Adaptogens 101: How Do I Know What I Should Take?

Adaptogens 101: How Do I Know What I Should Take?

What are adaptogens? Do they work? What do I take?

Supplements have always been confusing but I don’t know that they’ve ever been this mainstream. Which is a problem. Over the past two years, adaptogens in particular have made their way into a wide array of products from single herb supplements to granola and lattes. Many people have seen the word and have started to ask “Should I be taking an adaptogen? Which one?…Wait what IS an adaptogen?” Because let’s be honest: adaptogens are talked about often, but rarely defined. And I think it’s kind of important you know the details of what you’re ingesting.

What are adaptogens? Why do people take them?

Adaptogens are natural substances that fight stress on the mind and body and work to return systems back to ‘normal’. They are stress response modifiers. People most often seek out adaptogens to add to their wellness routines if they feel stressed or anxious or feel that they need an energy boost on the regular.

Adaptogens aren’t new. They have been used for centuries, typically in Eastern medicine practices, but we are only now fully looking at them in Western culture and studying their benefits. 

But here’s the thing about adaptogens. Right now they’re very trendy and they’re very wellness oriented. Which to be honest, means that the marketing surrounding products with adaptogens is…flourishy (which is fine- but I’m just saying all adaptogens as defined work to normalize so be aware you may be paying for marketing along with quality). For example, a product may be said to ‘align you with the cosmic flow for great achievement’ or bring you ‘peaceful awareness’. What it means is, as an adaptogen, it’s working to even things out period. The descriptors are extra.

Do adaptogens work? Are they real?

True question. I actually see this on Instagram a lot. With some well branded adaptogen containing products, I see commenters doubting if something works. And I love me some skepticism. But truly, scientifically some adaptogens work. In this 2010 Pharmaceuticals journal publication, research found

“In summary, adaptogens may be regarded as a novel pharmacological category of anti-fatigue drugs that:

  1. Induced increased attention and endurance in situations of decreased performance caused by fatigue and/or sensation of weakness.

  2. Reduce stress-induced impairment and disorders related to the function of stress (neuro-endocrine and immune systems) “ 

The article suggests adaptogens help with stress, and the effects of stress, but also impact the quality of life of people when paired with standard therapy of many chronic diseases or pathological conditions. 

Some adaptogens have more solid studies than others but if I was to pull a line from my nutrition training “We could always use more studies”. This is also the time I say, there are also adaptogens that have few to no studies, and some with studies also contain reviews that say evidence is conflicting. Do your research on the specific adaptogen you’re considering. I highly recommend the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health as a starting point.

Now is it worth the price you’re paying for every adaptogen product? Probably not. Marketing that requires an element of consumer education and dope AF packaging all take money. There’s user experience to consider to sell a product. It’s a business after-all!  So I would say many adaptogenic blends that contain other ingredients likely have somethings that also aren’t studied for their intended uses inside. But if you enjoy the specific product and it’s not causing harm, spend the money if you want to!

Do you take adaptogens? 

Yes. I started dabbling in the adaptogen world last year with ashwagandha. It’s highly studied and clinically proven to help reduce stress and anxiety. And it totally works for me. My recommendation is to start with a single herb. I love Gaia because of their transparency, sustainability and high quality product. Since then, I’ve also taken cordyceps and holy basil, but still prefer ashwagandha because I find it more effective for my body. We’ll talk about how to decide what works best for you later. 

Many products I currently take also include ashwagandha as part of their ingredient list.

How do you take adaptogens?

Adaptogen delivery can occur in several ways. If it’s a powder, add it to a beverage, smoothie, yogurt or whatever floats your boat. They can also be taken straight up in tincture or capsule form which is my personal preference. If I’m spending money on a high quality supplement, I don’t want to chance not getting the full dosage by not finishing a smoothie.

A quick note if you are taking a tincture, make sure to read package details as some need to be sublingual and/or hold in the mouth for several seconds before swallowing for absorption.

How long will it take to work?

Unlike CBD oil which can begin working within 20 minutes (read my super in-depth CBD 101 post), many adaptogens require some time before they really kick in. Like multiple days of taking them. Which is frustrating for some people. We’re a culture that loves immediacy so taking some time to see results can be disheartening. For me (and Chris), ashwagandha began working after about two days.

I like to always track my results when I’m trying something new, because if there’s limited evidence and you’re not seeing results either…meh. Save your money. 

I’ll also say, sometimes taking things that are a blend can be tricky. With multiple ingredients at a time, you may be unable to find out which active ingredient is impacting you, for better or worse. I personally started out using single formulation adaptogens before taking blends.

How can I tell if they’re working and worth it?

My love of efficient wellness really comes into play here. If you’re not noticing a difference after several weeks/ a month plus…consider if you want to continue spending your money here. You are in no way obligated to keep using something because you bought it and you end up hating it. Here’s what I look for and track to see if I want to continue using a new addition to my routine. Open a new tab in Notes or pull out a notebook:

  1. Digestion: This is probably my dietitian training for why I put this first, but seriously your digestion tells you a lot about what’s going on in your body. If you experience gastric distress or changes, write them down. They’re sometimes a negative side effect that you’re supposed to use as a warning sign per directions.

  2. Physical sensations: Tingling, pain, warm fuzzies, numbness- whatever! This is one that was a good indicator for me with ashwagandha which made itself known by feeling like slight pressure and warmness at the base of my neck.

  3. Mental changes: This is the most important to track. Adaptogens seem to make incremental changes for many people. It’s not like a switch being turned on and off for change. By tracking your mood and emotions, after a month or two you may see HOW much of a difference it made by reading previous notes for positivity/depression/fatigue etc.

What are some adaptogens and why would I take them?

Remember, always work with your medical professional before you add a supplement to your wellness practices. Herbs and adaptogens can interact with your current prescription medications or may not be appropriate for your current diagnosis. While specific adaptogens listed here and in other places may designate a specific usage purpose (eg energy or mood), many benefits overlap (they are all, after all, adaptogens). Note that many of the adaptogens below have a note saying their efficacy has not been studied or is questionable. Like all things- studies cost money. Some may be truly effective, but at this time funding has not been designated to run studies that are good enough. If it works for you and is not harming you…go for it! This is the intersection of why sometimes Eastern and Western medicine have a difficult time co-existing in a wellness routine: we want proof and answers, but sometimes all we have is personal experience.

Ashwagandha: My personal favorite, it is known for stress relief and enhanced relaxation but it also supports cognitive function and you body’s endurance. To me, this might be a good option if you’re feeling stressed and burnt out. Ashwagandha contains chemicals that may help calm the brain. It is considered ‘possibly safe’ taken short term (although long term use, like many adaptogens, is unknown’. Be on the watch for gastric upset which may be a sign of an overdose. Be cautious when using with sedative medications and stop 2 weeks prior to planned surgery.

According to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database: Considered possibly effective for stress. “taking a specific ashwagandha root extract (KSM66, Ixoreal Biomed) 300 mg twice daily after food for 60 days appears to improve symptoms of stress.” Insufficient evidence for everything else including anxiety and fatigue which I personally find untrue- I think it does help with anxiety!

Astragalus: If you’re looking for immune system help, astragalus is known for its protective benefits. Considered safe for many adults, the most commonly reported side effects are diarrhea and other mild gastrointestinal effects. It’s important to note it may affect blood sugar and blood pressure. Astragalus may interact with medications that suppress the immune system. There are no high-quality studies in people of astragalus for any health conditions. It is often studied in conjunction with kidney function and infections but poor quality studies. There’s weak evidence (a 2013 research review) that astragalus may help heart function in some patients with viral myocarditis.

Chaga: Chaga is known as ‘the king of mushrooms’ and is found on trees in cold climates. Chaga contains phytonutrients that are said to stimulate the immune system to become more active and decrease inflammation. Chaga may lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels (be aware if you are a person with diabetes). It is used as a folk remedy for cancer and digestive issues. Natural sources of chaga are nearly gone, so currently researchers are looking to develop cultivated substitutes. Chaga may increase risk of bleeding and symptoms of auto-immune diseases. Avoid if you have a bleeding disorder and avoid at least 2 weeks prior to surgery. Chaga is high in oxalates, which may prevent the absorption of some nutrients and can be toxic in high doses. Currently, there are no clinical trials to assess the safety and efficacy of chaga. Laboratory and animal studies indicate chaga can kill cancer cells and stimulate the immune system and may reduce fatigue and inflammation while increasing mental sharpness.

Cordyceps: Grown on the back of caterpillars and harvested from mountain regions (but now often grown in a lab), this powerful fungus is thought to fight signs of aging, reduce fatigue and stress, increase libido and improve cardiovascular health and athletic performance. Cordyceps might improve immunity by stimulating cells and specific chemicals in the immune system. It may also have activity against cancer cells and may shrink tumor size, particularly with lung or skin cancers. However, there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses. Avoid cordyceps if you have cancer, diabetes or a bleeding disorder. Cordcyceps could interact with blood thinners, diabetes medications. Do not take with prednisone or immunosuppresants.  It is considered ‘possibly ineffective’ for athletic performance with insufficient evidence for kidney related diseases, asthma, chemo tolerance, breathing disorders… and everything else you could think of (eye roll…again, remember it may work, but we don’t have the studies to prove it).

Ginseng: Ginseng has been used for centuries to improve memory, concentration and boosting the immune system, thanks to chemical components called ginsenosides. The short term use of Asian ginseng seems to be safe for most people however long-term use is questionable. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, or are more specifically, on a blood thinner, consult your health care provider before using. There have been several studies with human subjects, however they are not the best quality studies.

Maca: If you’re looking for energy…this is a big one. It’s a Peruvian plant that has been cultivated as a vegetable crop for at least 3000 years. It is said to work on female hormone balancing properties, male infertility, sex drive as well as healthy energy levels and stamina including CFS adrenal function. There isn't enough information to know how maca might work however it is considered ‘likely safe’ for most people when consumed as food and ‘possibly safe’ when taken by mouth as a medicine. Be cautious if taking with hormone-sensitive conditions such as breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids. There is currently insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for these uses…HOWEVER, many people have told me (and I agree) that maca makes me feel like I’m bouncing off the walls with energy. So be cautious.

Schisandra: This potent berry powder does it all. In Chinese medicine, schisandra was used as a beauty food and brain booster that also functioned as an aphrodisiac. It is considered ‘possibly effective’ for mental performance, and reducing an enzyme marker for liver damage in people with hepatitis (SGPT). Schisandra is possibly safe but be cautious if you have GERD, peptic ulcers or epilepsy. I’ve seen schisandra added in blends for anti-anxiety as well.

Dietitian Nutritionist. My husband Chris and I create food and beverage photos, videos, stopmotions and recipes. And they're really cool.