The Science Behind Adaptogens

The Science Behind Adaptogens


Adaptogens have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, but many people are just now hearing about them in the context of dietary supplements and wondering if they work and if they are worth the money.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are herbal medicines used to counteract physiological effects of stress and to normalize your body under such conditions. They’re believed to impact the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the peripheral nervous system in a “non-specific” way.

The name “adaptogen” was proposed by a Russian scientist named N. Lazarev in 1940, to describe the effects of using Schisandra chinensis and other herbs. Adaptogens began being heavily researched throughout the 20th century, and maintain their definition as metabolic regulators that helps the body adapt to stress to protect itself from harm.1

There are three main categories of adaptogens:

1. Mushrooms: Cordyceps, Maitake, and Reishi

2. Herbs: Panax ginseng, Panax cinquefoils, Schisandra, Licorice root, Cat’s claw, Milk thistle, Astragalus, Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, and Gotu kola

3. Foods: Green tea, Garlic, Ginger, and Turmeric

What are adaptogens used for?

Adaptogenic herbs are meant to help your body respond better to stress, and take on resistance against some of the damage caused by stressors. In order to fit this definition, they must be able to help your body offset physical, chemical or biological stressors, and any physical disruption caused by them. 

When we experience stress, our bodies go through three stages of stress response, which include the alarm phase, the phase of resistance, and then the phase of exhaustion. Adaptogens help the resistance phase extend for as long as possible. 

We’re all impacted by stress daily, even when we don’t realize it. Stressors can be external and internal, such as environmental contaminants, pollution, change in climate, infection, radiation, or mental stresses. 

Herbalists often prescribe a specific type of adaptogen to someone based on their individual needs, such as the source of stress and whether it’s an external, like a burn, or internal, like anxiety or depression.

What does science say about adaptogens?

Research suggests that certain adaptogens may have neuroprotective elements, anti-fatigue properties, antidepressive effects, and stimulating effects on the central nervous system.2 Some people have reported experiencing less burnout or fatigue with adaptogen use.

Adaptogens may be helpful in promoting general well-being, as well as in the treatment of specific ailments when used in combination with traditional treatments. They appear to have different mechanisms of action in different people, simply based on what needs to be balanced in the body at that time. 

For instance, some studies show that ginseng will raise blood pressure for some, and lower it for others.3 While this is promising, it can make it difficult to know what impact an adaptogen will have.

There have been hundreds of studies done in adaptogens, but the results are overwhelmingly inconsistent. There is a large variability among study designs and their outcomes, many of which use animals or human cell samples.4 

Overall, there isn’t enough convincing evidence yet to suggest that certain adaptogens will work as intended for everyone. Still, there is promise in their use and more research is needed to determine their best applications. 

Keep in mind that adaptogens are regulated like other dietary supplements, not like pharmaceuticals. This means that there is no safety or quality testing done by a regulatory body, like the FDA, before they can be sold.

Will adaptogens help you? Ongoing research is being conducted looking at how adaptogens may be best used for not only fatigue and anxiety, but also heart and respiratory conditions. It’s best to ask your doctor for recommendations, as some herbal medicines may interact with other treatments.




  1. Chin Med. 2018;13:57.
  2. Pharmaceuticals . 2010;3(1):188-224.
  3. Ann Pharmacother. 2006;40(1):83-95.
  4. Curr Clin Pharmacol. 2009;4(3):198-219.

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  • Blog Contributor
Comments 1
  • Carol Denison
    Carol Denison

    I will continue to use these supplements with my healthy eating and exercise program!

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