What Are Adaptogens? How Do Adaptogens Help With Stress and Anxiety?
Adaptogens are a category of plants that help you adapt to all forms of stress: noise, physical exertion, chemical toxins, cold, exhaustion, psychological stress, and so on. They simultaneously help you feel less jittery and more energetic.
Adaptogens help you feel less anxious by moderating how your body deals with stress. They adapt and they help you adapt. They can serve as a general tonic that helps you feel better overall.
The first adaptogen I was introduced to was maca, which is native to South America. Over the years, I learned about many more adaptogens and I began to notice that it seems like every region around the world has an adaptogenic plant in their traditional medicine repertoire. This really brings home to me the importance of this category of plants for health and well-being.
It turns out that the use of adaptogens as feel-better tonics dates back thousands of years in many different parts of the world.
What's In This Article
Botanicals Versus Individual Nutrients
How do Adaptogens Work?
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens Versus Stimulants
Note: This article is a summary of my research. It should not be taken as medical advice. Check with your personal doctor and medical professionals for personal advice.
Botanicals Versus Individual Nutrients
Before we talk about the specifics of adaptogens’ impact on anxiety, I want to take a minute to point out a major difference between the use of botanicals (herbs and roots) such as adaptogens versus nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
With botanicals, we are taking in a combination of biochemicals as they coexist in a plant instead of focusing on individual biochemicals like a single isolated vitamin or mineral. This allows the combination of biochemicals present in nature to support each other and provide a combined benefit to your body. It is thought that the combination of chemicals in these plants may have a synergistic effect on each other so that their combined impact is greater than if individual chemicals were extracted.
Cautions: While herbs and roots offer many benefits, we don’t know everything about all their constituent chemical parts, so it is important to use caution when using them in combination with pharmaceutical drugs and it is typically advised that their use during pregnancy or nursing only be under a doctor’s care.
There are a number of online drug interaction checkers (such as https://www.drugs.com/interaction/list/) that you may find helpful. I am not vouching for the information on these sites, but you may find them useful.
How do Adaptogens Work?
In their 2012 journal article “A Current Status of Adaptogens: Natural Remedy to Stress,” Indian pharmacology scholars Vinod Pawar and Hugar Shivakumar tout the use of adaptogens to counter stress:
“One of the best and most powerful ways to lower excess cortisol levels, bring the body into a state of metabolic harmony and reduce the damaging effects of stress is to use adaptogens.Adaptogens positively change our stress response and help prevent many health problems.”
Adaptogens may help you deal with stress by:
- reducing oxidative stress and inflammation,
- supporting your adrenal glands, and
- moderating cortisol, blood sugar, and your immune response.
What Are Adaptogens?
Ginseng is an adaptogen that you may be familiar with. When you think of ginseng, the Asian variety is probably what comes to mind, but many of the adaptogens from other parts of the world are commonly referred to as ginseng also. It’s not surprising given that they have similar effects.Adaptogens that may help your body and your mind feel less stressed include these plants from around the world:
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), possibly the most widely known adaptogen, is from China and Korea.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a North American plant that has been used medicinally by many Native American tribes for hundreds of years.
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is also known as Siberian ginseng, but it is not in the same plant genus as Asian and American ginseng. (Notice that American and Asian ginseng have the same plant genus name, Panax, but eleuthero’s plant genus name is different.) Eleuthero was heavily studied by Dr. Nicholai Lazerev, Dr. Israel Brekhman, and a large group of researchers in the communist Soviet Union because of its purported ability to improve endurance and performance, and to reduce the impact of all types of stress: physical, mental, and emotional. Dr. Lazerev was the first to use the term “adaptogen.” The Soviet studies resulted in a directive that all USSR athletes take eleuthero during training.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii), sometimes called Peruvian ginseng, is from the Andes Mountains of Peru.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) from northern Africa, the Middle East, and India is an important botanical in Ayurvedic medicine. Sometimes called Indian ginseng, it has been in use for more than 2,500 years.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum, O. tenuiflorum) from Southern Asia is also known as tulsi. Holy basil most likely comes by its name because it was held in high regard in Hindu traditions. It is sometimes used in Thai cuisine, but so are other types of Thai basil that do not have the same adaptogenic qualities as holy basil.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra, G. uralensis) has been used medicinally since ancient times in many parts of the world including the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and North America. The root is used to flavor black licorice candy, but don’t eat a bunch of the candy to get the adaptogenic benefits because you’ll be consuming a lot of sugar too. There are other plants, such as anise and fennel, which have a licorice flavor but are not related to licorice root and are not adaptogens.(Note: I’ve included licorice on this list because it is used in small doses in some adaptogen mixtures, but it should not be taken in high doses for extended periods because of potential negative side effects. See note at end of this article for more information.)
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), also known as Arctic root, is from the far north and is said to have been used by the Vikings to increase physical stamina.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), popular in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a yin tonic, is among the adaptogens widely studied by the Soviet researchers.
Adaptogens Versus Stimulants
Both stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines, etc.) and adaptogens can help you feel more energetic, alert, and focused, but they have major differences in how they achieve those results. Adaptogens don’t create the negative side effects of stimulants.
Caffeine and other stimulants can make anxiety worse. They can make you jittery, irritable, and on edge. They can stress your body and interfere with sleep. The lift from adaptogens is adaptive in that they are helping your body systems do their work and improve your physical health. They increase your potential for dealing with stressors in a mentally and physically healthy way.
Stimulants create an energy spike and dive. The lift from adaptogens does not create a shadow energy dip. Stimulants contribute to insomnia. Adaptogens may relieve insomnia. Stimulants are addictive. Adaptogens are not.
Having said all that, some adaptogens are more stimulating than others. If you are experiencing adrenal fatigue symptoms, you may do better with adaptogens on the more stimulating end of the continuum, such as Asian ginseng. If your anxiety symptoms are more in the high cortisol wound-up range, you may do better with adaptogens on the more calming end of the continuum, such as American ginseng and ashwagandha.
In their book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, David Winston and Steven Maimes describe the diverse ways that adaptogens can help lower anxiety and the specifics of individual adaptogens.
Swedish researcher Alexander Panossian gets more detailed in his analysis of adaptogen biochemistry and how their component parts impact your component parts in his many journal articles about these helpful plants.
Other researchers explain the action of ginsenosides, unique biochemicals found in members of the Panax family (e.g., American and Asian ginseng).
I won’t go into the biochemical explanations of exactly how adaptogens affect your body, but you can check out those resources if you would like to know more.
For some adaptogens, there seems to be more high-quality research using animals than humans. Here’s a sampling of animal results:
- A 2015 review of twenty-eight studies recounted evidence that ashwagandha reduced anxiety behaviors and brain oxidative stress markers in rodents.
- A control group of rabbits exposed to acute stress had increased levels of the oxidative stress marker nitrogen oxide and increased cortisol, but rabbits pretreated with either eleuthero, schizandra, rhodiola, or Asian ginseng all had nitrogen oxide and cortisol levels that remained nearly unchanged from pre-stress levels, demonstrating that each of these adaptogens rendered the rabbits more stress-resistant.
Asian ginseng significantly reduced corticosterone (the animal equivalent of cortisol), stomach ulcers, adrenal gland weight, and blood glucose in mice exposed to chronic stress.
- Mice given American ginseng were studied in tests that provoked anxiety and depression. They were compared to mice given pharmaceutical anti-anxiety medication (diazepam) and antidepressant medication (Imipramine) and also to an untreated control group of mice. The mice given ginseng were significantly less stressed and depressed than the controls and were close in their reactions/symptoms to the medicated mice.
A clinical study published in 2012 demonstrated almost 40% better overall improvement in stress-related symptoms in seventy-nine adults who received holy basil (1200 mg per day) for six weeks compared to a control group that received a placebo. Also, compared to the placebo group, the holy basil group had significant improvement in many individual symptoms, including forgetfulness, sexual problems of recent origin, exhaustion, and sleep problems.
Fourteen postmenopausal women were given 3.5 grams/day of maca for six weeks preceded by or followed by six weeks of placebo (some starting with maca and some ending with maca). When they received the maca, their anxiety and depression scores went down significantly and their sexual function went up.
Ashwagandha reduced stress and cortisol levels in people with a history of chronic stress significantly better than the performance of a placebo in a control group.
Students given rhodiola for twenty days during an examination period were less physically and mentally tired and scored higher for mental well-being than their placebo counterparts.
A hundred and sixty Russian cadets were broken into four groups (untreated control, placebo, 370 mg rhodiola, and 555 mg rhodiola) to test the effect of a single dose of rhodiola on fatigue and mental ability during the stress event of working a twenty-four-hour shift. There was highly significant anti-fatigue protection seen in the groups receiving the adaptogen compared to the others. Pre- and post-shift, the control and placebo groups showed a decline in ability on three mental capacity assessment tests, but the scores for the groups receiving rhodiola were kept constant or improved. (Both dosage groups had similar results.) The researchers noted that the effects were different than what would be expected from a stimulant, such as caffeine, in that the quality of answers on the mental ability tests, but not the speed of completion, were better in the treated groups.
Some adaptogens are more stimulating than others.
Asian ginseng is the most stimulating so is not typically used for anxiety. (It might, however, be a good choice for you if you are worn down from adrenal fatigue.)
If your anxiety or stress symptoms are more in the usual high cortisol wound-up range, you may do better avoiding Asian ginseng and choosing one of the other more calming adaptogens instead.
Ashwagandha may be the most calming.
The other adaptogens land somewhere in between Asian ginseng and Ashwagandha.
Whatever adaptogen you use, it is probably best to take it in the morning and early afternoon, avoiding ingesting it later in the day when it might interfere with sleep.
Note: I may receive a small commission for sales through links in this article, but it doesn't impact your cost or my recommendation.
Here are some adaptogen supplement capsule examples with links
(2 capsules for full strength)
Pros for NutriRise Ashwagandha: organic, includes black pepper for absorption, large amount of active ingredient found in ashwagandha, highly rated on Amazon reviews, satisfaction guarantee
(3 capsules for full strength)
|Pros for NaturaLife Labs Ashwagandha: organic, includes black pepper for absorption, large amount of active ingredient found in ashwagandha, highly rated on Amazon reviews, satisfaction guarantee|
Powder Adaptogen Supplements
Some adaptogens are also available as powders that you can add to a morning shake or other foods such as yogurt.
A teaspoon of the powder contains 5 grams of the root. That's a lot more than you get in capsules.
I currently use Navitas Organic Maca Powder daily by adding a teaspoon to my breakfast yogurt along with banana slices and berries. It has a mild taste that I don't notice at all.
I also found some adaptogens in tea form, for example:
Note re Licorice: Licorice can be toxic and cause an increase in blood pressure when consumed at high levels. Upper limits of the active ingredient glycyrrhizin have been set in some parts of the world; 100 mg per day is the lowest of the upper limits for glycyrrhizin. Note that this is not 100 mg per day of licorice root but rather 100 mg per day of glycyrrhizin. Glycyrrhizin varies from 2 to 5% of licorice root and can be as much as 15%, so the limit would be 660 mg licorice root per day if the percentage is at its maximum. I include licorice root on the list of adaptogens because I see it appear in small amounts in anti-anxiety adaptogen mixes, but it isn’t advised as a stand-alone high-dose adaptogen taken for extended periods.
. Vinod S. Pawar and Hugar Shivakumar, “A Current Status of Adaptogens: Natural Remedy to Stress,” Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Disease 2 (2012): S480–S490, https://doi.org/10.1016/s2222-1808(12)60207-2.
. Pawar and Shivakumar, “Status of Adaptogens”; David Winston and Steven Maimes, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2007).
. Winston and Maimes, Adaptogens: 142-146; Alexander Panossian and Georg Wikman, “Evidence-Based Efficacy of Adaptogens in Fatigue, and Molecular Mechanisms Related to their Stress-Protective Activity,” Current Clinical Pharmacology 4, no. 3 (2009): 198–219, https://doi.org/10.2174/157488409789375311; S. Lee and D. Rhee, “Short Review: Effects of Ginseng on Stress-Related Depression, Anxiety, and the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis,” Journal of Ginseng Research 41, no.4 (2017): 589–594, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jgr.2017.01.010.
. A. Pengelly and K. Bennett, “Appalachian Plant Monographs: Panax quinquefolius L., American Ginseng,” September 2011, available at https://www.frostburg.edu/fsu/assets/File/ACES/panax%20quinquefolius%20-%20final(2).pdf; Winston and Maimes, Adaptogens, 130–134.
. Winston and Maimes, Adaptogens, 157-161; A. Panossian and H. Wagner, “Stimulating Effect of Adaptogens: An Overview with Particular Reference to Their Efficacy Following Single Dose Administration,” Phytotherapy Research 19, no. 10 (2005): 819–838, https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.1751.
. Gustavo F. Gonzales, “Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012 (2012): 1–10, https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/193496.
. Sharanbasappa Durg et al., “Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) in Neurobehavioural Disorders Induced by Brain Oxidative Stress in Rodents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology 67, no. 7 (2015): 879–899, https://doi.org/10.1111/jphp.12398; Winston and Maimes, Adaptogens, 138–141.
. Marc Maurice Cohen, “Tulsi—Ocimum sanctum: A Herb for All Reasons,” Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine 5, no. 4 (2014): 251–259, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296439/; Winston and Maimes, Adaptogens, 167–171.
. Panossian and Wikman, “Evidence-Based Efficacy”; Alexander G. Panossian, “Adaptogens in Mental and Behavioral Disorders,” Psychiatric Clinics of North America 36, no. 1 (2013): 49–64, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2012.12.005; Winston and Maimes, Adaptogens, 191–194.
. Alexander Panossian and Georg Wikman, “Pharmacology of Schisandra chinensis Bail.: An overview of Russian Research and Uses in Medicine,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 118, no. 2 (2008): 183–212, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2008.04.020; Panossian and Wikman, “Evidence-Based Efficacy”; Winston and Maimes, Adaptogens, 195–198.
. Alexander Panossian and Georg Wikman, “Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity,” Pharmaceuticals 3, no. 1 (2010): 188–224, https://doi.org/10.3390/ph3010188; Panossian and Wikman, “Evidence-Based Efficacy”; Panossian and Wikman, “Pharmacology”; Panossian, “Adaptogens.”
. Jian-Ming Lu, Qizhi Yao, and Changyi Chen, “Ginseng Compounds: An Update on their Molecular Mechanisms and Medical Applications,” Current Vascular Pharmacology 7, no. 3 (2009): 293–302, https://doi.org/10.2174/157016109788340767; Pengelly and Bennett, “Appalachian Plant Monographs.”
. Durg et al., “Withania somnifera.”
. Alexander Panossian et al., “The Adaptogens Rhodiola and Schizandra Modify the Response to Immobilization Stress in Rabbits by Suppressing the Increase of Phosphorylated Stress-activated Protein Kinase, Nitric Oxide and Cortisol,” Drug Target Insights 2 (2007): 39–54, https://doi.org/10.1177/117739280700200011.
. Deepak Rai et al., “Anti-Stress Effects of Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng: A Comparative Study,” Journal of Pharmacological Sciences 93, no. 4 (2003): 458–464, https://doi.org/10.1254/jphs.93.458.
. M. Chatterjee, “Comparative Evaluation of Bacopa monniera and Panax quniquefolium in Experimental Anxiety and Depressive Models in Mice,” Indian Journal of Experimental Biology 48 (2010): 306–313.
. Ram C. Saxena et al., “Efficacy of an Extract of Ocimum tenuiflorum (OciBest) in the Management of General Stress: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012 (2012): 1–7, https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/894509.
. Nicole A. Brooks et al., “Beneficial Effects of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) on Psychological Symptoms and Measures of Sexual Dysfunction in Postmenopausal Women Are Not Related to Estrogen or Androgen Content,” Menopause 15, no. 6 (2008): 1157–1162, https://doi.org/10.1097/gme.0b013e3181732953.
. K. Chandrasekhar, Jyoti Kapoor, and Sridhar Anishetty, “A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults,” Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine 34, no. 3 (2012): 255, https://doi.org/10.4103/0253-7176.106022.
. A. A. Spasov et al., “A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study of the Stimulating and Adaptogenic Effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 Extract on the Fatigue of Students Caused by Stress During an Examination Period with a Repeated Low-Dose Regimen,” Phytomedicine 7, no. 2 (2000): 85–89, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0944-7113(00)80078-1.
. V. A. Shevtsov et al., “A Randomized Trial of Two Different Doses of a SHR-5 Rhodiola rosea Extract Versus Placebo and Control of Capacity for Mental Work,” Phytomedicine 10, no. 2–3 (2003): 95–105, https://doi.org/10.1078/094471103321659780.
- Ann Silvers