Everything You Need to Know About Adaptogens

Medically reviewed by Karina Tolentino, RD, CHWC

Adaptogens are herbal and plant compounds that help the body resist and adapt to stress. People typically take adaptogens to help their bodies manage stressors related to health conditions, physical stress, and emotional stress.

"Adaptogens are a class of herbal substances that have been used for centuries in traditional medicine, particularly in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine," Susan Schachter, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and co-founder of 120/Life, told Health. "These natural substances are believed to help the body adapt to stress and restore balance by supporting the body's natural resilience and adaptive mechanisms."

While research on adaptogens is limited, there is evidence that adaptogens offer health benefits to help with stress relief, fatigue, sleep, immune health, and hormone balance. Keep reading to learn about adaptogens' potential health benefits, functions, and risks.

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are herbs or plants that help the body adapt to stress and maintain homeostasis—a self-regulating process that balances your body's internal biological systems. You can find adaptogens sold as supplements in capsules, tinctures, powders, and beverages. Some dried and fresh adaptogenic herbs can also be ingested.

To be classified as an adaptogen, a plant or synthetic substance must:

  • Help the body resist a range of nonspecific conditions related to physical, chemical, or biological stress

  • Help maintain the body's biological self-regulating process (aka homeostasis)—which helps offset illness and conditions caused by external stress

  • Not harm regular human body functions

While not as common, some supplements also include synthetic adaptogens. "These compounds are created in a laboratory to mimic the effects of natural adaptogens. However, their safety and effectiveness may vary compared to natural adaptogens," said Schachter. "Natural adaptogens are generally preferred due to their long history of traditional use and their lower risk of adverse effects." Also called actoprotectors, examples of synthetic adaptogens include:

  • Bromantane

  • Levamisole

  • Aphobazole

  • Bemethyl

What Are The Benefits of Adaptogens?

"People take adaptogens to support their body's ability to handle stress, improve energy levels, boost immune function, and enhance overall vitality," said Schachter. "The primary goal of adaptogens is to help the body adapt to various physical, emotional, and environmental stressors, thus increasing resilience and reducing the negative impacts of stress on the body."

Adaptogens are believed to help manage the body's reaction to anything that causes stress. Major stressors include infections, environmental pollution, UV radiation, physical exertion, medicine, and emotional stress.

Human studies on adaptogens are limited, but research shows adaptogens may help:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety: Adaptogens help tone down your body's stress response by reducing the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol. Adjusting cortisol levels can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

  • Improve immune health: Many adaptogens help regulate your immune cells or boost immune responses to help the body fight against infections and diseases. Some adaptogens also help activate cells that inhibit tumor growth related to cancers.

  • Reduce fatigue: Adaptogens may help your adrenal glands function more efficiently so they don't overproduce hormones, like cortisol, that lead to fatigue.

  • Improve sleep: Excess stress can affect cortisol levels needed to maintain a normal sleep cycle, leading to insomnia and other sleep issues. Adaptogens can help manage cortisol levels so they decrease in the evening and relax the nervous system for sleep.

  • Reduce inflammation and pain: Stress and inflammation often go hand-in-hand. Adaptogens have anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce inflammation and pain related to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia.

  • Regulate hormones: Adaptogens can affect your neuroendocrine system—nerves, glands, and organs that work together to produce hormones to keep the body functioning. Some adaptogens may help your body stabilize hormone levels after stressors cause hormonal imbalances.

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How Do They Work?

Adaptogens help your body cope with stress responses related to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) system, said Schachter.

The HPA axis is a stress response system that regulates your nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. When encountering emotional or physical stress, the HPA axis temporarily increases stress hormones, like cortisol, to restore homeostasis and keep your body functioning. Cortisol helps regulate inflammation and stress. If cortisol levels are too high, it can lead to health issues like anxiety, high blood pressure, and lowered immune response. Adaptogens interact with the HPA axis to help balance and reduce the release of cortisol.

The SAM system is a shorter-term stress response often called "fight or flight." Adaptogens work similarly with the SAM system to rebalance cortisol levels in times of stress. However, the exact mechanisms for how adaptogens work with the HPA axis and SAM system are not fully understood.

Different Types of Adaptogens

Many adaptogens are used to help with stress, anxiety, immune health, sleep, and fatigue. Because adaptogens are nonspecific treatments, they may offer several health benefits related to stress-induced health issues. Here are some of the most popular adaptogens.

For Stress, Anxiety, and Sleep

All adaptogens help the body deal with stress. Still, some adaptogens are more known for their effects on emotional stress, anxiety, and sleep, including:

  • Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum): Research shows taking holy basil (aka Tulsi) can improve mood and reduce stress. An eight-week study also found holy basil helped reduce stress and improve sleep quality. Other studies show holy basil may help manage blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): Small human studies have found participants taking ashwagandha root extract reduced their stress and anxiety. Research also shows ashwagandha's calming effect helped people with insomnia or anxiety improve their sleep.

  • Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis): This herb is a popular natural sleep aid that helps improve some people's sleep duration and quality. However, research outcomes are mixed, with some studies showing no improvement in sleep. In addition to adaptogenic properties, valerian root also contains valeric acid, which has a sedative effect.

For Fatigue

Stress can affect your adrenal glands, which are responsible for secreting hormones that balance your energy levels. As a result, too much stress can make you feel tired or weak. Adaptogens that may help improve your energy levels and have an anti-fatigue effect include:

  • Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): Research shows this flowering plant can decrease exhaustion and fatigue related to stress. Additional studies have found that rhodiola extract boosts energy in response to stress and helps stress management and inflammation.

  • Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng): Limited research shows this fleshy root has energizing properties and can help reduce cancer-related fatigue. Studies have also found that Asian ginseng has antibacterial and antiviral properties, and the herb may help treat and prevent seasonal respiratory infections.

For Immune Health

Your body's stress response can take a toll on your immune system, making it difficult for your body to fight infections. Because adaptogens help balance and manage your stress response, they may also help boost your immune response. Some popular adaptogens known for immune health include:

  • Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus): Studies show this flowering plant may help support the immune system and reduce your risk of contracting viral infections. Researchers also found taking astragalus may help people with diabetes lower lipids and blood sugar.

  • Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus): Also called Siberian ginseng, this woody shrub is not a ginseng plant but has similar effects on immune health. Research has found taking eleuthero as a preventative helped decrease flu complications like pneumonia, bronchitis, and ear infections. The plant has been used to help reduce genital herpes outbreaks and viral lung infection complications.

Are Adaptogens Effective?

"While adaptogens have been used in traditional medicine for centuries, the scientific evidence supporting their benefits is still limited in some cases," said Schachter. "Some studies have demonstrated positive effects on stress reduction, immune function, and energy levels. However, more robust clinical trials are needed to establish the full extent of their effectiveness and safety."

Currently, most evidence on the effectiveness of adaptogens is anecdotal or involves animal studies. We need more human trials to prove adaptogens are effective in treating health conditions and the effects of stress.

Potential Risks and Side Effects

Adaptogens do not typically cause serious side effects in healthy adults, but that doesn't mean using adaptogenic herbs or supplements is without risks. No studies have proven adaptogens are safe to take for long periods. It is also possible to experience an allergic reaction to adaptogens. Side effects can vary depending on the adaptogen, but some common side effects of adaptogens include:

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Upset stomach

  • Diarrhea

  • Insomnia

  • Headache

  • Increased heart rate

  • Drowsiness

Some groups may also be more at risk of adverse side effects. Because there is limited data to prove adaptogens are safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding, pregnant and lactating people are generally advised to avoid adaptogens. Specific adaptogens can also interact with medications or worsen health conditions. If you have a health condition or are taking medications, talk with your healthcare provider before taking any adaptogen.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the safety or effectiveness of supplements, including adaptogens. Before choosing an adaptogen supplement, purchase a reputable brand and look for third-party certifications like NSF International, U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), or ConsumerLab.com.

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A Quick Review

Adaptogens are herbs and plants that help your body manage and adapt to stress. Researchers believe adaptogens help balance and reduce stress hormone levels by interacting with the body's stress response systems.

Adaptogenic herbs and plants have been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, but human research is limited. More human clinical trials are needed to fully understand how effective adaptogens are at helping reduce stress and improve health issues. However, promising research shows adaptogens can help anxiety, fatigue, sleep, and immune health.

Before trying any adaptogens, talk to your healthcare provider. While typically well tolerated, adaptogens can interact with medications and worsen some health conditions.

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Read the original article on Health.