12 Adaptogens for Stress and Balance

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Stress is a big problem for pretty much everyone these days. You might have heard that adaptogens can help, but what are they and how do they work?

The term adaptogens might be new to you, but they’ve been around for a long time.

You’ve likely heard about taking green tea for antioxidants, ginger for an upset stomach, or garlic for its immune help, but adaptagens are known for helping your body deal with stress and achieve balance.

What are adaptogens? Adaptogens are the unsung heros of natural healing and living! Here's all you need to know on what adaptogens are and why you need these healers in your natural medicine cabinet. Plus 12 adaptogens to get started with!

I first heard about and started using adaptogens about 3 years ago when working with a new practitioner on my thyroid issues.

Linda (who wrote this post on the cause of thyroid disease) helped me to see how everything is connected and that stress can be a major cause of a cascade of issues that involve cortisol, your thyroid, and adrenals, and really your whole body.

Everything is connected.

Stress comes from many places — both external and internal.  Adaptogenic herbs can help regulate many kinds of stressors, plus they adapt both to the stressor, and also to the person taking them. As you can imagine, they can be quite helpful.

Adaptogens are getting a lot of attention these days because they can be quite useful for dealing with stress, and there is so much more stress today than in most of history.

We’re up waking up earlier, staying up later, the fast-pace of social media and technology is increasing at breakneck speed, the toll of the increase of illness on our society and families is putting more and more pressure on us to survive with stress.

It’s just all. too. much. And adaptogens are here to help.

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What Are Adaptogens?

The term “adaptogen” comes from Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, a Russian scientist) who first coined in 1947, but Isreal Brekham, PhD and Dr. I. V. Darymovhe created the formal definition in 1968. The formal definitely includes the following criteria:

1. An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient.
2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body—an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor. (Source)

In other words, adaptogens must:

  1. Be safe
  2. Work by reducing your body’s stress response
  3. Support overall health by helping the body achieve balance known as homeostasis

If you take apart the word, you can get a hint as to what adaptogens are.

“Adapt”, of course, means to change to what is going on.

Adaptogens are substances that help the body be more “normal”, or “balanced” in many arenas.

While working with the above-mentioned practitioner, I worked with 3 adaptogens, but I’ve recently been getting better acquainted with more of them and I am finding them to be fascinating.

Why Adaptogens Help with Stress (Stressed Out Plants for Stressed Out People)

Interestingly, adaptogens are mostly plants that have adapted to growing in very stressful conditions, which is what makes them so powerful.  They give their strength and adaptability to us.

For example, maca grows in a harsh climate and at a high altitude, whereas rhodiola flourishes in harsh and mountainous climates of Asia.

So, these plants have innate abilities to adapt to stress that they in turn transfer to us to help us to deal with our harsh conditions in a healthier manner.

Which brings us to a good point about sourcing adaptogens. As with essential oils, it’s important to source adaptogens grown in indigenous locations (where they grow naturally), and to source them organically and sustainably grown when possible.

If you source adaptogens outside of their indigenous location, then you might not be getting the same quality you’d get otherwise.

How Adaptogens Work

Now that you know more about the answer to the question, “What are adaptogens?”, let’s talk about how adaptogens work.

David Hoffmann, in the Herbal Handbook, clarifies how adaptogens work

….an adaptogen enables [the body] to avoid reaching a point of collapse or over-stress because it can adapt ‘around’ the problem.… The core of their action appears to be in helping the body deal with stress… Adaptogens seem to increase the threshold of resistance to damage via the support of the adrenal gland and possibly pituitary gland function. By stretching the meaning of the word it can come to mean what in the past was called a tonic. This is especially when an herb can have a normalizing effect; that is, contradictory actions depending on the body’s needs. This restorative quality is a common and unique feature of herbal medicines.…

But there is a biological function of how this happens.  Here is the technical information: (source)

The beneficial stress-protective effect of adaptogens is related to regulation of homeostasis via several mechanisms of action associated with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the control of key mediators of stress response such as molecular chaperons (e.g. Hsp70), stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK1), Forkhead Box O transcription factor DAF-16, cortisol and nitric oxide (NO).

The key point of action of phytoadaptogens appears to be their up-regulating and stress-mimetic effects on the “stress-sensor” protein Hsp70, which plays an important role in cell survival and apoptosis. Hsp70 inhibits the expression of NO synthase II gene and interacts with glucocorticoid receptors directly and via the JNK pathway, thus affecting the levels of circulating cortisol and NO. Prevention of stress-induced increase in NO, and the associated decrease in ATP production, results in increased performance and endurance. Adaptogen-induced up-regulation of Hsp70 triggers stress-induced JNK-1 and DAF-16-mediated pathways regulating the resistance to stress and resulting in enhanced mental and physical performance and, possibly, increased longevity.

Now, this is all very complicated, but what it basically means, is this.

Adaptogens protect us against stress and help us achieve balance by several means that are associated with the HPA Axis and by acting on mediators of stress response, including cortisol and nitric oxide (NO). (source)

maca and schisandra berries for post about what are adaptogens

Common Adaptogens

There are many plants that fall under the rubric of adaptogens.  Some are more commonly accepted as being adaptogens, whereas others are more “outliers.”

In future posts, I’ll cover many of these in more detail, but the following is a list of adaptogens that includes some of the most popular ones.

  • Ashwagandha: grown in bushes that are native to India
  • Eleuthero: – a small woody shrub native to Northeastern Asia
  • Holy Basil (Tulsi): Tulsi is native to the Indian subcontinent
  • Maca: Maca is native to the Andes mountains.
  • Panax Ginseng: – used for much of ancient history for health benefits.  This is different from Siberian ginseng, which has different qualities.
  • Rhodiola Rosea: a perennial flowering plant that grows in cold regions of the world, including the Artic.
  • Schisandra: a woody vine that is native to forests of Northern China and the Russian Far East
  • Astragalus comes from the root of a plant in the pea family.  Typically grown in the northern and eastern parts of China, as well as in Mongolia and Korea.
  • Licorice – a root native to Southern Europe and parts of Asia
  • Moringa – native to the sub-Himalayan areas of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan
  • Gotu kolanative to wetlands in Asia

There are many more plants that are considered to be adaptogens. I hope to touch on quite a few of these in more detail in the future.

Adaptogens can be taken individually, but often they are used in combination as they work synergistically.

My Experiences with Adaptogens & Where to Buy Them

I’ve personally used a number of adaptogens over the years.

I’ve taken Rhodiola in this tincture form for many years, and take ashwagandha and moringa on and off as well.  

I used to not think that I tolerated maca and holy basil well, but I’ve been using them again and doing well.

I definitely feel better when I add some kind of adaptogen to my daily routine.

Adaptogen Tincture Blends

This Stress Manager from Herb Pharm is a good example of an adaptogenic blend made with herbs that work synergistically together.

They also have this Adrenal Support Blend. Herb Pharm has great quality. I trust what they make.

I recommend buying organic adaptogens whenever possible.

I love The Maca Team for high quality Maca.

Powerful Mushroom Extracts and More

For mushrooms and He Shou Wu, I’ve listed options in the recipe card and in the ingredient list, but if you really want high powered mushroom extracts, I love Hyperion Herbs. They have unbelievable quality and many of their products are strong extracts, meaning they are much stronger than just regular powders.

I’ve been using their mushrooms for years, and their He Shou Wu for many more. I still have fairly dark and fairly healthy hair for my age. Maybe their He Shou Wu is part of my secret

Note that their prices are higher due to how concentrated they are, but the price is proportionate to the strength.

Yummy Recipes That Support Your Adrenals

Fudge That Helps With Stress

Aside from buying tinctures and powders, you can simply add some of these to your smoothies, desserts, and more. This Phat Fudge is loaded with adaptogens and is super delicious.

healthy fat fudge on white parchment paper with knife

Adrenal Cocktail

This Adrenal Cocktail is something I drink daily whenever I’m feeling stressed / worn out. Turmeric and cinnamon are considered to be adaptogens so you get all kinds of great support from this drink.

Portrait of adrenal cocktail in a mason jar with a slice of lemon and some slices placed on white tabletop

Adaptogenic Hot Chocolate

Try this Adaptogenic Hot Chocolate instead of your morning cuppa, or snuggle up with a cozy cup before bed.

adaptogenic hot chocolate in jar.


1.       Adaptogens are Not “One Size Fits All”: Different people might react differently to adaptogens, so take care in your use of them, just as you would with any new natural substance.

2.       Pregnancy and Breastfeeding:  There is mixed information about pregnancy and breastfeeding use about adaptogens.  I hope to touch on this more in the future.

If you’re taking immune suppressing medication (or any other medication, for that matter), please do not use adaptogens without consulting a physician about a potential herb-drug interaction.

Of course, the above concerns are very important to heed, but following is one that I think gets easily overlooked.

3.        Don’t Overdo It: The temptation in our modern day busyness would be to just take adaptogens and keep pushing through. That might work in the short run, but you need to always listen to your body.  If you end up using adaptogens as a way to keep going when your body wants you to slow down, you might end up in serious burnout.

It would be best to use adaptogens as a short term support, or perhaps long term if you are an individual that is overly sensitive to stress.  At the same time, some of their health benefits.

A Great Book About Adaptogens

This book is a fantastic resource to learn about the power of adaptogens including custom blends for all kinds of uses.

I Recommend
Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism

Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism

If you want to learn more about adaptogens, this book is a great resource including an herbal and nutritional protocol to help with stress, energy, aging, and overall health.

Learn how adaptogenic herbs work at the cellular level to boost energy and reduce inflammation, and get access to the author's custom blends for the immune, cardiovascular, and hormonal system, as well as brain health and more.

Regardless of how you use them, I hope you look into them more and see what these powerful, health-giving adaptogens can do for you.

Have you heard of adaptogens before?
Have you used any adaptogens?

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  1. I saw an advertisement claiming some adaptogens will help men with BPE (Benign Prostate Enlargement) is there any factual evidence to support that claim and what would be the specific adaptogens to target the condition of BPE in older males?

    1. Hi there. Sorry I haven’t heard that and I can’t give medical advice. I do have an adaptogen recipe coming soon, though, so stay tuned!