Adaptogens: What Are They?

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If you haven’t heard the term ‘adaptogens’ yet, you you soon will.

While Chinese medicine and Ayruveda have recommended adaptogenic plants to manage stress for thousands of years, it’s only in the past 60 years that Western medicine has started talking about their possible role in reducing the effects of stress.

In 2017, adaptogens were defined in a review article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences as plants that contain “stress response modifiers that nonspecifically increase an organism’s resistance to various stressors (physical, chemical, and biological), thereby promoting adaptation and survival.” Because the nutrients in the plants help our bodies adapt to a variety of different types of stress, as a group the plants are known as "adaptogens."

In today’s high-stress world, we’re bombarded with upsetting news stories, high noise levels, highly-processed foods, chemicals, and air pollution that raises our body’s stress levels. When we’re exposed to stress, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol. These activate the body’s stress response and raise both blood pressure and blood sugar. In our caveman days, this system ensured that we had plenty of energy to run away from whatever large animal was chasing us.

Today stress isn’t usually caused by man-eating animals and isn’t limited to random encounters; instead we’re under a constant stream of stressors. The body’s stress response was designed to return to pre-stress hormone levels quickly. When we’re under constant stress, the body isn’t able to calm down, which leads to continually higher stress hormone levels that are believed to play important roles in chronic inflammation and disease.

It is becoming more evident that adaptogens may help decrease the chronic inflammation that is implicated in atherosclerosis, cognitive disease, some types of cancer and metabolic disorders and may also be helpful in improving sleep and cognitive function. Adaptogens are often used by people who are healthy as part of a comprehensive stress management approach that might include things like eating minimally-processed fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and plant sources of protein; drinking plenty of water and avoiding sweetened beverages, getting regular exercise, and meditation.

How do adaptogens work?

Researchers don’t know the exact mechanism, and currently are working on a theory of network pharmacology wherein adaptogens interact with a variety of stress receptors in our body.

It’s believed that adaptogens activate some chemical receptors in the body to increase energy and deactivate other receptors to not overreact to stress. There isn’t enough research yet available to completely understand the possible benefit as well as potential dangers of using adaptogens.

Cautions when using adaptogens:

Adaptogens aren’t regulated as a drug for safety or efficacy by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and they are considered dietary supplements. There are no formal requirements for what can be labeled as an adaptogen and no way for consumers to know exactly what the supplement contains. Be sure to purchase any supplement, including adaptogens, from a reputable source.

Some manufacturers make claims that adaptogen ingredients can cure, prevent, or decrease COVID-19 symptoms. They have received formal warning letters from the FDA and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to stop this type of unsubstantiated marketing. 

Always check with your physician before using any type of adaptogen or supplement, especially if you take any prescription medications.

Adaptogens aren’t safe for everyone. They may interfere with certain medications and their use is contraindicated in pregnant and breast-feeding women due to a risk that they may affect hormone levels.

Ginseng may lower blood sugar, which is risky for people with diabetes who are taking blood glucose-lowering medications. Ginseng also may interfere with blood thinners and antidepressants. 

Since adaptogens are expensive, certain companies may take shortcuts to sell less expensive versions possibly containing heavy metals and other contaminants.

Tips for using adaptogens:

  • First make sure to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit, veggies, whole grains, and omega-3s.
  • Try herbal teas that incorporate adaptogens into the tea or add ½ teaspoon powdered adaptogen to your favorite tea.
  • Add powdered adaptogens to favorite foods such as oatmeal or smoothies. 
  • Commercial beverages containing adaptogens are everywhere in the marketplace. However, since many adaptogens have a strong, bitter flavor many of the commercial beverages contain added sugars or sugar substitutes to improve the taste. Be sure to read the ingredients carefully.

Intrigued? Learn more about 4 common adaptogens in the post Common Adaptogens.

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES, CPT, CHWC


  1. Panossian, A. (2017), Understanding adaptogenic activity: specificity of the pharmacological action of adaptogens and other phytochemicals. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1401: 49-64
  2. Chicago Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. All About Adaptogens. Brenda Wallace, MS, RDN. published 1-18-2019; accessed 8-25-21.
  3. Cohen MM. Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum: a herb for all reasons. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2014;5(4):251-259.
  4. Today’s Dietitian. Botannicals/Herbs: Adaptogens. Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN. August/September 2020 issue.
  5. Michigan State University. Center for Research on Ingredient Safety. Trending: Adaptogen Ingredients. Elisabeth Anderson, Jinpeng Li. published 3-1-21; accessed 8-29-21
  6. Salve J, Pate S, Debnath K, Langade D. Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study. Cureus. 2019;11(12):e6466. Published 2019 Dec 25. doi:10.7759/cureus.6466
  7. Cohen MM. Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2014;5(4):251-259. doi:10.4103/0975-9476.146554
  8. Enyeart JA, Liu H, Enyeart JJ. Curcumin inhibits ACTH- and angiotensin II-stimulated cortisol secretion and Ca(v)3.2 current. J Nat Prod. 2009;72(8):1533-1537.
  9. NIH. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine. Asian Ginseng. Updated August 2020, accessed 8-29-21. 
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