Adaptogens are natural substances which regulate the body’s response to physical and mental stress. Because of this, they have many health benefits ranging from improving mood, reducing anxiety, increasing energy levels and improving cognitive function.
How Do Adaptogens Regulate Stress?
Each adaptogenic plant works a bit differently. However, most work in one or more of the following ways.
- Modulating HPA axis activity: Adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the primary system responsible for managing the body’s stress response. The adaptogens decrease the sensitivity of the axis to stress and help balance the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. This can help to prevent overproduction of cortisol in response to stress.
- Reducing oxidative stress and inflammation: Some adaptogens have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which can help to reduce the negative impacts of stress on the body. Oxidative stress and inflammation are both associated with stress and can contribute to the negative health effects of chronic stress.
- Boosting the immune system: Adaptogens may also help to support the immune system, which can be compromised during times of stress. This can help to reduce the risk of illness and other negative impacts of stress on the body.
- Modulating neurotransmitter function: Adaptogens may also interact with neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which play a role in stress and mood regulation. By modulating neurotransmitter function, adaptogens may help to reduce feelings of stress and improve overall mood.
What is the Most Powerful Adaptogen?
Ashwagandha, Rhodiola rosea, Panax ginseng, Americna ginseng and shilajit are usually listed as the most powerful adaptogens. However, it’s hard to tell which plant is the most powerful adaptogen because they affect the body in different ways. Further, there are many plants which have powerful adaptogen effects but haven’t been studied as much or aren’t as readily available.
Recommended: Four Sigmatic Adaptogen Blend
Top 25 Adaptogenic Plants
There are many plants with adaptogenic properties which could go on this list. However, I’ve focused on the ones with the most research backing up their stress-reducing health benefits.
In addition to its adaptogenic benefits, ashwagandha also reduces inflammation, boosts the immune system, improves exercise endurance, improves physical strength and reduces muscle damage, lowers blood sugar levels and helps cardiovascular health. As a result of all of these scientifically-backed benefits, it is an incredibly popular supplement.
2. Rhodiola rosea
This plant grows in many parts of the world and is easy to cultivate, making it one of the more affordable adaptogenic herbs. It is also known for its anti-aging benefits and improving physical performance.
3. Panax Ginseng
Also known as Korean or Asian ginseng, Panax ginseng is one of the most-studied and commonly-used herbal supplements. It contains compounds called ginsenosides which have numerous health benefits, including acting as an adaptogen. It is believed to work by inhibiting the enzyme 11β-HSD1, which is involved in the stress response.
4. American ginseng
Like Asian ginseng, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) also contains ginsenosides. However, American ginseng is considered to be more calming whereas Asian ginseng is considered to be more energizing.
Shilajit is a dark brown, sticky substance which is mostly found oozing out of rocks in the Himalyans and other high mountain ranges. It is made from ancient plant and microbial matter which, over a period of millions of years, slowly decomposed and got trapped in the rocks.
Shilajit contains many trace minerals, the main one being fulvic acid. Fulvic acid has numerous health benefits, including acting as a powerful adaptogen.
Cordyceps is a fungi which is primarily found in China, Nepal and Tibet. Its health benefits have been highly studied and include treating kidney disease, respiratory problems and fatigue. It is also widely used for its anti-aging benefits.
7. Holy basil
Also known as tulsi, this herb has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine. In addition to acting as an adaptogen, it also helps digestion. It has a nice flavor and is commonly used in cooking in India.
Schisandra is a member of the magnolia family and is known for its small, red or purple berries, which have a sweet and sour taste. The plant is used in traditional Chinese medicine for treating fatigue, reducing inflammation and boosting immunity. Read more about schisandra benefits here.
Maca is a plant found in the Andes Mountains. The root is known for boosting libido as well as increasing cognitive function and balancing hormones.
10. Licorice root
Even though licorice is best known for its digestive benefits, it is also a powerful adaptogen plant. Studies show it helps regulate cortisol and also supports adrenal glands, which produce stress hormones.
Astragalus is a member of the pea family found in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Studies show that it has power antioxidant benefits, fights aging, may improve cardiovascular health and has various adaptogen benefits like increasing energy levels. It’s also used as a natural remedy for asthma.
12. Goji berries
The high amounts of antioxidants in goji berries can protect against oxidative stress and boost the immune system. Studies show that goji berries can improve sleep quality by regulating the body’s sleep-wake cycle. They are also high in iron, which can help improve energy levels and endurance.
13. Reishi mushrooms
Reishi mushrooms contain a compound called ganoderic acids which have a calming effect and reduce stress. They also contain ergothioneine and hericystin, which may help protect the brain from oxidative stress and improve cognitive function. In addition to these, reishi also contains triterpenes and polysaccharides which boost immunity and fight inflammation.
Many other mushrooms, including turkey tail mushroom, also have adaptogenic benefits.
14. Siberian ginseng
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is not related to true ginseng but has similar benefits. Its benefits aren’t as well-studied as Panax ginseng, but research does show it helps fight viral infections and improves mental performance. Read more about Eleurthero health benefits here.
Fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum) is a plant native to China that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. It is known for its ability to improve hair growth, boost energy levels, and promote healthy aging. There is also some evidence it might help liver health.
16. Suma root
Suma root, also known as Pfaffia paniculata or Brazilian ginseng, is a plant native to South America. It is popularly used to boost athletic performance.
17. Tribulus terrestris
Also known as puncture vine or caltrop, this plant has a spiky fruit. The seeds in the fruit have adaptogenic properties. They are commonly used to boost athletic performance and also increase testosterone levels.
18. Ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo biloba has long been used to improve memory and cognitive function. It’s believed to work by protecting brain cells from damage and enhancing the effects of neurotransmitters in the brain.
19. Mucuna pruriens
Best known as a natural aphrodisiac, studies show this plant has many adaptogenic benefits including treating neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease. The main active compound is believed to be L-dopa.
20. Milk thistle
Milk thistle is best known for improving liver and gallbladder health. However, somem studies also show that it has adaptogenic benefits. The compound silymarin has neuro-protective benefits and may improve brain function. It also reduces inflammation and protects the brain from oxidative stress. See the best milk thistle supplements here.
21. Muira puama
This plant is native to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. It’s traditionally used to treat low libido, impotence and anxiety. Research shows it can improve memory by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is involved in learning and memory. It is also a powerful anti-inflammatory herb.
Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) is a herb native to China. It is known the “immortality herb” due to its many health benefits. Its main adaptogenic benefits are from saponins, which improve endurance and energy levels. It also supports adrenal gland health to better regulate cortisol production.
23. Pine pollen
Pine pollen acts as an adaptogen in many ways. One of the main ones is that it contains testosterone, which can increase energy levels and endurance. It also contains numerous antioxidants which can fight stress in the body. Read more about pine pollen benefits here. Also, how to eat pine cones.
Guggul, also known as Commiphora mukul, is an Ayurvedic herb with adaptogenic properties. It is known for increasing energy levels. Studies show that it works because it contains compounds called guggulsterones which stimulate the production of thyroid hormones.
Guduchi, also known as Tinospora cordifolia, is an Ayurvedic herb that has been traditionally used to improve memory and cognitive function. It works by boosting levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.