Starting at top middle going clockwise: Schisandra berries, cordyceps, licorice root, rhodiola, ginseng, reishi

In a nutshell, adaptogens are mushrooms and herbaceous plants containing biologically active compounds that help normalize all systems of the body in responding or adapting to stress.

Why are adaptogens so popular?
How do adaptogens actually work?
Five common reasons why people use adaptogens
Definitive guide to adaptogens summary


Adaptogens acquired their class name when Soviet Union researchers were looking to find performance enhancers for their athletes, cosmonauts, soldiers, and workforce.

The American Botanical Council says, “The term ‘adaptogen’ was introduced into scientific literature by Russian toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev in 1957 to refer to substances that increase the ‘state of non-specific resistance’ in stress.”

Historically, there is real science showing the potential of these botanical compounds. Adaptogens can provide a broad spectrum of supportive activity in helping our bodies build resilience.

David Winston, clinical herbalist, ethnobotanist, and leading expert on adaptogens with more than 50 years of study and experience in herbal traditions, says this:

There is a great deal of research on the health benefits of adaptogens spanning more than seventy years. The fact that these herbs have such a broad influence on the entire body requires that we take a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to fully understand this complex information.”


Much research is still needed to understand the actual mechanisms at work in adaptogens. Why don’t we have more modern-day scientific literature available? The short answer is that it’s very expensive.

Reputable, independent, and publishable research that follows sound scientific criteria for acceptable study generally requires financial incentive. Unless a funder foresees a great profit return on spending huge amounts of money, resources, and time to find out why licorice root helps with “digestive problems,” for example, then it’s not so enticing to make the investment.

Additionally, unlike the pharmaceutical industry, which pulls out individual constituents from a whole source to study how that particular element works, herbs and mushrooms are used in their whole forms. So, understanding their actions is more complex.

Various herbs and mushrooms, including ashwagandha and rose petals


We’re in luck, though. Since adaptogens have been in continuous use for thousands of years, the wisdom and experience of generations of herbalists have been recorded and passed on through many healing traditions around the world.

We can stand on that foundation along with the emerging research as we explore. And while the US is only recently, say in the last 50 or 60 years, seeing an herbal renaissance in the mainstream marketplace, cultures for whom herbal traditions have not been lost have been researching natural remedies for a very long time.

So, with history informing current study, and more demand from consumers, we can look forward to more scientific evidence to support the use of adaptogens.


There are many plants and a handful of mushrooms that are accepted as adaptogens. According to the original definition mentioned at the beginning of this article, adaptogens are non-toxic in normal therapeutic doses, produce non-specific states of resistance to stress, and have a normalizing effect on physiology.

As research has evolved, this original definition has expanded to include herbs that meet the original criteria and also help regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system (SAS).

Infographic of how the brain and body respond to stress

Characteristics of Adaptogens

When using adaptogens, it is important to understand that what works for one person may not work for another. It’s not always accurate to say, “Just use this for that, and that for this.” Adaptogen plants have individual qualities and actions that should be taken into consideration when evaluating use.

There are adaptogens that are cooling, and some that are heating. Some adaptogens are drying, and some provide moisture. Some adaptogens are stimulating, and some are calming.

Choosing and Using the Right Adaptogens

These qualities just mentioned should match the qualities and constitutions of the person using them. For example, if an individual is feeling generally lethargic, you might think, “Oh, ginseng will give you a nice boost!” However, if that person has a hot, dry constitution, ginseng may not be the best option because it can be a hot, drying herb.

Or, you might be considering rhodiola for anxiety or depression…but then you must know that it’s not recommended for people with bipolar disorder because it can induce mania.

  • Ginseng root and ginseng tea on a wooden tabletop
  • Rhodiola Plant

Clinical Observations and Benefits of Adaptogens

In David Winston’s book, “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief,” he states the following: “The listed benefits and uses of adaptogens are based on all of the available information, including modern scientific research, records of their use in traditional medical systems, ethnobotany, and clinical observations made by practitioners.”

Book cover of Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes

He then outlines the benefits of adaptogens, which include the following:

  1. All adaptogens have anti-stress qualities that help provide stabilizing effects on the neuroendocrine system, especially the HPA axis and SAS.
  2. All adaptogens help modulate and/or enhance the immune system.
  3. All adaptogens inhibit cortisol-induced mitochondrial dysfunction.

While adaptogens are generally safe, they are not ‘one-size-fits-all’ tonics. A person’s age, health issues, medications, and energetics all need to be considered before that person uses them. If you have a serious health issue, it would be best to consult with a health professional or clinical herbalist before use.


With Winston’s insights in mind, and along with the understanding that lifestyle choices must be addressed for adaptogens to be effective, let’s look at a few conditions that consumers are often looking to address. Remember, we are only looking at a handful of commonly used and researched herbs from the list above. There are many more in the greater wellness arsenal.

Adaptogens for Adrenal support

Businesses are equally ready to jump on their boards and ride the top of the consumer-driven adaptogen market wave by adding adaptogen ingredients into every product that makes sense (and some that don’t). Even pet and livestock food manufacturers are adding in these resilience builders!

Humans cannot live without adrenal glands, and when they are overstimulated and/or depleted, our whole systems are affected. So, when we are stressed, the adrenals produce and release more stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

Some adaptogens commonly used for adrenal support are ashwagandha, ginsengs, codonopsis, cordyceps, eleuthero, holy basil, licorice, reishi, rhodiola and schisandra.

  • Infographic of a person's adrenal glands and kidneys
  • Infographic of how cortisol affects different parts of the human body and systems like digestion, glucose levels, heart rate and breathing

Adaptogens for Anxiety and Depression

Those two conditions are often bedfellows (and can affect sleep in the bed!). The spectrum of diagnosable anxiety and depression disorders is broad and often requires those mentioned lifestyle changes. But there are adaptogens that have a direct impact on the nervous system and can support the alleviation of symptoms.

For relief from both, you might consider Asian ginseng, holy basil, rhodiola, schisandra, and ashwagandha.

Adaptogens for Sleep

Getting quality sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our health. Chronic sleep issues can lead to a wide range of detrimental health consequences. There are approximately 90 different types of sleep disorders, and it’s often one of the most overlooked, treatable causes of many of our ailments.

A few adaptogens that can support sleep are Ashwagandha, Asian ginseng, eleuthero, rhodiola and schisandra.

Adaptogens for Performance and Stamina

Achieving better performance and stamina is exactly what started the Russian scientists down the investigation-of-plant-activity-on-the-body path and conducting extensive experimentation on people. Athletes and their coaches are always looking for ways to enhance performance, cut down on recovery times, increase energy and reduce fatigue.

The following herbs have been shown to provide those actions: ashwagandha, Asian ginseng, codonopsis, cordyceps, eleuthero, holy basil, rhodiola, schisandra, shatavari.

  • Ashwagandha root and ashwagandha root powder in a scoop on a wooden table
  • Cordyceps


Having been used for thousands of years, adaptogens are mushrooms and herbaceous plants containing biologically active compounds that help normalize all systems of the body. Adaptogens are excellent at regulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system (SAS).

In the past 50 years in the United States, consumer-driven trends have caused adaptogens to increase in popularity and profitability, with Global Market Insights Inc. valuing the adaptogens market at $8.5 Billion in 2020. Due to this shift, adaptogens are not only in consumer products but also in animal products like pet food and livestock feed.

Adaptogens have a variety of characteristics, so choosing the right ones in the proper combination is very important to get the desired results. If you are interested in using adaptogens, consider some of the common reasons people use them, like for enhanced sleep or to fight anxiety and depression, and view what options are available.

Herb Co. is a trusted source for adaptogen products at wholesale prices. Check out our organic herbs and spices catalog to find the perfect adaptogen products that will work for you.