In the trendy world of healing herbs, you’ll find maca, ashwagandha, chaga and other adaptogens packed by the handful into smoothies, energy bars, even coffee drinks. But with these powerful plants, more isn’t better; it’s best to use them carefully, not randomly, choosing those matched for your specific needs.
Adaptogens aren’t like other herbs; they have a specific mode of action that involves normalizing physiologic functions and restoring the body to equilibrium. The term was first used by Russian researchers in 1957 to describe substances that increase the “state of non-specific resistance” in stress. The definition was later expanded to include compounds that are safe and normalize body functions and strengthen systems compromised by stress.
This specific class of herbs works in part by influencing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a neuroendocrine system that controls the body’s response to stress and regulates energy, immunity, digestion, mood and emotions, and other physiologic processes. More recent research has found adaptogens also protect mitochondria, parts of the body’s cells that create energy, from the effects of the stress hormone cortisol.
Because adaptogens influence the body’s innate physiology, they take time to work—and they shouldn’t be used indiscriminately. Start with one or two adaptogens that target a specific condition or need and give them time to work; you’ll usually need a minimum of two weeks to start noticing effects. And if you use adaptogens daily, take periodic breaks; some research suggests these breaks also enhance the ability of adaptogens to work better. Generally, a pattern of three weeks on, one week off, is recommended.
Which ones should you take? Here’s a guide to the most popular adaptogens, and the conditions they best address:
Stress and adrenal fatigue.
• Mucuna pruriens, from a tropical legume native to Africa and Asia, is high in L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine—a neurotransmitter that plays a role in executive function, motivation and arousal. Studies show Mucuna pruriens eases psychological stress and ease depression, a common side effect of adrenal fatigue. It’s also been shown to improve fertility in men and protect against Parkinson’s disease.
• Schisandra, also known as wu wei zi in Traditional Chinese Medicine, comes from a woody vine native to Northern China. It’s used to treat stress and physical exhaustion, and studies show it can reduce cortisol and protect the adrenals. Schisandra also has powerful immune-supportive effects and benefits the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
Cognitive function and brain health.
• Bacopa monnieri, from an herb traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat a variety of conditions, has been shown to enhance cognitive function, improve memory and recall, and protect against age-related neurodegeneration, dementia and cognitive decline.
• Rhodiola rosea, from a perennial flowering plant native to Europe, Asia and North America, influences the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, improving focus and memory and increasing the ability to concentrate, combat mental fog and enhance mental performance. improve the ability to concentrate.
• Lion’s mane, a mushroom used in traditional Chinese medicine, contains compounds called hericenones and erinacines that have neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects. Some studies suggest lion’s mane boosts proteins that are needed for the growth, maintenance and survival of neurons. Lion’s mane has also been shown to treat anxiety and depression.
Energy, stamina and endurance.
• Ginseng, an adaptogenic root used for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is a potent energy tonic that enhances endurance, reduces mental and physical fatigue, and improves physical and cognitive performance. The active compounds, ginsenosides, have also been shown to impact the central nervous system and protect against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression and other neurological disorders.
• Cordyceps, a fungus that grows on the bodies of caterpillars (modern versions are grown on grains, so they’re vegan), is used to enhance energy and stamina, and has been shown to improve tolerance to high-intensity exercise. It’s also an anti-inflammatory with immune-enhancing effects.
• Chaga, from a fungus that grows on birch and other trees, has anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and immune-supportive properties. It contains powerful anti-cancer compounds, and some studies show it can suppress tumor progression and reduce DNA damage by up to 40 percent.
• Turkey tail (coriolus versicolor) is an adaptogenic mushroom known for its potent anti-viral and immune-enhancing effects. It’s high in polysaccharide compounds that have been shown to improve immune function, ward off viruses and other pathogens, and protect against various forms of cancer, especially breast and colorectal cancers.
• Astragalus, from the root of a perennial plant in the pea family, has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to improve immunity, reduce stress and treat heart, liver, respiratory and other conditions. Studies show it can inhibit the growth of viruses, activate the immune response, inhibit tumor growth and protect against lung, gastrointestinal and other cancers.
Depression, anxiety and mood.
• Ashwagandha, an herb native to Asia and Southern India, is traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to support the nervous system, enhance immune function and improve the body’s response to stress. Studies show ashwagandha significantly reduces cortisol levels, eases depression, balances mood, and lowers stress and anxiety. Because it’s a member of the nightshade family, people who are sensitive to nightshades should avoid it, or use with caution.
Sexual health and vitality.
• Maca root, from a Peruvian plant that’s related to radish, is traditionally used to promote fertility and increase sexual desire and performance. Studies show it can improve sperm quality, enhance libido and relieve sexual dysfunction in women taking antidepressants. It’s also been shown to support immune function, boost physical performance and reduce fatigue.
• Muira puama, also called “potency wood,” comes from the roots and bark of a tree native to Brazil. It’s traditionally used as a tonic to treat a variety of conditions, including sexual dysfunction, hormonal imbalances and lack of sexual desire. Studies show muira puama in a combination herbal formula improved erectile dysfunction in men, increased sexual desire and enhanced ability to achieve orgasm in women.