Adaptogens: What They Are + How They Benefit Your Health

If you’re feeling stressed out or depleted, plant adaptogens can help strengthen your endocrine system and restore overall balance to your body.

“At the most basic level, an adaptogen is an herb that helps the body adapt to a wide variety of stressors, be it psychological, physiological, noise, temperature,” says David Winston, RH (AHG), herbalist and author of Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief. “You can’t get anything from the pharmacy that does this unless you’re buying an adaptogen because, within orthodox medicine, there’s nothing that does this.”

Unlike pharmaceutical drugs that target specific ailments, adaptogens produce a nonspecific response to physical and mental stress and normalize the overall physiology in the body. Although adaptogens, such as ginseng and ashwagandha, have been used successfully for thousands of years in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, modern research of adaptogens began in the late 1940s.

These healing herbs work by re-regulating the hypothalamicpituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the master control system for endocrine function, the nervous system and immune function.

Recent research suggests that adaptogens may also combat stress on a cellular level. Only about a dozen herbs have been officially classified as adaptogens; however, due to limited clinical studies, many are still being evaluated as possible adaptogens.

“Adaptogens are not a one-size- fits-all,” Winston says. Some adaptogens are stimulating and warming, such as red Asian ginseng, while others, like ashwagandha, have a calming effect.

If you’re unsure which adaptogen is best for you, consult an herbalist or a naturopathic physician. You can search for a clinical herbalist in your area on Before taking adaptogens, talk to your doctor about potential interactions with any drugs you are currently taking.

Easy-to-Find Adaptogens

Although adaptogens can be used by anyone at any age, below are a few of Winston’s general recommendations. Look for these powerful herbs at your local health food grocery store.

  • American Ginseng– For those who feel a little fatigued and catch colds easily (suggested age group is 45 to 60)
  • White Ginseng– For those with very depleted energy and who feel cold most of the time (suggested age group is 55 to 70)
  • Red Ginseng– For those who are especially deficient (suggested age group is 70 and older)
  • Ashwagandha– For those who feel anxious or are suffering from stress-induced insomnia or muscle pain
  • Eleuthero– For those who are stressed out, low on sleep and nutrition, and working long hours (suggested age group is teens and 20s to 30s)
  • Rhodiola– For those in a depressed mental state, fatigued or feeling unfocused (suggested age group is 20s to 40s)
  • Schisandra– Dual effect on nervous system: calming but increases focus and concentration. Also helps relieve anxiety and stress-induced asthma due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
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