Adaptogen is a major buzz word in the health world right now, and for good reason! Many adaptogens, like ashwagandha for example, have been used for thousands of years and have been well-researched in hundreds of studies.
Simply put, adaptogens are plants that can help your body adapt to and become more resilient to the effects of stress through a variety of ways. When I say stress, I mean all types of stress, like emotional, physical and physiological (i.e. emotional, inflammation, environmental) because they all affect our body systems in a similar way. Over the long-term, chronic stress can lead to symptoms like anxiety, depression, brain fog, fatigue, low immunity and problems with sleep, to name a few.
There are many known adaptogens but we have outlined five adaptogens we love that can help with stress. Now, before you rush out and buy everyone under the sun, there are a few disclaimers. We always say that it’s a bit like trying on a pair of shoes - one could make you feel really energized while your friend might not even feel it, or a stimulating adaptogen could make you feel a little jittery, so don’t be alarmed if it works a little differently for you. They also vary a lot in quality so we’ve also linked some of the brands and formulas we trust in the post. For best results, we recommend working with a health practitioner who can provide guidance on your specific health condition.
*We’ve included the names of the brands we like directly in this post - you just have to follow the links, create a free Fullscript account if you haven't already, and then search for the product name in our dispensary to get them. You can also login and go to Catalog > scroll down to Practition Categories > choose View All Categories > then Stress Supporting Supplements to find it.
Ashwagandha is one of the most well-known adaptogens out there. Your adrenals are the glands that release your stress hormones, among many others (more on that here). Ashwagandha has been shown to boost adrenal function and it can normalize cortisol levels, helping people with burnout as well as those experiencing chronic stress or anxiety. Many of its benefits are attributed to its concentration of withanolides, which have been shown to reduce inflammation and enhance the activity of natural killer cells, which are immune cells that help you fight off infections and cancer. It has also been shown to help improve thyroid function and reduce blood sugar levels, which tend to be issues for people with impaired adrenal function.
Ashwagandha tends to be an herb that works behind the scenes and you may not feel a difference taking it right away. I find it’s best used over a longer period of time along with adaptogens that help you cope with the immediate effects of stress.
For energy and brain clarity
Ginseng appears to work by delaying the onset and reducing the severity of the alarm phase of stress, which is when your body starts to react to stress, your heart beats faster and you start to worry or feel anxious. It has been shown to be especially beneficial for reducing stress-related fatigue. In an early study of nurses who had switched from day to night shifts, the researchers had the nurses rate themselves for competence, mood, and general well-being and were also given a test for physical and mental performance. The researchers found that the group who were given the Chinese ginseng demonstrated higher scores in competence, mood, and mental and physical performance than those given the placebo. The nurses taking the ginseng also felt more alert, yet calm.
Panax ginseng (Chinese or Korean) is considered more potent and is the one usually recommended to someone who has experienced a lot of stress or who is recovering from long-term illness or inflammation. If you have more low grade, moderate stress and don’t have extreme fatigue then it may be better to start with Siberian ginseng.
We’ve found with our clients that the ginsengs work well taken in a combination supplement that has a group of different adaptogens all working together.
For brain clarity and focus
Rhodiola is an adaptogen that I find helpful for people who are burnt out from stress and who need help overcoming brain fog and fatigue. Rhodiola is different than ginseng in that it appears to work by having an indirect and positive effect on serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that can increase focus, memory, pleasure and improve mood.
Taking rhodiola before short-term stress has been shown to prevent the disruptions in mental function and performance that come from stress. It has also been shown to have positive results with long-term use. In one trial comparing rhodiola to a placebo, of 60 patients with stress-related fatigue, rhodiola was found to reduce fatigue and therefore increase mental performance. For best results, start taking the rhodiola a few weeks before an anticipated stressful period of time and continue throughout that period. You can also take it on days when you really need to stay clear-headed.
For stress and endurance
Cordyceps is actually a mushroom-like fungus and has been historically used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. There are two main types you’ll usually find: C. sinensis and C. militaris. Based on the research so far, it seems that C. sinensis is best for stress and endurance, while c. militaris is best for intense exercise.
Multiple preliminary studies on mice found that cordyceps reduce stress, decrease fatigue, and reduce inflammation, which shows promise for human trials. Another study of healthy older adults also found that taking cordyceps every day decreased physical fatigue and improved endurance by about 10%. Many people who struggle with stress-induced fatigue have a hard time with exercise of any kind and over-exercising can also lead to burnout, so if that sounds familiar, cordyceps might be the adaptogen for you.
We love using Four Sigmatic’s Cordyceps powder, and Cordyceps SAP Nutritional Fundamentals for Health (NFH).
To calm down
Relora (magnolia bark extract and phellodendron bark extract) is usually what I’d recommend if you are constantly anxious and tense and need to calm down. In this way it’s also suitable for athletes who are constantly undergoing physical stress. One study found that after 4 weeks of daily supplementation with relora, the relora group (compared to the placebo) had significantly lower cortisol (a major stress hormone) and perceived daily stress, while also showing improvements in a variety of mood state parameters, including lower fatigue and higher vigor.
Combined with coaching for nutritional and lifestyle factors that promote better stress management, incorporating the right adaptogens can make a world of a difference in someone’s recovery. Click here to learn more about how we help clients suffering from stress-induced fatigue and burnout.
*If you have a health condition, please check with your doctor before taking any new herbs or supplements.
Written by: Natalia Bragagnolo, RHN