Adaptogens: Ancient Herbal Solutions to Modern Problems


When it comes to Eastern Medicine, acupuncture has perhaps enjoyed the greatest mainstream attention, but if all the new herbal apothecaries popping up in trendy neighborhoods of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Portland, and Burlington, are any indication, herbal medicine’s time has come.  

In these pharmacies some of the most popular herbs are known as adaptogens.  As the name implies, adaptogens are a category of herbs that help the body “adapt” to stress.  As an herbalist and holistic health practitioner I have incredible respect for the body’s innate intelligence, which helps us adapt to our environment and maintain balance. These herbs fit seamlessly into this framework as facilitators of the body’s adaptation processes. 

When stressors in our life, both internal and external, exceed the body’s capacity to adapt, these herbs provide the additional support the body needs to reestablish balance. 

Their function is to optimize the stress response system.  In particular, adaptogens can help support and regulate the adrenal glands, which release cortisol and adrenaline in response to stress.  If the adrenals are called upon to continuously release these hormones, such as with chronic stress, they can become chronically fatigued resulting in cortisol imbalances (either too high or too low) and eventually adrenal fatigue.  High cortisol levels can cause dysregulation of nearly all systems of the body.  Adaptogens function as antidotes to the negative effects of stress, regulating cortisol levels and restoring balance.   

There is no substitute for smart lifestyle choices, such as minimizing use of technology and getting enough sleep; and stress management practices, such as meditation and deep breathing techniques, but adaptogens can be incredibly effective tools to supplement these health-promoting habits.  Used in both Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, adaptogens have been shown to improve cognitive performance and memory, enhance endurance, and boost energy, immunity, and resilience to stress.  In addition to demonstrating positive benefits, adaptogens are safe for long-term use. 

While adaptogens can be used individually, combining adaptogenic herbs in formulas has a synergistic effect, enhancing their individual benefits and harmonizing their overall effect on the body.  Some of the most important adaptogens I use in my practice include:

Asian Ginseng is known for it’s actions of promoting physical endurance, mental clarity, and immunity.  It also has antioxidant and antidepressant effects. 

Astragalus is a common herb in many Chinese herbal formulas, balancing the other herbs in the formulas while encouraging optimal health and stress management.  It has been shown to regulate the immune system and ease anxiety. It’s active ingredient also has been touted for its anti aging and deification properties.  

Ashwaganda, also known as Indian Ginseng, is a popular adaptogen, which has been shown in studies to dramatically improvement how individuals handle stress.  By managing stress effectively it promotes mental acuity and balanced energy. 

Rhodiola is an herb shown to naturally manage healthy cortisol (primary hormone released during stress) and energy levels.  

Maca Root is a superfood packed with essential vitamins and nutrients, which has mood and energy boosting effects.  It has been shown to relieve tension and anxiety. 

Most of these herbs can be found in powder or tincture forms, making them easy to add to a hot drink, smoothie, acai bowl, or applesauce or pudding.