The Ultimate Guide To Adaptogens

The Ultimate Guide To Adaptogens

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are the wellness industry’s latest buzzword - adaptogenic lattes are popping up in salad bars and blends are finding their home on the shelves of apothecaries. Some adaptogens like ashwagandha, can be taken in a powdered form. While others, like Lion’s Mane mushroom, can be a nice dinnertime side dish. So, what are they?

Adaptogens are a category of herbs and mushrooms that help balance your body’s reaction to stress by modulating it’s hormonal and physiological functions. Adaptogens improve adrenal function, protect you from disease, boost immune function and improve overall well-being (Pannossian and Wickman, 2010). Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, says that “adaptogens help your body handle stress. They’re meant to bring us back to the middle.” Herbs and mushrooms such as reishi mushroom, ashwagandha, and eleuthero root have been used for centuries by Traditional Chinese Medicine and Aruveydic healing traditions for their adaptogenic properties.


“adaptogens help your body handle stress. They’re meant to bring us back to the middle.”

- Dr. Brenda Powell, Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medidine, Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute


In order to be defined as an adaptogen, an herb or mushroom must meet the following criteria:

  1. Help the body resist a stress response in a non-specific way + help the body resist a broad spectrum of stressors. This can include physical, chemical, or biological stress. Let’s say you’re a famous sprinter, like Usain Bolt, and you spend several hours training every single day. While exercising, lactic acid builds up in your muscles, causing muscle fatigue and post-exercise muscle soreness - so you might not exercise for as long as you want. But if you take an adaptogen like cordyceps sinensis, you may be able to delay that muscle fatigue because your body would experience enhanced oxygen utilization and blood flow (i.e the lactic acid is cleared from your muscles quicker) (Adam and Welch, 1980). Not to mention your body will be feeling all sorts of other effects like enhanced immune regulation and less inflammation (Hardeep and Sharma, 2014). So, while cordyceps can help with physical stressors like muscle fatigue, it can also help with biological stressors by enhancing immune protection. See how multi-talented adaptogens can be?
  2. Maintain homeostasis in humans. Not familiar with the term ‘homeostasis’? Not a problem. Homeostasis means keeping the body at a relatively steady equilibrium. For instance, if you start a new job where you have to go to long, stressful meetings and you don’t get much sleep as you should, you’ll find that your adrenal gland is secreting a lot more cortisol than it used to. In other words, you’re stressed out! Starting that new job has knocked you out of equilibrium and, as a person with sudden external stress, you are more susceptible to stress-induced disorders such as gastric ulcers, weight gain, and migraines. To qualify as an adaptogen, an herb or mushroom must help your body resist stress-induced disorders like this.
  3. Must not harm the body. An adaptogen cannot have any side effects, or do anything that might mess with your body’s normal functions.

Further Reading + References:

Types of Adaptogens

Yance, an herbal doctor who wrote a book entitled “Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism,” divided adaptogens into three categories based on his clinical experience: primary adaptogens, secondary adaptogens, and adaptogen companions (Yance, 2000).

  1. Primary Adaptogens  satisfy all 3 requirements needed to be an adaptogen. In other words, there is abundant scientific research confirming their adaptogenic properties such as the ability to help the body resist a stress response in a non-specific way and the ability to help the body maintain homeostasis. Primary adaptogens directly influence the hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary (HPA) axis in response to stress. Haven’t heard of the HPA axis? Don’t worry, we will go into that below. Just know for now that primary adaptogens can influence it directly.
  2. Secondary Adaptogens meet the traditional definition of being an adaptogen but don’t quite meet all three criteria. Unlike primary adaptogens, they don’t influence the HPA axis directly. However, they do influence the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. They also don’t have as extensive of scientific studies backing their properties as primary adaptogens.
  3. Adaptogen Companions don’t satisfy all of the traditional rules to actually be an adaptogen, but they do have positive effects on the HPA axis and work to support the functions of primary and secondary adaptogens. In other words, adaptogen companions work synergistically with adaptogens in order to improve the effects that they have.

Ok, now what’s the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis?

Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis. Can you say it 10 times fast? It’s quite a mouthful to say, but this axis plays an important role in your stress response. The communication between these three glands also regulate many body processes, such as digestion, mood, the immune system, emotions, sexuality, and energy levels.

You can think of the HPA axis as the intricate conversation between your brain and your hormonal system. Namely, the HPA axis contains 3 hormone secreting glands from your nervous and endocrine system: the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. The hypothalamus sits just above the brainstem, and controls the release of hormones to the pituitary gland. In turn, the pituitary gland controls the release of hormones to the bloodstream, which can reach several targets. In this case, we want to focus on how hormones from the pituitary gland travel down through the bloodstream, reach the kidneys, and then affect the secretion of hormones from the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys.

Alright, so let’s take a look at the diagram above. You can see that, once triggered by a stressful event, the hypothalamus releases CRH (Corticotropin Releasing Hormone) to the pituitary gland. Then, the pituitary gland releases ATCH (Adrenocorticotropic Hormone) into the bloodstream, some of which finds its way to the adrenal glands above the kidneys. The adrenals then release cortisol.

Further Reading + References:

Adaptogens and Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenals are the glands of stress, and control your body’s response to each kind of stress, including physical, emotional, mental and biochemical. Adrenal fatigue occurs when someone undergoes chronic stress or one highly stressful event. When your adrenals cannot “catch up” and secrete enough hormones to meet the demands of the constant level of stress your body is under, adrenal fatigue arises. However, let’s say that your adrenal glands are able to ‘keep up’ and secrete enough cortisol in reaction to the amount of stress your body is under. Instead of adrenal fatigue, you may experience metabolic syndrome, and it’s various effects such as suppressed immune and inflammatory responses may appear (Liao et al, 2018).

Top Adaptogenic Herbs and Mushrooms

Ashwagandha

What it is: Ashwagandha, also known as “Indian Ginseng,” is a powerful Ayurvedic root that can help your body manage stress.

How it’s consumed: You can add ashwagandha to smoothies, teas, and if you are up for a recipe, give our Oaty Peanut Butter Smoothie a try. You can buy ashwagandha in a powder, capsule, or tincture form.

What it tastes like: In Sanskrit, ashwagandha means “smell of the horse”, which refers to it’s interesting smell, and supposed ability to increase strength. It tastes slightly bitter, with herbal undertones, but pairs very well with creamy, cocoa flavors - which is why we paired the ashwagandha in our Balance blend with a bit of full-bodied cocoa.

What it does, according to science: This Ayurvedic root helps reduce long-term stress and alleviate the hormonal imbalances that result from chronic stress. All without inducing a sense of fatigue, ashwagandha helps you build up tolerances to stressful situations, and relaxes an anxious mind. Some research suggests that Ashwagandha is helpful for combating stress-induced weight gain.

Eleuthero Root (Siberian Ginseng)

What it is: Eleuthero root, also nicknamed as “Siberian Ginseng,” has been part of the herbal repertoire of Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. There are more published scientific studies on eleuthero root than any other herb - and when you dig into the research it’s easy to see why so many scientists have been fascinated by this stringy, beige root. Not only has it been shown to decrease stress, but it has immune boosting properties to boot.

How it’s consumed: People usually take the root and stem extracts of the eleuthero plant either as a tincture or as a powder. Either way, it can be added to smoothies, lattes, or other drinks and tonics. Try our our hazelnut beauty milk recipe, or even our choco cherry smoothie for a scrumptious way to add eleuthero root to your wellness routine.

What it tastes like: We’ll tell it to you straight: Eleuthero root is bitter, and not exactly a pleasant taste. This is definitely not an herb you’ll be downing with water (unless you’re super hard core). So, give our wellness library a look and try out some recipes with eleuthero root - you’ll be surprised how tasty they are.

What it does, according to science: Siberian Ginseng decreases fatigue by increasing your work and exercise capacity without the “crash” that comes with a morning cup of coffee. With this herb, you’ll also recover faster from acute stress and intense workouts. Some preliminary research also suggests that eleuthero can protect against cognitive decline, and reduce DNA damage.


"There is abundant scientific research confirming their adaptogenic properties such as the ability to help the body resist a stress response in a non-specific way and the ability to help the body maintain homeostasis. Primary adaptogens directly influence the hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary (HPA) axis in response to stress."

- Adapted From: Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism by Dr. Yance


Reishi Mushroom

What it is: Reishi is an adaptogenic mushroom that has been a staple of holistic wellness and herbal medicines for decades -- over 200 to be exact. As a species of the “woody” mushroom family, the fan-shaped ‘shroom boasts orange to reddish-brown hues and can be found in the forest areas of Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States. Reishi’s effects on the body are widely ranging - it’s been shown to have anywhere from anti-depressant qualities to anti-fatigue effects on the body.

How it’s consumed: Reishi mushroom has a tough, thick form that is hard to bite into - it’s definitely not a mushroom that you can just cut into and stir fry with your dinner veggies. Most consume it as a dehydrated mushroom powder, or in a liquid tincture form. Though, some cut the mushroom into long strips, then steep it in hot water to make tea.

What it tastes like: This isn’t the most delicious mushroom you’ll taste. Reishi has an earthy bitterness that has been compared to tree bark.

What it does, according to science: Reishi mushroom’s positive effect on the body are widely ranging. It’s been shown to decrease depression and work as an anti-fatigue agent in a population of breast cancer patients. Repeatedly, reishi mushroom has been shown to activate natural killer T cells, which help the body fight off cancerous tumors, and reduce the chance or cancer spreading to other parts of the body (namely, metastasis).

Maca Root

What it is: Maca is a plant native to peru that has been traditionally used to improve energy and stamina, while also improving sex drive and fertility. It looks like a cross between a turnip and a radish, with thick rosemary-like leaves. Different varieties come in different colors: red, pink, black, and yellow.

How it’s consumed: For most, maca root is supplemented as a dried powder. The caramel-like taste mixes very well into smoothies, lattes, and even the occasional oatmeal bowl. We’ve used maca in everything from lavender lattes to delicious homemade almond milks.

What it tastes like: It has a delicious caramel-like flavor, with a subtle earthy aftertaste. Out of all the adaptogens, we vote for maca root as the best tasting. However, not everyone would agree with this characterization.

What it does, according to science: This peruvian root, long used by spanish royalty, helps improve memory recall ability and overall learning ability. This super root is also known for its ability to protect against depression and age-related cognitive decline.

Our Favorite Recipes:




Also in Wellness Library

The Nutritional Profile of Reishi Mushroom: Health Benefits + History
The Nutritional Profile of Reishi Mushroom: Health Benefits + History

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Reishi Mushroom is a great food to incorporate into a diet, with its powdered form making it versatile to use in cooking or for quick smoothies or even as a part of supplementary powders made at home or purchased. It can add some extra vitamin D, and it is especially useful in Vegan diets, providing the full spectrum of B complex vitamins despite not being an animal product. Reishi’s possible immune-regulating effects are an added plus as well, helping you stay healthy and productive!
Angelicae Sinesis

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Also known as Dong Quai, this antioxidant rich, adaptogenic root has long been cultivated for its health effects, especially in women. This root contains compounds which have been shown to aid in gynecological regulation, which in turn can aid in the conditioning of women's skin.
The 7 Best Adaptogens for Stress + Fatigue, According to Science

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Most of modern medicine comes from simply copying and refining what already exists in nature; from the acetylsalicylic acid that was medically used for thousands of years in the form of willow tea and now used in aspirin, to antibiotics such as penicillin that were discovered in fungi. Adaptogens are another such thing - in this case, herbs and fungi that contain compounds which counteract biological stress responses. Check out this list for adaptogens that counteract stress and fatigue.