Updated: Aug 7


In health circles around the world, the term ‘adaptogen’ has become quite a buzzword. Adaptogens are plants which help the body resist the damaging effects of stress. To be considered a true adaptogen a species must meet the following criteria:

Although this label is less than 100 years old, the use of the plants and fungi that fall into this category date back thousands of years. Ashwagandha is one of the most popular adaptogens today, however its origins in the Indian Aryuvedic system of medicine date back Millenia. Another modern favorite, Ginseng, has been an important medicinal in traditional Chinese medicine for at least 5,000 years. Reishi mushroom has recorded use in Japan, China, and other Asian countries going back 2,000 years.

In contrast to Western medicine where illness is treated, rather than prevented, traditional systems of medicine focus on maintaining wellness and preventing sickness. Adaptogenic plants and fungi support this intention mainly by improving our bodies response to stress and bringing us back to homeostasis.


There are three categories of adaptogens - primary, secondary and adaptogen companions.

Adaptogens go beyond just boosting one’s immune system. These plants can provide all of the benefits of synthetic anabolic steroids, without the nasty repercussions. Anabolic is a metabolic reaction which results in the building of muscle. Renowned Medical Herbalist and Clinical Nutritionist, Donald Yance, describes a subcategory of adaptogens which have anabolic, or restorative properties which can be used post-exercise.

Some examples of adaptogens with anabolic properties:


Our body’s stress response may be stimulated by any number of physical, emotional and/or mental stressors that may affect us both internally and externally, such as:

  • Physical threats, injuries, accident, and disease

  • Exposure to pollutants and toxins

  • Hormonal unbalance

  • Exposure to extreme temperatures and elements

  • Loss of a loved one, financial issues, or pressure at work

  • Mental health issues

The HPA Axis

Adaptogens combat the negative effects of stress by providing support to the hypothalamic - pituitary - adrenal axis, also known as the HPA axis. The HPA axis is one of our major neuroendocrine systems (relating to the nervous and endocrine systems) and is responsible for regulating our cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone which allows our “fight or flight” response. The HPA axis functions as follows:

After a few hours, the concentration of cortisol in the blood signals to stop the release of CRH from the hypothalamus and ACTH from the pituitary glands. Adaptogens not only support the adrenal glands in the production and release of necessary hormones, but promote efficiency and prevent exhaustion of the adrenal glands. By restoring the sensitivity of the receptors in our hypothalamus, lower levels of cortisol are needed to signal to stop the release of hormones and begin moving the body into recovery mode.

General Adaptation Syndrome

To more thoroughly understand what adaptogens are capable of, we must first understand our body’s three stage reaction to physical and psychological stress, known as general adaptation syndrome:

Excessive stress, whether it be from one highly stressful event (aka acute stress) or from frequent, unchecked stress (aka chronic stress), may result in adrenal fatigue. This occurs when the adrenals are overwhelmed by the amount of cortisol needed and the body is unable to return to homeostasis. Eventually the adrenals may become unable to function at all.

If left unchecked, excessive stress may manifest itself as any of the following conditions:


In the most ancient of medicinal practices adaptogens have been revered for their ability to combat adrenal fatigue, support healthy sleep patterns, reduce inflammation from arthritis and the accompanying pain, stabilize the neuroendocrine system and reduce the risk of cancer.

Adaptogens provide the best response when taken daily, Yance recommends taking an adaptogenic blend with components from all three of the categories - primary, secondary and companion.

The following is a chart highlighting specific adaptogens and some of their associated benefits:

If considering adding these to your diet, speak with a Herbalist or Naturopath to determine the best time of day to take this adaptogen. Some adaptogens, such as the ginsengs, may have stimulatory effects directly after taking them, so even though they work to promote sleep and a healthy circadian rhythm they should still be taken in the morning.

The last decade has shown a resurgence of interest in the field of plant-based medicine, specifically adaptogens, as well as a refocus from reactive to proactive healthcare. Although there is so much left to be discovered, the importance of these plants and fungi for thousands of years in many parts of the world and the scientifically proven benefits today gives us a lot of confidence in the future of this type of medicine.

Have you wondered about trying adaptogens or incorporating them into your regular self-care? We would love to hear from you about your experience and start a conversation about this topic. Pop over to our forum page to check out what others have to say about adaptogens and voice your opinion as well!


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