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What are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens aren't just any old group of plant medicines.

Adaptogens are a broad family of herbs and plant medicines that have been used for thousands of years throughout the world. To be labeled an adaptogen, a plant medicine must fulfill at least three specific criteria:

  • They are generally safe (for just about everyone).
  • They help you handle stress.
  • They work to balance your hormones.

This is how adaptogens work in the body.

Adaptogens balance out your hormones and help calm stress levels—but there's so much more! Your body's stress system, the sympathetic nervous system, controls hundreds of pathways that are responsible for inflammation. And this is important because the hectic, crazy, modern world we live in can leave us feeling exhausted, inflamed, irritable, hangry, and emotionally spent—all of which can lead to hormonal problems like adrenal fatigue, low sex drive, and thyroid problems.

Adaptogens give the stress system (and you) a big proverbial cuddle—keeping inflammation levels in check. And because chronic inflammation is linked to many of the common health problems we see today, the medical literature has found adaptogens to have more cool and far-reaching health benefits like:


Take-home message: Adaptogens are badass.

All of these little guys fight inflammation and generally have a knack for bringing some zen to your adrenal, thyroid, and sex hormones. But each adaptogen also has its own special set of skills. Here are the 12 most popular adaptogens and what you should know about each:

1. Ginseng: the pick-me-up

Asian White, Asian Red, American White, the ginseng varieties are great for people who want an extra boost of energy without the jitters of caffeine. I love using ginseng for jet lag!

2. Pearl: the beauty secret

Crushed-up pearl powder is a great source of aminos and will nourish skin, hair, and nails.

3. Rhodiola: the stress calmer

Rhodiola rosea can be a great tool to use for people struggling with adrenal fatigue and fibromyalgia. But, warning: If you are extra sensitive, Rhodiola can keep you up at night.

4. Schisandra: the adrenal balancer

Another super adrenal supporter, this berry is one I used on a regular basis during my journey recovering from adrenal fatigue.

5. Shilajit: the sex hormone igniter

People with low libido or sex hormone imbalance can benefit from shilajit. This Ayurvedic herb translates as "conqueror of mountains and destroyer of weakness.” Sounds good to me.

6. Ashwagandha: the thyroid + mood master

A superstar adaptogen, this popular herb is a great tool in supporting optimal thyroid function and if you are known to get mood swings. Ashwagandha is also a nightshade, which some people with autoimmune conditions can't handle.

7. Maca: the energizer

Maca is a great way to boost energy and also calm anxiety naturally. Maca is a rich source of vitamin C, making it great for boosting the immune system. There are three types of maca powders: red, yellow, and black. Red maca is the sweetest and mildest tasting. Yellow maca is the least sweet, and black maca is somewhere in between the two.

8. Holy Basil (Tulsi): the memory booster

I find holy basil to be great for people with brain fog, gently working to increase cognitive function. Tulsi is also great for bloating and gas.

9. Ho Shou Wu: the libido pumper-upper

Another great tool for people with a low sex drive, this herb has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine.

10. Mucuna pruriens: nature's chill pill

This adaptogenic bean extract is jam-packed with L-DOPA, the precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine. I take this daily as it helps with my focus and calming me down during my busy day.

11. Eleuthero: the battery pack

If you are dragging through the day, this is another way to optimize your energy levels. Extra stressful week? Eleuthero is your guy.

12. Adaptogenic mushrooms

Within the adaptogenic kingdom there is also an extra-special group of medicinal mushrooms that offer some of the same hormone-balancing benefits as the adaptogens above and some extra immune-boosting qualities too:

  • Chaga
  • Shiitake
  • Himematsutake
  • Lion's Mane
  • Turkey Tail
  • Cordyceps
  • Reishi

Here's how to use adaptogens

Because each adaptogen offers its own unique benefit, I am a fan of using blends in elixirs and smoothies. Have fun with it! 

Written By Dr. Will Cole for Mindbodygreen

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