Adaptogens are substances that may reduce the negative effects of stress on your body. They may also help improve your body’s resistance to stress and offer other benefits as well.

The term “adaptogen” was first used in 1940 to describe certain plant-based extracts that can non-specifically enhance the human body.

Nowadays, adaptogens refer to a range of naturally sourced and synthetic supplements that may help the body adapt to stressful situations by interfering with the fight or flight response and — in theory — without causing any harm. They may also help reduce the risk and impact of long-term stress.

“Adaptogen” is a functional term. The term focuses on how these substances affect your body rather than what chemicals they contain.

Adaptogens are widely available as supplements, but it’s best to check with a doctor before using either plant-based or synthetic adaptogens, as they may not be safe for everyone.

Read on to find out what adaptogens are, how they work in the body, and whether or not they’re worth considering for you.

Share on Pinterest
Pichamon Chamroenrak

Adaptogens come as either synthetic or plant-based compounds. They contain biologically active compounds, including phytochemicals, that can benefit the body.

According to the original definition, they had to meet three criteria:

  1. They must be non-specific and help the body in various adverse conditions, such as physical or environmental stress.
  2. They must counter the physical impact of stress.
  3. They must not harm the usual working of the body.

Over time, the criteria have been refined. In the 1990s, some scientists defined them as follows: “Adaptogens are natural bioregulators that increase the ability to adapt environmental factors and avoid the damage caused by those factors.”

In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined adaptogens as “A new kind of metabolic regulator that has been proved to help in environmental adaptation and to prevent external harms.”

Plant-based adaptogens

Examples of naturally occurring plant-based adaptogens include extracts from:

  • Panax ginseng
  • Acanthopanax senticosus, previously known as Eleutherococcus senticosus
  • Rhodiola crenulata
  • Schisandra chinensis

Adaptogens contain plant compounds such as alkaloids, terpenoids, flavonoids, and coumarins.

Adaptogens work by affecting certain body tissues and organs to reduce stress and fatigue and restore the body’s natural balance, especially when you’re under pressure.

For example, ginseng affects the pituitary and adrenal glands. As a result, it may help reduce problems with sleep, arthritis, energy levels, and the nervous system.

Synthetic adaptogens

Examples of synthetic adaptogens include:

  • bromantane
  • levamisole
  • aphobazole
  • bemethyl

Synthetic adaptogens can boost mental and physical and mental resistance, increase blood flow by expanding the blood vessels, and lower levels of sugar and lactate in the blood.

In the past, athletes used them to help boost their stamina. However, some are now banned substances for athletes.

People take adaptogens to help their bodies adapt to life’s stresses. Adaptogens aim to help your body react to or recover from both short- and long-term physical or mental stress. Some may also boost immunity and overall well-being.

Scientists say they can “non-specifically enhance the resistance of the human body under a wide range of external circumstances.” In other words, they may help you cope when things get tough.

Some research shows adaptogens can combat fatigue, enhance mental performance, ease depression and anxiety, and help you thrive rather than just muddle through.

Proponents say adaptogens can boost overall health and specifically help people with:

  • the mental and physical fatigue that can come with stress
  • pain and inflammation due to osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • fibromyalagia
  • sleep problems
  • hormonal imbalances that affect the nervous system, for example, by producing the energy the body needs to use nutrients more effectively

Although more research is needed, some studies suggest that certain adaptogens may have anticancer activities.

When you face a physical or mental stressor, your body goes through a process known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS).

GAS is a three-stage response:

  1. alarm
  2. resistance
  3. exhaustion

Adaptogens help you stay in the resistance phase longer, via a stimulating effect that holds off the exhaustion. Instead of crashing during a stressful moment, task, or event, you find a balance and carry on.

Adapting to stress helps you perform and feel better despite the situation. And that helps improve your health and well-being.

When stressed, your adrenal gland releases the stress hormone cortisol, which gives you the energy to tackle an emergency.

But frequent releases of high levels of cortisol are not helpful. It may lead to cortisol dysfunction, which can trigger widespread inflammation and pain.

Using adaptogens can help manage stress in the short term, but it may also help reduce the risk of long-term complications of persistent stress.

Each adaptogen has a different effect on the body, so the choice of which one to take will depend on the result you seek. Ashwagandha, for example, can both energize and relax you.

Here are some more examples:

AdaptogenPossible benefitPossible side effects
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)may boost memory, reaction time, calmness, and immune systemmay interact with blood thinners
ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)may reduce stress and anxietymay cause stomach upset; not safe in pregnancy
astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
may combat
may interact with drugs that affect the immune system
cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris)may boost staminamay cause dry mouth, nausea, abdominal distension, throat discomfort, headache, diarrhea, allergic reactions; may cause lead poisoning; not safe for people with RA, multiple sclerosis, or systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)
goji berry (Lycium barbarum)may boost energy, physical and mental performance, calmness, sense of well-being, can improve sleepmay cause allergic reaction
eleuthero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus)may improve focus and stave off mental fatiguemay cause upset stomach, headache
jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum)may reduce stress and boost enduranceno side effects recorded as yet
licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)may reduce oxidative stressmay cause high blood pressure, reduced potassium, possibly unsafe for people with kidney disease or cardiovascular problems; not suitable during pregnancy
rhodiola rosea (R. rosea)may stave off physical and mental fatiguemay cause dizziness, dry mouth or excess salivation
schisandra berry / magnolia berry (Schisandra chinensis)
may boost
endurance, mental performance, and working capacity
may cause restlessness, sleep problems, breathing difficulty
tulsi / holy basil (Ocimum sanctum)may reduce physical and mental stress, stress-related anxiety, and depression and improve memory and thinkinglikely safe for most people, but more research is needed
turmeric (Curcuma longa)
may reduce depression
likely safe in small amounts

Adaptogens can have a powerful effect, so it’s essential to follow the instructions when using them.

A naturopathic physician can recommend specific adaptogens and reputable formulas and dosages. They can also adjust your dosage as needed based on the effects you hope to achieve.

Always check with a doctor before taking adaptogens or any type of supplement. They can interact with medications and may not be suitable for everyone.

It’s also essential to check with a doctor before using supplements if you are pregnant or may become pregnant or if you are breastfeeding. Some supplements, including adaptogens, may harm a developing fetus or infant.

A doctor may recommend using adaptogens for a few days or weeks to get through a busy time at work or taking them for a longer stretch if necessary. Some adaptogens take several weeks to have an effect.

Adaptogens may help you get through intense periods — like holidays, finals, and taxes — and stay gently energized long term.

However, they are not a substitute for looking after yourself through diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep. If you’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed or you have signs of depression lasting more than 2 weeks, it’s best to see a doctor about more robust options that can help.

As with any drug or supplement, adaptogens do have side effects, interactions, and contraindications. So do your research, especially regarding any current health conditions. It’s also recommended you contact a healthcare professional before beginning a herbal regimen.