Wu (prepared root) are hepatoprotective and hepatorestorative, meaning they restore and support hepatocytes (liver cells) which help improve hormone metabolism and balance (3).
Stress has a major impact on hormone levels being a key driver in decreased sex drive, infertility and hormone imbalances. These herbs thereby buffer stress and help to restore hormone levels.
Traditionally, the best adaptogenic herbs for hormonal balance are Cordyceps mushroom, Shatavari, Asian Ginseng and He Shou Wu have been used for centuries to improve hormonal balance and reproductive function.
Now that we’ve discussed the history of adaptogens and some important health benefits, let’s dive into some of the most revered and popular adaptogenic herbs list:
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has a long history of us in Ayurvedic medicine for over 4,000 years.
Ashwagandha translates to “the smell and strength of a horse”, hinting at its ability to improve strength, stamina and endurance. Somnifera in Latin means “sleep-inducing” conveying the ability of Ashwagandha to support sleep and promote recovery (3).
The health benefits of Ashwagandha root include:
Panax Ginseng, also known as Asian ginseng, was first recorded in the Chui Zhang – the Chinese depiction of the creation story.
Throughout Japan, Korea and China, it was a cherished herb that strengthened the Qi (life force) of those who took it. In TCM, it strengthens the spleen, kidneys, stomach and supports the lungs (15).
The health benefits of Asian Ginseng also include:
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) has a long history of promoting longevity and good health within Eastern cultures–China, Japan and other Asian countries.
Ling Zhi, the Chinese name for Reishi mushroom, translates to spiritual potency, immortality and divine power–linking Reishi to ancient Taoism ideologies.
Reishi mushroom extract is also a potent spirit tonic (Shen), promotes calmness, grounding and mental wellbeing.
The health benefits of Reishi mushroom also includes:
Learn about all you need to know about medicinal mushrooms.
Rhodiola rosea is native to Siberia and mountain ranges in northwest China.
Throughout history, the Chinese sent expeditions to Siberia to cultivate and bring back Rhodiola, nicknaming it “the golden root”. In TCM, Rhodiola strengthens and nourishes the Lung and Heart meridians and replenishes Qi.
The health benefits of Rhodiola rosea also include:
Schizandra berry (Schisandra chinensis) has been valued as a beauty and youth tonic for centuries and was said to “calm the heart and quiet the spirit”.
In TCM, Schisandra nourishes all five organ systems, boosts the three treasures; Jing (essence), Qi (vital energy), Shen (spirit) and enters all twelve meridians within the body.
The health benefits of Schizandra berry also include:
Cordyceps mushroom (Cordyceps sinensis) was the infamous adaptogen utilized by the 1993 Chinese national track and field team that helped them break many long-held world records.
It was later discovered that the coach was supplementing their athletes with a special formula where the main ingredient was Cordyceps mushroom to help improve their performance, energy, stamina and recovery.
Cordyceps was also first mentioned in the Chinese literature in 1767 and traditionally is gathered up in the Himalayan mountains in Tibet.
Cordyceps is also contemporarily known as “Cordysex” for its potent benefits as a natural aphrodisiac and fertility enhancer.
The health benefits of Cordyceps Mushroom also include:
Eleuthero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also known as Siberian Ginseng was discovered when Asian Ginseng was overharvested in China due to its high demand and difficulty to find in the wild.
In TCM, Eleuthero supports the three treasures; Jing (essence) Qi (vital energy), Shen (spirit), and is powerful at improving energy, stamina and buffering stress.
The health benefits of Eleuthero root also include:
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum), also known as Tulsi, is one of the most sacred herbs in India and Ayurvedic medicine.
Tulsi has a rich history rooted in Hinduism religion and mythology. It has been used for thousands of years in ancient Greece, Roman and Siddah medicine systems.
Tulsi is described in ancient texts as “the incomparable one” and is a symbol of fidelity, being helpful in attaining spiritual enlightenment.
Tulsi is an epic stress coping adaptogen and a potent antioxidant that helps protect the body from the harmful effects of stress. It’s also antimicrobial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory.
Tulsi is commonly used as a tea and has been shown to support immune system function, liver, promote longevity and nourish the mind.
Amla is an ancient Ayurvedic adaptogenic fruit, very rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, and often touted as a “beauty tonic” supporting the healthy creation of collagen.
A Hindu legend tells the story of two goddesses; Lakshmi and Parvati, cried tears of joy and their tears grew the first Amalaki tree.
Amla is considered a sacred tonic in Hindu practice, one that prolongs life, memory and youthfulness (2).
The health benefits of Amla also include:
Shilajit is very unique adaptogen in that it’s a black tar-like substance that exudes from rocks at high altitudes in the Himalayan mountains.
Shilajit is super rich in trace minerals that come from the earth and organic acids such as humic and fulvic acids that act like cell food supporting optimal function of all our organs (2).
The health benefits of Shilajit also include:
Licorice root is widely used within the West, both as a tea and as a functional medicinal herb.
Licorice root dates back to Ancient Greece with early documentation stating the root was used to treat dry coughs, sore throats and respiratory disease. (2)
Its name translates in ancient Greek to “sweet root” which, like all great Qi tonics, it is.
The health benefits of Licorice root also include:
Researcher and expert David Winston gives the analogy of how these herbs may act similar to vaccines.
A vaccine triggers the body how to recognize a virus and similarly, the intelligence of these herbs teach the body the appropriate and effective way to respond to stress. Ultimately, dampening the negative wearing down effects of chronic stress.
Stacking on top of their three key characteristics, each adaptogen has a unique function in how it fits into our body and benefits us; acting upon numerous biochemical pathways and systems – which is what makes them so fascinating, not only in a scientific way but also a philosophical way.
Adaptogenic herbs are Mother Nature’s antidote to chaos and stress. The circumstances and conditions in which adaptogens grow are poetic and metaphorical to say the least, facing and overcoming the harshest conditions and climates. For example, Rhodiola grows on the tops of mountains on harsh and windy cliff faces.
The incredible fact that tonics such as Reishi mushroom have unique receptor sites on our cells that only bind with the beta-glucans of Reishi mushroom - really conveys that we are intrinsically linked with nature and its medicine.
Their benefits also work their magic by either up-regulating or down-regulating the body’s own chemical, physical and biological levels depending on what is required.
For example, if you’re too high and too stimulated, these herbs will work to calm your nervous system and bring you closer back to balance (homeostasis).
And the opposite is true, if you’re too low, tired and sedated, it will bring you up closer to balance.
Some of these herbs are stimulating or calming depending on why you need them, which is also super cool. Certain are great if you’re already healthy and thriving enabling you to stay at such a high level of living.
Other herbs are also great if you’re depleted and worn down. They help build you back up to a healthy and functional level.
With the growing popularity of adaptogens increasing year on year in the West, the term “adaptogen” has become a buzz word for savvy marketers looking to capitalise on this fast-growing trend.
As a result, many foods and herbs are incorrectly classified as “true” adaptogens misleading consumers alike.
To date, there are less than thirty “true” herbs that have been discovered that possess the true qualities and beneficial properties of an adaptogen.
The most common list of adaptogenic herbs in the market today are Ashwagandha, Asian Ginseng, Rhodiola rosea, Reishi mushroom, Schizandra berry, Eleuthero root, Cordyceps mushroom, Holy Basil (Tulsi), Astragalus root, American Ginseng, Shilajit, Amla, Jiaogulan (Gynostemma), Shatavari, He Shou Wu, Licorice root and Turmeric (mild adaptogen).
Turmeric is a mild adaptogen and contains plant sterols that offer potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been used for centuries (over 4000 years to be more precise) within Ayurvedic medicine and as a staple spice and adaptogenic tea in Indian cuisine and culture.
It was originally documented to be an antidote to food poisoning, treatment for sprains and swelling and as a digestive bitter. Turmeric may also open up blood vessels, improve blood circulation and strengthen the overall energy of the body.
The health benefits of Turmeric also include:
The best adaptogenic herbs are intended to be taken every day for extended periods of time, safe to consume over the long term to restore a healthy, harmonious and thriving body.
These potent tonics will help you regain homeostasis (balance), and so, the more imbalance occurring within your body, the greater the effect of the adaptogen, and the more you will “feel” and experience its benefits (2).
For individuals less sensitive, you may no longer “feel” the effects of the herb(s) after a few weeks but that does not mean it isn’t working to benefit your health further.
This can be a difficult construct for impatient Westerners to adopt.
A fast-paced Western mind tends to want an immediate fix or short-term solution for everything. We desire immediate results and health benefits we can “feel” instantaneously so we can get on with our life.
However, with consistent long-term use, these herbs work to enhance the functionality and strength of the body continually to restore excellent health and bring you back to balance.
So, if you’re taking any of these herbs and you’ve noticed after a few days or weeks the “effect” has worn off, don’t lose faith or belief that it’s stopped working.
These herbs have such a wide application and versatility when it comes to improving health, wellbeing, vitality and longevity.
The best adaptogenic herbs are one of mother nature’s biggest assets to living in today’s society, with the ever growing and ever-present amount of stress in our lives, they serve to lighten the burden and reduce the negative implications that stress has on our body, mind and spirit.
They aim to rebalance disharmonies within our body which is what makes them so powerful and advantageous. They are actually healing the underlying causes of your symptoms, dis-ease and ill feels (which is what the body truly needs, not only a pharmaceutical band aid solution).
I personally encourage all of us to take this list of adaptogenic herbs and begin using 1-2 of these herbs in your life.
We, just like Mother Nature operate in seasons and cycles. During certain seasons and phases, we face harsh conditions and need additional support and help to thrive.
These herbs help the body thrive and adapt year round in all situations and circumstances.
We’re so lucky to live in a period of time where we have access to all these highly revered and valuable herbs to promote excellent life-long health.
I’ve experienced first-hand the powerful advantages and effects that these beneficial Teelixir tonics can have in supporting us throughout our life phases, enabling us to inch closer to thriving in this world.
Eliza is a health, mindset and abundance enthusiast obsessed with helping millennial's experience living at a higher level.
Her relaxed new age approach and understanding of nutrition and wellness sees her empowering and coaching individuals to understand that their health is the ultimate asset. Upon experiencing first hand the power and place of tonic herbalism and medicinal mushrooms in everyday life, Eliza’s become an adaptogen fangirl and feels their utilisation in today’s world is essential for abundance and wellbeing.