A Guide To Understanding Adaptogens
Reviewed and Updated By: Emily Parsell, RDN
What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens, when taken in supplement form, help the body adapt to stress and promote balance by improving the body’s response to physical, mental and emotional stressors. They’re naturally found in herbs and mushrooms and in recent years, have gained increasing popularity due to clinical research confirming their health benefits.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
The main function is to return the body back to a normal state of homeostasis, or balance. Adaptogenic supplements interact with our body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The HPA is a system of hormones, glands and various receptors in the body that are key to the body’s response to stress, metabolism and homeostasis. The interaction of the adaptogen with the HPA helps to balance out the hormones. For example, if you’re experiencing high levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, an adaptogen will help lower cortisol levels. If you’re experiencing chronic fatigue (extreme tiredness) then the adaptogen will help increase cortisol levels in the body.
What Are the Most Popular Adaptogens and Their Benefits?
Three of the most common adaptogens include ashwagandha, bacopa and valerian root. The main benefit of taking adaptogens is to help reduce stress in the body, however each also has unique benefits to address key areas of longevity and wellness.
Key Benefits: Reduces stress, promotes brain health, improves sleep quality, supports longevity
Ashwagandha is one of the most popular adaptogen supplements for good reason. Chronically elevated cortisol levels decrease longevity and contribute to poor blood sugar and weight gain. Research shows that 60 days of ashwagandha supplementation can reduce cortisol levels by 27%. According to the study, 600mg of ashwagandha was the most effective dose for managing stress.
Key Benefits: Improves cognitive function, improves resilience to stress, supports longevity
Sometimes referred to as the “herb of longevity”, research shows that bacopa promotes longevity by improving brain health and cognitive function of the aging brain. A clinical trial involving participants over the age of 65 found that 300mg of bacopa supplementation for 12 weeks significantly improved memory recall and markers of stress. Another study confirmed that bacopa supplementation improved attention and cognitive processing in older adults.
Additional research shows bacopa improves longevity in animal experiments by reducing oxidative damage.
Key Benefits: Improves mood, promotes brain health, enhances sleep quality, supports longevity
Valerian root supports longevity by improving sleep quality. As outlined in a 2021 research study, poor sleep quality is associated with accelerated biological aging. One of the ways valerian root enhances sleep quality is by increasing levels of GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in calming the mind and promoting healthy sleep patterns. GABA may also decrease stress and improve mood.
What Form and Dosage of Adaptogens Should I Take?
Adaptogen supplements can be found in a variety of forms, including capsules, elixirs, powders and teas but the easiest way to integrate into a routine would be through supplementation. The dose of each varies per adaptogen as each has slightly different benefits. Before beginning any new supplement, it is always advised that you check with your medical provider first.
How Long Should I Take Adaptogens?
Research shows that adaptogens work best when taken consistently for a short duration. They’re not intended to be a quick fix, but rather a long-term solution. Adaptogen regimens should be personalized based on your lifestyle and the type that you’re consuming.
Are There Any Side Effects from Adaptogens?
Side effects are rare, and minimal, but adaptogens can interact with certain medications, so it’s important that you speak with your doctor before taking them. Different types of side effects can occur based on the type of adaptogen, but the most common that could occur include:
- Allergic reaction
- Abdominal pain
Adaptogens have been around for centuries and while many people have reported improved health with supplementation, taking one is a personal choice. Research supports the benefits of using various adaptogens, such as ashwagandha, bacopa and valerian root but as with any new supplement, it’s always best to communicate with your healthcare provider before taking.
Brimson, J. M., Prasanth, M. I., Plaingam, W., & Tencomnao, T. (2019). Bacopa monnieri (L.) wettst. Extract protects against glutamate toxicity and increases the longevity of Caenorhabditis elegans. Journal of traditional and complementary medicine, 10(5), 460–470. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtcme.2019.10.001
Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). 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(3), 255–262. https://doi.org/10.4103/0253-7176.106022
Naß, J., Kampf, C. J., & Efferth, T. (2021). Increased Stress Resistance and Lifespan in Chaenorhabditis elegans Wildtype and Knockout Mutants-Implications for Depression Treatment by Medicinal Herbs. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 26(7), 1827. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules26071827
Peth-Nui, T., Wattanathorn, J., Muchimapura, S., Tong-Un, T., Piyavhatkul, N., Rangseekajee, P., Ingkaninan, K., & Vittaya-Areekul, S. (2012). Effects of 12-Week Bacopa monnieri Consumption on Attention, Cognitive Processing, Working Memory, and Functions of Both Cholinergic and Monoaminergic Systems in Healthy Elderly Volunteers. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2012, 606424.
Tammadon, M. R., Nobahar, M., Hydarinia-Naieni, Z., Ebrahimian, A., Ghorbani, R., & Vafaei, A. A. (2021). The Effects of Valerian on Sleep Quality [and Mood] in Hemodialysis Patients: A Randomized, Double-blind, Crossover Clinical Trial. Oman medical journal, 36(2), e255. https://doi.org/10.5001/omj.2021.56
Yegorov, Y. E., Poznyak, A. V., Nikiforov, N. G., Sobenin, I. A., & Orekhov, A. N. (2020). The Link between Chronic Stress and Accelerated Aging. Biomedicines, 8(7), 198. https://doi.org/10.3390/biomedicines807