Adaptogens Are Incredibly Popular Right Now—But What Are They, Exactly?

Heard about the health benefits of adaptogenic herbs and felt completely out of the loop? You're not alone. We consulted a Registered Dietitian to clear the air.

As I sit here writing this, I'm sipping a steaming mug of Rasa coffee alternative, a blend of hard-to-pronounce ingredients like ashwagandha, rhodiola, eleuthero, and shatavari that I let steep in my French press for 10 minutes. The resulting tea-like beverage promises to give me a steady source of energy to write on this warm summer evening while also relaxing me enough to keep my Sunday scaries at bay and preparing me for a solid night's sleep.

Sound too good to be true? We asked a Registered Dietitian to shed some light on adaptogenic herbs.


What Are Adaptogens?

Put simply, adaptogens are herbs that may help facilitate your body's adaptation to stress (get it?), meaning they help you cope with and recover from the adverse effects of stressors. So whether you're training for a marathon or just have a marathon workday, adaptogens may assist your body in regulating both the brain and the nervous system. Research has shown that when used daily, adaptogens may help reduce stress, anxiety, and fatigue, while increasing attention and endurance. Ashwagandha, for one example, was found in a 2019 double-blind study to decrease morning cortisol, and lower overall depression, anxiety and stress by a statistically significant amount in participants as compared to those in the placebo group.

Taking adaptogens isn't like popping a pill, however, so don't expect instant results. Adaptogens work best when taken regularly, so start out by trying to incorporate them into your daily routine and give them a few weeks before evaluating how you feel. "It's important to note that you do have to try these out and pay attention to the effect on your body over several weeks since you wont notice a change after 1 to 2 doses," says Rebecca Ditkoff, MPH, RD, CDN, Founder of Nutrition by RD.

Adaptogens have been around for centuries, but Ditkoff explains when and why we started seeing a resurgence in the use of these powerful herbs. "Modern scientific research on adaptogens began with World War II. There was a need to enhance and increase stamina, endurance, and performance of pilots, and adaptogens were used. For example, one of the first scientific studies on the stimulating and tonic effects of Schisandra was published in Soviet World War II-era military journals."

Of course, you should never begin a new supplementation routine without first checking with your healthcare provider. "Adaptogen dosage and safety will depend on an individual's health, frequency of use, and prescription medication use," says Ditkoff. "While there is no such thing as a miracle cure-all, if your doctor or RD clears you to try adaptogens, you might just find that they can be a positive addition to your health and wellness regimen."

How Can You Incorporate Adaptogens into Your Daily Routine?

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Include Adaptogen-Rich Foods into Your Diet

There are many natural sources of adaptogens found in food that you can include in your meals for an easy and delicious fix of adaptogens. You might already be familiar with some of these, such as turmeric—an anti-inflammatory spice that adds potent flavor to stir fries, curries, or even golden milk ice pops. Another popular adaptogenic herb is Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi, which makes a great addition to Thai-inspired dishes. Mushrooms are also an excellent source of adaptogens, specifically varieties like reishi, chaga, and cordyceps. You can purchase dried mushrooms in powdered form or buy them whole and make umami-rich adaptogenic tacos or omelets.

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Homemade or Pre-Made Elixirs

There are many different adaptogens out there, each with a different effect, and they can be combined in endless variations. The Complete Guide to Adaptogens by herbalist Agatha Noveille is a useful resource if you want to dive in deep and learn all about the fascinating world of adaptogens. But if it's all a bit overwhelming, there are some fantastic companies making adaptogenic blends ready to be consumed for any use. In addition to Rasa, which I mentioned above, Four Sigmatic makes an Adaptogen Blend that includes 10 different herbs, mushrooms, and spices to help you stay relaxed all day long.

If you're more of a DIY type, it's easy to mix up your own elixirs at home. KOS makes organic ashwagandha, rhodiola, and mushroom powders that you can buy by the tub and play around with different recipes. For a relaxing beverage, try blending 1 teaspoon of ashwagandha powder with a little honey, coconut milk, vanilla, and cinnamon. Warm up the mixture over the stove and enjoy a steamy, calming after-dinner drink.

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Add to Your Morning Beverage

Be warned: some adaptogenic herbs have a strong, earthy taste. But if you don't mind an earthy spin on your morning beverage, this can be an easy way to incorporate adaptogenics into your day. I personally love a little cordyceps mixed in with my coffee for an energy boost that sustains me far longer than just caffeine alone. Mixing adaptogenics into smoothies is also a great way to get your daily dose (while concealing some of the overly herbal flavor).

Bottom Line

If you are interested in trying adaptogens, remember to start small and work your way up once you know how the different herbs affect your unique system. Ditkoff reminds us that despite the initial promise shown by research into adaptogens, "studies are still limited and further investigation utilizing larger sample sizes, diverse clinical and cultural populations, and varying treatment dosages are needed to substantiate these findings." So listen to your body (and your doctor) before tipping the entire bag of mushroom powder into your cup of coffee.

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