While adaptogens have been used for centuries around the world, only recently have their popularity grown beyond the holistic health community.
By definition, adaptogens are agents that help the body and mind adapt to stress. Compared with single amino acid supplements or floral extracts, adaptogens typically are herbs or roots said to exert physiological “normalizing” effects on the body that relieve fatigue and stress.1,2 Although there isn’t a wide body of evidence on adaptogens, some studies point to benefits linked to several mechanisms of action related to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis.1 Other adaptogens may provide stress-reducing properties due to support of the immune system.3
Stress can build in many forms. Even when someone doesn’t physically feel like they’re stressed or anxious, work, family, the environment, exercise, genetics, and even sitting in traffic can put a strain on the body. Many minor stressors can synergistically begin to influence digestion, mood, sleep, blood pressure, and more. This chronic stress is what adaptogens may help combat, according to preliminary research.4
Should Everyone Take Adaptogenic Herbal Supplements?
While the body of research isn’t strong to support the use of adaptogens to relieve fatigue and stress, clients may be interested in using them. As dietitians, it’s important that we first encourage clients to eat a more balanced, healthful diet to support optimal health. If a client is eating just one serving of fruit and vegetables per day and consuming next to no omega-3 fatty acids, adaptogenic herbs shouldn’t be your first recommendation. However, if someone is successfully working towards a well-balanced and nutrient-dense diet but wants to support her stress levels, you may consider exploring adaptogens as part of the discussion.
If you’re recommending adaptogens to clients, one place to start is with herbal teas. “I like recommending teas because they really are food as medicine,” says Kelli Gray-Meisner, RDN, an integrative and functional medicine specialist at UC San Diego Health. As an alternative, clients can add adaptogenic herbs to easy-to-make recipes, such as smoothies, or oatmeal. They also can purchase functional foods that contain adaptogens as ingredients such as bottled juices and smoothies or plant-based protein powders.
Caveat About Supplements
When it comes to taking adaptogenic supplements, dietitians need to remind clients that taking more isn’t always better. Many supplements come in high dosages that may not be supported by research and therefore are risky to take. Before recommending dosages and specific types of adaptogens, you may want to do more research and engage in continuing education. In the meantime, here are some popular adaptogens that many clients can use in the forms mentioned above.
Panax ginseng is a widely known adaptogen, though the research has been mixed on its proven benefits. It’s most often used in supplement form, but dosages haven’t been established for specific conditions. Ginseng tea is a popular way to incorporate this into one’s diet, and recipes using ginseng powder usually include broths and Asian soups and stews.
Though we need more research to understand its benefits, this Ayurvedic herb can be purchased in powder form to be added to homemade teas and smoothies, or even baked goods recipes. Ashwaganda also can be found as an essential oil or even massage oil.
We need more research on its benefits, but holy, or Thai, basil (a relative of the basil you find in grocery stores) is a common adaptogen. If you can find it, it’s easily incorporated into plenty of Thai dishes. Meisner recommends holy basil in tea form, saying, “It’s available in almost every grocery store and has a neutral taste. Many brands incorporate other flavors with the holy basil in the tea, too, and it can be served warm or cold.”
While it typically comes in capsule form, maca has become popular in powder form to add to recipes. Clients can add a teaspoon of maca root powder to a smoothie, oatmeal, or yogurt, or to homemade energy bars. However, the scientific evidence to support its purported benefits is scant.
Most people are familiar with licorice in the form of candy. Still, it may be better to use the root itself in cooking to reduce added sugar intake. It can be used similarly to vanilla bean as a flavoring agent or steeped in liquid to make teas and sauces. Powdered licorice is used as an ingredient in meat and poultry rubs. More research is needed on its purported benefits.
While reishi often is sold as a supplement, clients can consume the mushrooms as they do other mushroom varieties in their diet. If purchased fresh, they can be grilled. If purchased dried, clients can add them to soups, stews, or grain dishes. However, more research is needed on their benefits as an adaptogen.
Who Should Not Use Adaptogens?
Pregnant and breast-feeding women shouldn’t use adaptogens because they may affect hormones. Clients should check with their physician or dietitian before using an adaptogen and find out whether the adaptogen they want to use is contraindicated with any medication they may be taking. For example, 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. Maca may not be appropriate for someone on hormone therapy or who consumes large amounts of soy.
Even though adaptogens are safe for most people, supplement quality continues to be a concern whether purchasing vitamins, protein, or herbs. “There’s always a question of the quality of the herb and other ingredients used in the supplements,” says Ashley Koff, RD, an award-winning dietitian, author, speaker, consultant, and CEO of The Better Nutrition Program, a membership program that enables individuals to follow a personalized nutrition plan to achieve better health. “What is most concerning is that since adaptogens are expensive, certain companies may take shortcuts to sell less expensive versions possibly containing heavy metals and other contaminants,” Koff says.
Want to Learn More?
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, available for free to members of certain dietetic practice groups of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is a great place to find more information on adaptogens.
— Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is a board-certified sports dietitian based in greater Philadelphia. As a media spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and nutrition coach, her expertise lies in performance nutrition, intuitive eating, and nutrition for anxiety management. Kelly’s blog translates science into practice with nutrition tips and recipes.
- Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress-protective activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010;3(1):188-244.
- Jacquet A, Grolleau A, Jove J, Lassalle R, Moore N. Burnout: Evaluation of the efficacy and tolerability of Target I for professional fatigue syndrome. J Int Med Res. 2015;43(1):54-66.
- Mondal S, Varma S, Bamola VD, et al. Double-blinded randomized controlled trial for immunomodulatory effects of Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum Linn.) leaf extract on healthy volunteers. J Ethnopharmacol. 2011;136(3):452-456.
- Auddy B, Hazra J, Mitra A, Abedon B, Ghosal S. A standardized Withania somnifera extract significantly reduces stress-related parameters in chronically stressed humans. JANA. 2008;11(1):51-57.