They’re one of the buzzier topics in modern wellness culture, but unlike, say, a Peloton bike, there’s nothing new about adaptogens.
What Are Adaptogens?
The term adaptogen refers to any number of herbs and roots—including ginseng, cordyceps, reishi, and astragalus—that have been shown to mitigate the body’s stress response. The word itself is credited to scientists conducting covert research in the Soviet Union beginning during the Cold War. Searching for a supplement to enhance the performance of national soldiers, athletes, and cosmonauts, they discovered a handful of plants with powerful anti-stress effects.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
When your body encounters stress, it triggers the release of the hormone adrenaline followed by a surge of the hormone cortisol—both provide you with a quick hit of energy. “Once you metabolize them, though, your body crashes,” explains David Melladew, L.Ac., The Hao Life’s Traditional Chinese Medicine advisor. That’s why you feel so burnt out during prolonged periods of stress. Adaptogenic herbs are thought to counterbalance that initial hormonal cascade—keeping your heart rate steady, your mind clear, and your energy levels even.
Their Chinese Medicine Roots
Long before the Soviets started their top-secret research, though, these herbs and roots were already commonplace in ancient healing practices like Traditional Chinese Medicine, where adaptogens are classified as Superior Herbs. And they do way more than just help you cope with stress. “They provide all-around health benefits,” explains Melladew, noting reishi, cordyceps, ginseng, and astragalus as some of most superior of the Superior Herbs. “In Chinese philosophy, if you’re healthier—your body is in balance—you’ll respond to stress better, period.”
Why They’re Better in Blends
You can find ginseng or cordyceps as a supplement on their own at the health food store, but that’s not the optimal way to take them. “Very rarely would a TCM practitioner prescribe a single herb,” says Melladew. This is because adaptogens or Superior Herbs (however you refer to them) can be amplified depending upon the other plants that are in the mix. “Think of them like personalities,” says Melladew. “There are many dimensions to your personality. If you’re with a certain group of friends, they may bring out your playful side; another group brings out your more intellectual qualities.” The same goes for herbs. The presence of other plants helps bring out the best in them. And while adaptogens function like a general health booster, they also have unique characteristics that make them helpful for targeting specific issues.
So, Which Adaptogen Does What?
Here’s your handy cheat sheet:
If you’re under the weather: Astragalus
While its anti-inflammatory effects make it potent tonic for the whole body, this root is particularly known for its immune system-supporting benefits.
If you want your workout to work harder: Cordyceps
The ultimate gym buddy, research suggests this mushroom could rev the body’s energy stores, helping you and your body go the (literal) extra mile.
If you’re tired of being tired: Ginseng
This root is a potent antioxidant for recharging your body and fighting fatigue, whether you’re recovering from a cold, a late night, or both.
If you want to calm down: Reishi
This is meditation in a mushroom. Studies indicate it may settle your nerves to reduce anxiety and restlessness and promote better sleep.