What is an Adaptogen?

This article originally appeared on the Annmarie Skin Care blog.

Raise your hand if you get stressed. If you don’t have your hand up I don’t believe you. Stress is a natural part of life and a little bit of stress is actually really good for us because it helps us to stay motivated. Too much stress over a long period of time, though, can have some pretty negative impacts on your overall health—like adrenal fatigue and compromised immune function.

Fortunately for us, there is a class of herbs that are specific to helping with this kind of stress-induced illness. Adaptogens! In the simplest terms, an adaptogen is a herb that helps you adapt to the environment that you’re in. Yeah, it’s basically in the name.

There have been several definitions of adaptogens over time, but the best functional definition we have comes from Doctors Brekhman and Dardymov in 1968. They narrowed down the three things that every adaptogen has in common:

  1. Adaptogens are nontoxic to the person taking them. They have very few side effects and can be used long term without major risk.
  2. Adaptogens produce a nonspecific response within the body that help to increase the adaptive capacity to the different stresses in life.
  3. Adaptogens help maintain homeostasis long term by possessing the ability to regulate (not just increase or decrease) metabolic and neuroendocrine function.

Adaptogens for Adrenal Support

The effects of adaptogenic herbs have been well-documented for thousands of years in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, and more recently in Western scientific studies. We don’t know exactly how they work yet but what we do know is that all adaptogens work their magic directly on the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal), which means that they have a direct effect on how our stress hormones are released and regulated in our bodies. They also have a general balancing effect on regulatory systems, including the metabolic and immune system.

Sometimes when I read things like that, I’m completely overwhelmed by the amazing-ness of the herbal world and I have this conversation with myself: “You mean to tell me that a single plant can be so effective that it can help with my stress level, my metabolism, and my immune response? But that means they help with everything!” “Yes Aubrey, adaptogens help with everything.”

And you know what? They actually do and it’s absolutely amazing for you to take a daily dose of adaptogenic herbs. That being said, there are quite a few of them and they’re not all the same — some work better than others for certain people. It’s important to research your adaptogens and to try out a few to find the one or two that work best for you.

Choosing the Right Adaptogen

Luckily, it’s pretty difficult to choose the ‘wrong’ adaptogen because they all help the body deal with stress and most of the time they increase your overall vitality along with it.

It is, however, possible to choose the right adaptogen for yourself. Each one has its own niche in the healing world and when you start to work with the different adaptogens, you’ll notice subtle differences in them. Soon you’ll be able to find the perfect ally for every situation.

A really good tip for those of you interested in creating herbal formulations is to choose your adaptogen first. Though adaptogens have a nonspecific effect on the whole body, they often have other specific actions associated with them. Sometimes they have an affinity towards a certain organ, or a taste that make the, just right for the chronic issue that you’re working with.

Adaptogens are long-term herbs, so choosing the right one can help set the tone for your whole treatment strategy and give you some guidance on the other herbs you might want to add to your formula.

It’s sort of an advanced concept but once you start thinking in terms of secondary actions you’ll be able to create more elegant formulas with less herbs, more actions, and greater results. This is helpful in practice because you’ll be able to track how helpful the individual herbs in the formulas are over time.

Let’s say that you’re working with someone that has asthma with a lot of unproductive coughing. Any number of adaptogens will work well here but why not work with an adaptogen that has an affinity to the lungs – and maybe with a secondary actions such as warming and expectorant. Your adaptogen will add strength to the lungs and bringing up any trapped phlegm while also helping the body adapt to the environmental stress that could be bringing on the asthma to begin with.

Some Good Adaptogenic Herb Friends to Know

The list of benefits for these herbal friends is so long that they could each have their own articles like two of our favorites, Reishi and Ashwaganda. Both are great examples of adaptogens and they make excellent “go to” options if you’re looking for long-term immune and stamina boosting herbs.

You can trust your adaptogen, no matter which one you choose, to work on your regulatory processes, so choosing your herb based on its other attributes is a great way to get the best benefits. Here’s a good place to start:

An Adaptogen for the Lungs

I started here because its a good time to continue with the example from earlier. Remember that your adaptogen is your long-term base for the treatment strategy, so choosing one that works on several levels will lend itself to your healing practice.

Aralia californica root is the herb that I would choose for the person in the example. This plant is an adaptogen with an affinity for the lungs and warming and expectorant properties. Aralia loves to grow next to shallow moving water and when you’re sitting in the grove it’s easy to get swept up in the beauty of the moment. The dappled light through her big leaves is somehow warm and grandmotherly. You feel held and safe in these spaces – enough to breathe deeply and comfortably for a few moments.

Aralia is a gentle and persistent ally. Along with replenishing your vital energy with very little side effects, it is a first defense cough remedy during a cold and a long-term tonic to fight asthma and allergies. She finds a way to work deeply into the lungs and push out unwanted illness and deep-seated phlegm without being so pushy that you feel like you’re hacking up a lung.

Aralia root has a really lovely peppery taste that is perfect for honeys and cough syrups. Candied aralia root is amazing and easy to make (the hardest part is being patient!). You just need to get some high quality raw honey and put the fresh root into it. Wait several months and your aralia root will be a delicious candied treat and your honey will be loaded with antioxidants and ready to help you with your cough. The dried aralia leaves make a wonderful tea and the leaves are so large that it’s easy to collect enough to last for several months.

An Adaptogen that Builds Blood

Building blood is a common goal in a treatment strategy, it basically means that you want to increase the overall vitamin and mineral content coursing through the bloodstream so you want to build up the body’s capacity to hold those vitamins and minerals. In general, you’ll want to work with herbs and diet here and it takes a long time to actually build up the blood but there are adaptogens that can help.

Astragalus actually stimulates white blood cell and macrophage production in the blood. This plant is especially wonderful if you’re working with someone going through chemotherapy or another type of cancer treatment because those processes often zap the white blood cell count.

Astragalus is a super builder for the body in general and is a really great adaptogen for people that you’re wanting to build up in any way. Along with increasing your body’s metabolic processes, it’s really nourishing for the cells and helps to protect the liver while boosting the immune system.

No matter where you are in the world, Astragalus will be in your local herb store. This friend is full of polysaccharides so you’ll want to extract it with boiling water no matter what kind of medicine you’re making with it. Tea is wonderful with astragalus in it – since it’s a root you can resteep it all day and it’ll give you more nutrients in the 3rd or 4th steep than in the first. It’s perfect to add to your mineral-rich soup broth or bone broth. In fact if you’re making anything in your crockpot at all, a stick of astragalus is a go to! Your body will thank you!

A note of caution: Astragalus shouldn’t be taken during acute sickness. It can actually drive the infection deeper into your body and feed the illness.

An Adaptogen for Heart Health

This goes along with blood building but it’s distinctly different because it’s focused on the blood pumper and not just what it’s pumping. Heart failure is a number one killer in our country so it’s important to focus a bit on heart health. If you’re working with your own heart health or someone you know is dealing with heart issues, adaptogens can be a lifesaver for you.

Rhodiola rosea is one of the most researched adaptogens out there, probably because it has been used for centuries by royalty in China and Siberia to prolong life. It protects the heart against irregular beats and is considered highly cardioprotective. This makes it a go-to for formulas to combat arrhythmia and for people that are very physically active.

Along with being amazing for the heart, rhodiola is considered both a stimulant and a nervine, depending on what the body needs, and has often been used as an antidepressant. It has been used with ADHD, head injuries, altitude sickness, and neuro-disorders.

The way I know rhodiola is as a tincture. It only grows very high in the mountains so it’s pretty rare to find the fresh plant to use it otherwise. If you do happen to be walking through the mountains in northern Siberia and you find some rhodiola (or you have access to the root), you’ll want to boil a teaspoon for about 15 minutes in a cup of water and then let it steep for another 45 minutes – do that 1-3 times each day.

A safety concern to note is that people that are bipolar or generally paranoid could have increased manic episodes. I have seen this first hand and I notice that the people that don’t love rhodiola are the people that don’t love stimulants in general. I would describe them as “generally keyed up.”

Adaptogens for Digestive Health

We have noted many times before that all illness begins in the gut. The digestion system is how we fuel our body and it is the main place that we bring external things internally so eating is a pretty dangerous part of life and we can certainly get ourselves into trouble.

If you’re working with someone and you’re seeing that they could use a digestive boost, consider licorice root for your adaptogen. Something like 90% of all Chinese medicine formulas contain licorice root because it has awesome health benefits, it tastes good (especially compared to a lot of other Chinese herbs), and it has a synergistic quality that helps to increase the potency of the formula. Licorice has been used as a sweet food source in communities all over the world for a very long time.

Licorice root is in my go-to list for chronic acid-reflux, digestive upset and blood sugar balancing. It’s very juicy and demulcent so if you’re working with any kind of internal mucosa dryness, licorice root could be the answer. It has antiviral, antihistamine, and antioxidant properties so it’s great to add to a diet that could be harmful or potentially inflammatory diet.

Often times we get into a rut with the taste of our medicine. You’ll hear a lot of herbalists opine that the taste doesn’t matter because it’s medicine. The sweetness of licorice alone can completely cut through that argument and increase client compliance. I love to give licorice sticks to people that have sugar cravings to chew on – it cuts the craving AND balances their blood sugar (which makes me feel tricky). In a tincture formula, licorice can enhance the flavor significantly – and it isn’t always the sickly sweetness that you think of it as – it’s a synergizer here too so using it with herbs that are bitter or pungent can change the whole formula.

I have also used licorice as a powder with other herbs to add to smoothies and as a cut and sifted root to add to resteepable a tea blend. It’s probably one of the most versatile adaptogens in terms of use.

Some notes of caution with licorice: it’s very safe for short term use but if you’re using it long term as a major part of your formula, you’ll want to check the contraindications against any medications that you’re taking or any potential illnesses that you’re experiencing.

An Adaptogen for Reproductive Health

This is especially helpful for women to know about because we go through so many changes throughout our lifetimes. It’s such a large part of our lives that keeping up with reproductive health can make a huge impact on our overall health.

Shatavari is so invigorating and restorative for our reproductive health that the name shatavari actually translates to, “she who has hundreds of husbands.” Shatavari increases fertility, enhances libido, and can stop menopause symptoms in their tracks. That makes it useful for every maiden, mother, and crone out there – it also makes it my favorite adaptogen for building formulas for women.

Shatavari is extremely nutritive and is jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, so it’s wonderful for people dealing with chronic fatigue, anemia, and urinary cases. It is also a soothing demulcent so it could certainly be added to aid in healing digestive issues.

Shatavari is what is considered a ‘yin tonic’ which means that it’s gentle nature lets you feel more comfortable working with the softer side of things. My mother likes it as a powder to add to drinks. I personally think it serves us best as a tea made in large amounts and drunk throughout the week. I have travelled with it and taken it as a tincture as well though and it is just as effective.


Winston, D., & Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press.





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