What are adaptogens?

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

Adaptogens are some of the most potent, nutritionally-rich, and neurologically nourishing substances on the planet. The benefits of adaptogens are plentiful, but they are most famous for their ability to help the body to better deal with physical, mental and environmental stress factors.

The term ‘adaptogen’ was coined by the Russian toxicologist, Nikolay Lazarev, who defined them as substances that were capable of improving the body’s resistance to stress. These superstar superfoods can 'adapt' their function based on the specific needs of the body.

In order to be classed as adaptogen, substances must pass the “Four N’’ test. That is, they must be:

  • Nourishing - nutritionally dense, and display positive and stimulating effects

  • Normalising - help to restore balance to the body and mind

  • Non-specific - able to benefit multiple areas of the body

  • Non-toxic - safe to use over longer periods of time

What are the benefits of adaptogens?

Scientists from the Swedish Herbal Institute found that adaptogens are able to work at a cellular level.

These tonic herbs and mushrooms each have their own qualities and benefits but often display similar features. These include neuroprotective qualities, being anti-inflammatory and providing immune support.

Adaptogens also limit the secretion of stress hormones from the adrenal glands and alter physiological responses to help the body to function optimally.

How many adaptogens are there?

There are said to be around 70 substances that display adaptogenic qualities. Some of these are classed as ‘adaptogen companions’ or ‘secondary adaptogens’ as some scientists believe they do not satisfy all the criteria.

Of these 70 substances, fewer than 20 are classed as true adaptogens. They include tonic herbs such as schisandra berry, maca, tulsi, ginseng, ashwagandha, astragalus, gotu kola, Rhodiola rosea, milk thistle and medicinal mushrooms like reishi and cordyceps.

While many of these are more ‘exotic’ substances, you may be surprised to know that you could have adaptogens growing at home, as both Aloe vera and rosemary are also classed as adaptogens.

The most popular adaptogens

With so much choice, it can be overwhelming to know with what adaptogens to try first. If you’re looking for an energising, stamina-enhancing adaptogen then try Asian ginseng. This is the most potent of the 11 ginseng varieties. This much-loved root can enhance mental abilities including memory and concentration.

The roots of Rhodiola rosea are packed full of bioactive compounds that assist in reducing fatigue and help to provide a gradual boost in energy that lasts for up to eight hours. In many Scandinavian countries, this super-herb is commonly used by students to improve their focus and prevent burnout.

Reishi is the king of shrooms. Nicknamed the ‘spiritual mushroom’, reishi has long been used by monks and spiritual seekers to enhance their mental focus and help them to meditate for longer periods of time. Love coffee? Try adding powdered reishi to your brew for an extra dose of goodness.

How to use adaptogens

Adaptogenic substances are often made into tinctures, capsules and salves. But pure, concentrated extract powders provide one of the easiest ways to include adaptogens in your diet.

You can dissolve the powder in water to make a tonic tea, add it to smoothies and juices or sprinkle it over your favourite food. If you’re feeling creative, you can also use them to supercharge your culinary creations (think raw chocolate, energy balls and nice creams).

Remember, adaptogens can pack a mighty punch, so start your dose small and then slowly work up to a larger dose if required.

However you choose to consume them, adaptogens are certainly a powerful superfood and natural ally that will provide some additional support in these more challenging times.


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