Adaptogens are quickly gaining popularity in the health world, and if you haven’t heard of them yet you soon will. Far from a new health trend, they’ve been used for centuries as part of ancient medicine systems such as Ayurveda and Total Chinese Medicine (TCM) (which I both love)!

So, what are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are a group of healing plants, which work to help balance and protect your body’s natural functions, recharge your adrenal glands and help regulate your thyroid. We know balance is key for maintaining good health, and this is why they are becoming so popular; they work to balance out systems in the body such as your endocrine (hormones) and immune systems rather than just simply increasing levels of something. They’re also ideal for helping the body deal with stress, which in today’s overworked and under relaxed society means they’re much needed for most people!

To be classified as an adaptogen they need to:
  • Be non toxic
  • Influence many organs or body systems
  • Help to module system function and maintain balance

There are a huge variety of different types, but ones you most likely have already heard of (even if you didn’t know the term) include ginseng, maca, ashwagandha, holy basil, licorice root as well as “medicinal mushrooms” like cordyceps, chaga and reishi (also having a health spotlight at the moment in their own right). They’re also increasingly being used in popular health supplements from brands like ATP Science and Before You Speak Coffee.

How do adaptogens work?

Many of these plants grow in extreme conditions, meaning that they need to be resilient to survive, and it’s believed that this resilience is also passed on to us when we consume.

To help reduce stress, Adaptogens work with the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathoadrenal system, both of which are key players in our natural stress response. It’s thought that they then tweak our hormonal response to stress to ensure optimal levels.

HPA Axis Stress Response diagram

Unlike popping a pill from the chemist (which may provide quick effects, but can also come with a host of side effects) they work with the body naturally over time to build up resilience, re-balance to a natural state and help you to deal with stress. Think of it like building your bodies immune system and adrenal glands like you would strength training for your muscles; you won’t see results straight away, but over time you’ll get stronger and stronger.

What are some examples of adaptogenic herbs?

I actually found it really hard to find a comprehensive list of all adaptogens (some seemed to include all but were missing some) so if you know a great source – let me know! The ones listed below are some of the most well known and some of my favourites. Note, I’ll cover medicinal mushrooms in a separate post, so these have been left out of this list.

List of adaptogens

Amla/Indian Gooseberry (Emblica officinals)

The fruit of this plant has been used Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, with scientific studies to now back up it’s benefits. Amla is very high in Vitamin C and other antioxidants, and has been studied for is help in preventing and treating cancer. It’s also used to assist with diabetes and high cholesterol levels.

Part of the plant used: Fruit

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

One of my favourites which I take at night, Ashwagandha is a key stress reducer. As a strong source of antioxidants it’s helpful for nervous, endocrine and immune systems as well as reducing depression. It’s also great for the cardiovascular system, and has been used by people in the Himalayas to help with oxygen deprivation, and has therefore been studied for its use in increasing physical endurance. It’s also known as “Indian Ginseng” and is traditionally used to help boost the immune system after illness.

Part of the plant used: Root

Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Probably the most well known out of list, ginseng is known for it’s energy boosting properties but it’s also used for it’s anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as potentially helping with diabetes.

Part of the plant used: Root

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

Popular in TCM for it’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, it’s used to help strengthen and stimulate the immune system as well as also sometimes applied topically for wound care.

Part of the plant used: Root

Eleuthero/Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

An ingredient in my favourite Before You Speak Coffee blend, Siberian Ginseng helps to not only strengthen the immune system but also increase endurance and stamina (hence why it’s a great addition to your morning brew!). It was given to many Siberian citizens after the Chernobyl disaster to help counteract the effects of radiation.

Part of the plant used: Root, stem bark

He Shou Wu/ Fo-Ti (Polygonum multiforum)

One of the most popular TCM tonic herbs, He Shou Wu is known for helping to improve energy and libido and to help strengthen and protect the liver, kidneys and blood.

It’s even been said it can reverse gray hair! The name of the plant apparently translates roughly to “Mr He who has black hair” and is named after the legendary man who first discovered it and its uses. Apparently after consuming for a year the old man’s health was restored, his hair turned black once again and he was able to father children.

Part of the plant used: Root

Holy Basil/Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum, O. gratissimum)

Tulsi means “the incomparable one” and is important in Hindu mythology as well as being sacred to Indian royalty. Holy Basil is anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and has been used to treat circulatory, immune and nervous systems as well as in cancer treatments.

It also helps cognitive function, to boost memory and concentration – so it’s great for those suffering from brain fog. Like other adaptogens, it’s great for lowering cortisol levels and maintaining balance.

This is one of my new favourites; while I take a few on the list in supplement form I recently came across this at my local gardening store, so I love that I have access to a fresh herb right in my kitchen. Everything above the ground is useful from this plant, and so far I’ve using the leaves and flowers and as a nighttime tea.

Part of the plant used: Herb

Jiaogulan/Southern Ginseng (Gynostemma pentaphyllum)

Part of the cucumber family, this Chinese plant is also known as “the immortality herb”. It’s shown to have similar benefits to Ginseng, and lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, maintain healthy blood pressure levels, give an immune system boost and help to stabilise blood sugar levels.

Part of the plant used: Herb

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra, G. uralensis)

Licorice root has a wide and impressive list of documented uses. It’s beneficial for the digestive system helping to lower stomach acid levels, relieve heartburn and indigestion, heal gastric ulcers and ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It’s also an alternative to St. John’s Wort as a natural anti-depressant. A powerful immune system booster it protects the thymus gland, which produces immune system T cells, from cortisol damage. Glycyrrhizin acid also aids the immune system by stopping the growth of bacteria and viruses, such as influenza.

It can also potentially look to replace other medicines in your cabinet, with an asprin-like action which is helpful in lowering fever and soothing headaches and an anti-allergenic effect which is useful against conditions such as hay fever, asthma and rhinitis.

Part of the plant used: Root

Maca/Peruvian Ginseng (Lepidium meyenii)

Another one of my favourites, Maca is a root which can help to increase strength, stamina and libido, as well as being great for helping to balance hormones. Check out my full post on maca and it’s benefits here.

Part of the plant used: Root

Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea)

Another stress reducing powerhouse, in comparison to ashwagandha it’s more stimulating and helps to boost alertness (so I take this in the morning, and ashwagandha at night). It’s also great for a range of uses such as boosting the immune system, balancing blood sugar levels and hormones. It’s also potentially helpful in reducing anxiety and depression.

Part of the plant used: Root

Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)

A berry which, as mentioned above, is helpful in protecting the liver from toxins. It’s also great for respiratory problems and boosting memory. It’s great for training as it not only helps to increase energy levels, but also nitric oxide (a vasodilator which helps to increases blood flow).

Part of the plant used: Fruit, seed

How do you take adaptogens?

Like any nutritional supplement they can be taken in a number of ways. This includes in a powdered form to add to smoothies (this is how I like to take maca), as a daily supplement (how I take ashwagandha and rhodiola), within other complimentary supplements (as mentioned the ATP range is great for this, as well as drinks such as Before You Speak Coffee and Four Sigmatic) or also in herbal teas. To determine the right adaptogenic herbs for you to take, as well as the ideal form and dosage, it’s always ideal to speak to a qualified practitioner (or just do a lot of your own research too).


Sophie is the owner and creator of The Beautiful Existence. A Melbourne based self proclaimed nerd, gym junkie and lover of all things creative, tasty and well designed!

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