Top 5 Adaptogens for Stress Reduction
Adaptogens are specific plants and herbs that help the body deal with stress and balance their physiology. Hans Selye, the scientist who pioneered our modern understanding of stress, once said: “It is not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.” (1)
Your stress response determines whether you wither or grow in the face of challenges in every facet of your life–work, health, relationships, and personal development. Now more than ever, it’s vital to have a robust response to stress to thrive in life.
The fast pace of life in the 21st century probably won’t slow down any time soon, so what’s the secret to achieving resilience? Enter adaptogens. These herbs and plants are recognized for their unique medicinal properties, and they all have one thing in common: they help your body and mind cope with stress.
Keep reading to learn the top five adaptogens for stress reduction, how and why to use them, and where they fit into a healthy lifestyle.
What Are Adaptogens?
The word “adaptogen” has only been around since 1947, but the underlying concept dates back thousands of years in traditional herbal medicine systems around the globe (2).
To be considered an adaptogen, a substance must(2):
- Increase the stress resistance of an organism in a non-specific way
- Promote homeostasis
- Be non-toxic, or nearly so
Let’s unpack the meaning of all that. Essentially, adaptogens increase your general resistance against multiple types of stress and help keep your body in a state of balance or harmony, safely and without side effects.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Adaptogens are said to decrease fatigue, boost strength and vitality, mitigate the damaging effects of stress, and aid in recovery from any number of maladies.
While these claims might raise an eyebrow or two, real scientific evidence affirms the validity of adaptogens. Studies suggest that adaptogens do indeed work through general (rather than specific) mechanisms, which explains the wide range of health benefits.
The following pathways are common to most of the adaptogens you’ll learn about in the next section(3):
- Reducing cortisol, the “stress hormone”
- Stimulating or enhancing central nervous system function
- Reducing inflammation and balancing the immune response
- Protecting cells and organ systems (such as the central nervous system, liver, heart, circulatory system, and gut) (3)
Whereas most modern medicines exert a very precise and narrow effect in your body, you can think of adaptogens as having a much broader target, similar to a shotgun blast.
The 5 Best Adaptogens for Stress Relief, According to Science
Here are 5 of the most well studied adaptogens that have been shown in the science to consistently and effectively improve our response to stress. You can try using 1 or 2 of these or all 5 and see how your body does with them. There are many other adaptogens that have tremendous benefits but I don’t think you will see a lot of benefits from a few or all of these.
Ashwagandha, the Sanskrit name for the root of Withania somnifera, loosely translates to “horse essence.” The name is a play on words, because the powdered root not only smells slightly like a horse, but is also said to provide the strength and vitality of a horse to those who take it.
This root has a 6000 year history of use in the Ayurvedic medical tradition for reducing stress and anxiety and healing inflammatory diseases (4). According to a 2012 randomized, controlled trial of 64 adults with chronic stress, two daily doses of 300 mg full-spectrum ashwagandha extract per day can safely and significantly reduce cortisol and self-reported stress levels (5).
The researchers who conducted the study concluded that “high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract possesses the ability to improve the overall well-being of a person.” Other peer-reviewed studies suggest ashwagandha can prevent stress-related weight gain, protect the brain during aging, and improve male hormone balance and fertility (6) (7) (8).
How to Take Ashwagandha
Most studies of ashwagandha use 300-500 milligrams of full-spectrum extract once or twice per day. Start by taking one capsule of the extract per day with a glass of water, in the morning, and consider adding a second dose later in the day based on your results.
According to one study, ashwagandha may increase thyroid hormone levels, so if you take thyroid medication or have hyperthyroidism, speak to your doctor before taking ashwagandha (9). We use a high quality ashwagandha along with other adaptogens in our Cortisol Defense product which is great for calming the body, reducing anxiety, improving focus and improving sleep quality. This is something I personally use everyday to help me deal with the demands of my life.
Chaga is the common name for the fungus Inonotus obliquus. It occurs mainly in birch forests growing in the far north of the Northern Hemisphere. Medicinal use of chaga dates back to at least the 16th century in Europe, but may go as far back as Roman times.
Because of its high antioxidant content, chaga has a reputation as an anti-aging compound. The antioxidants also help explain its traditional use as a cancer-fighting medicine, which has recently been confirmed in mouse studies (10) (11).
Perhaps the most interesting property of chaga is that it may balance immune function. If you’re chronically stressed, your immune function can be compromised, but preliminary studies show that chaga might stimulate your immune system when you need to ward off illness (12) (13) (14).
There’s also some evidence that chaga may reduce the severity of food allergies and protect against DNA damage in inflammatory bowel disease (15) (16). If correct, these data points show that chaga can increase immune function when needed (to prevent illness), but also decrease it at other times as necessary (to reduce harmful autoimmune processes).
Research on this intriguing fungus is in its infancy, so most of the science thus far has focused on animal models and human cells. The full range of benefits of chaga remains to be discovered, but it’s definitely worth a try if you want to balance your immune system.
How to Take Chaga
You can buy chaga in the form of pills, powders, extracts, or tea. If you live in a northern latitude, you can even harvest chaga yourself! If you do, make sure you identify it correctly, then dry it out and ground it to a fine powder.
Common doses of chaga are 400-500 milligrams of extract, or one half to one teaspoon (about 1-2 grams) of non-extract powder. Try taking chaga one to three times per day when you want a gentle energy boost.
To make the tea, soak a teaspoon of dried chaga powder in cold water for an hour, then simmer it for an hour to extract all the beneficial compounds. It will taste earthy and slightly bitter, with a hint of vanilla. Wee have also partnered with Pique Tea on some very special adaptogenic products, so if you’re considering chaga, check out the great tea options we have created.
Reishi (Ganodermus lucidum) is a large, woody, fan-like mushroom that grows on living and dead trees. It has a long traditional history of promoting health and longevity in China, Japan, and other Asian countries (17).
Reishi is rich in protein, essential amino acids, and minerals like potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, selenium, iron, and zinc (17). In addition to a healthy variety of nutrients, this fungus also contains bioactive molecules called terpenoids, phenols, glycoproteins, and polysaccharides.
When you consume reishi, evidence suggests the nutrients and bioactive compounds may exert effects including:
- Causing apoptosis (induced death) of cancer cells (18)
- Reducing fatigue in breast cancer patients (19)
- Accelerating the clearance of oral human papillomavirus (HPV) (20)
- Reducing insulin and glucose levels (21)
A 2015 systematic review of the effects of reishi on cancer concluded it might complement modern cancer treatments due to its “potential of enhancing tumor response and stimulating host immunity” (22).
And a randomized, double-blind trial of patients with neurasthenia found that reishi significantly improved their fatigue and enhanced their well-being (23).
Neurasthenia is basically another word for the symptoms of chronic stress, so even if you don’t have cancer or immune issues, there’s a good chance reishi can help you deal with the stress of daily life.
How to Take Reishi
If you want to boost your immune function or increase your vitality by taking reishi, you can buy it as a powder, extract, or tea.
Studies have documented the benefits of dosages ranging from approximately 1.5 grams to 4.5 grams of reishi powder per day (21) (23). Reishi is an excellent way to calm down and relax before bed, but you can take it anytime.
You can start with a single dose each day, then add more over time. If you purchase an extract, follow the directions on the product label. If you’re considering reishi, don’t miss this exclusive offer we have for our readers on some incredible teas to support your body.
#4: Tulsi (Holy Basil)
Tulsi, also called holy basil, is a fragrant herb that’s been a pillar of Ayurvedic medicine in India for millennia (24). Traditional uses of tulsi include reducing inflammation, healing skin conditions, as an antibacterial, and for aphrodisiac purposes (25).
Scientific research indicates tulsi may have the following effects:
- Broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity (26)
- Antioxidant action (27)
- Wound-healing (26)
- Detoxification (26)
- Reducing blood sugar levels (28)
Additionally, a double-blind trial investigating the effects of tulsi in people with generalized anxiety disorder found that tulsi extract significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression (29).
A separate study of healthy adults found that tulsi significantly improved their cognition and reduced their task error rates compared to placebo (30). Eugenol, a naturally-occurring compound in tulsi, is thought to be responsible for most of its medicinal properties (31).
How to Take Tulsi
If you want to imbibe tulsi the traditional way, try making tea from fresh or dried tulsi. Simply boil a quart of water, then pour it over four to six tulsi tops (or a small palmful of the herb if you’re using dried tulsi). If you use fresh tulsi, harvest it ahead of time and allow it to wilt for a day before steeping.
Tulsi tea has a calming rather than stimulating effect–hence why it’s sometimes called “liquid yoga”–so you can enjoy it at any time of day or night (26).
#5: Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola rosea is a golden flower that grows wild in Arctic regions. The root of this plant is commonly used in traditional medicine systems for treating anxiety and depression. If you want an adaptogen that’s especially effective for mental stress, fatigue, and mood enhancement, rhodiola is a fantastic choice (32).
If you have too much cortisol in your bloodstream you’ll feel wired and anxious, but if you have too little, you can feel burnt-out or fatigued. In 2008, a pilot study found that 340 milligrams of rhodiola extract per day for 10 weeks significantly improved the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder in human participants (34).
In 2009, a study in the journal Planta Medica concluded that rhodiola extract “exerts an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate, and decreases cortisol response to awakening stress in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome”(35). And a separate 2013 study found that rhodiola can improve endurance exercise performance and decrease the perception of effort in athletes (36).
How to Take Rhodiola Rosea
Because dried rhodiola rosea can vary in potency, it’s smart to use a standardized extract. Published papers show that one or two doses per day of extract, totaling between 200-600 milligrams, is sufficient to obtain the benefits of this herb (36) (35).
As adaptogens go, rhodiola is fairly stimulating, so don’t take it before bed (37). We use Rhodiola in our Adapt Strong product which is fantastic for morning energy and and mental clarity to perform at your peak.
Bonus Adaptogen: Pique Tea TCM Elixirs
If you want to try adaptogens but aren’t quite sure where to start, consider Pique Tea’s elixirs. They’re inspired by Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the folks at Pique are unrivaled when it comes to their knowledge of TCM and adaptogens.
Unlike most adaptogenic products these elixirs are specially formulated by TCM doctors for stress reduction and a gentle energetic and immune boost.
The formulas incorporate chaga and reishi along with other hand-picked herbs, fruits, and roots for support. Definitely give them a try if you are interested in better mental performance, sleep, or health and longevity.
Who Should Use Adaptogens?
Whether your focus is fitness, biohacking, productivity at work, or recovery from an illness, the stress-reducing and health-promoting effects of adaptogens are worth investigating first-hand.
Thanks to their non-specific effects, nearly everyone can benefit from adaptogens, but you should talk to your doctor before starting a new supplement, especially if you take prescription drugs or have a medical condition.
Adverse effects from adaptogens are rare, but may include:
Remarkably, in most studies of adaptogens, the placebo groups experience more side effects than those receiving the active compound! It’s unlikely you’ll notice these side effects when taking adaptogenic supplements, but if you do, you should stop your regimen and speak to your physician prior to resuming it.
If you’re pregnant or nursing, there’s not enough high-quality evidence to show that adaptogens are safe, so it’s best to steer clear temporarily.
Finally, make sure you purchase high-quality, organic, verified adaptogens from trusted sources. Because regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration don’t actively monitor supplements for purity or authenticity, obscure or inexpensive brands may contain impure or fake ingredients (38).
While it’s possible to reduce your stress levels and improve your stress response, no one can avoid stress altogether. It’s simply a part of life, but stress doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing–if we can learn and grow from it.
To paraphrase Hans Selye again, “one should not try to avoid stress any more than one would shun food, love or exercise.”
However, if you want to become more resilient to stress, adaptogens can be a very effective part of your strategy. Along with supplementation, don’t forget to adopt the proper mindset and use natural techniques to reduce your anxiety. Has this article inspired you to try adaptogens? Let us know in the comments!