Your adrenal glands are in charge of managing stress. (We’ve all heard the “outrunning a tiger” story about our built-in fight-or-flight response.) Adaptogenic herbs — including mushrooms — offer support to your adrenals and other body systems and structures during times of occasional stress.* They can help support mental concentration and focus, and promote a balanced response to physical or emotional stress.* Adaptogens, as they’re also known, can even promote stamina, energy and endurance.*(1)
While adaptogenic herbs seem trendy right now, they’ve been used for hundreds of years in herbalism. Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Amla and Shilajit came out of the Ayurvedic tradition of India, while Rhodiola and Rhaponticum were long used by Russian folk herbalists. And, Schisandra, Reishi and Asian Ginseng have a rich history of traditional use in China.
What are Adaptogenic Herbs?
When it comes to health, the term “herbs” isn’t limited to plants alone. To be in the club, an herb simply has to possess phytochemicals that support the body’s structures or functions.* Certain mushrooms, lichens and algae are also considered “herbs.”
While adaptogenic herbs have been known and used for centuries, they were first defined in 1957, by Soviet physician and scientist Nikolai Lazarev. To be classified as an adaptogen, an “herb” must:
- help the body adapt to both environmental and psychological stresses.*
- offer nonspecific support to major systems — including the nervous, endocrine and immune systems.*
By 1985, researchers learned what herbalists in Russia, China and elsewhere already knew: that adaptogens support adrenal function and the natural stress response.*
While you might have an idea of what stress is, your body classifies all sorts of things in life as “stress.” A fight with your partner, running a marathon, exposure to unusual substances, and even too much noise or light when you’re trying to sleep can count as stress.
Beyond stress, adaptogenic herbs support your immune system and balance your endocrine system so that it can do the important work of maintaining your natural defenses.* (Reminder that all systems of your body work together.)
These herbs might be taken when you’re feeling rundown or overwhelmed to support well-being and promote balance.* Adaptogenic herbs can also be taken to sustain healthy energy levels.* That is why they are popular with athletes and people who work long hours or physically demanding jobs.*
List of Adaptogenic Herbs
So which herbs are considered adaptogenic? While there is some debate over which herbs (mushrooms included) are truly adaptogens, here’s a list of 13 adaptogenic herbs.
- American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
- Amla (Phyllanthus emblica)
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
- Cordyceps mushroom (Cordyceps militaris)
- Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
- Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
- Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
- Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum)
- Rhaponticum (Rhaponticum carthamoides)
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
- Shilajit (Asphaltum bitumen)
(1) Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston, RH
(2) Liao, L. Y., He, Y. F., Li, L., Meng, H., Dong, Y. M., Yi, F., & Xiao, P. G. (2018). A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chinese medicine, 13, 57. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13020-018-0214-9
(3) Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 3(1), 188–224. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph3010188