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What are adaptogens?

by Will Long

September 16, 2021

An adaptogen is a substance that supposedly increases the ability for the user to withstand stress; in addition to promoting lower stress, adaptogens are supposed to help maintain optimal homeostasis (the regular operation of the human body). Adaptogens can be taken as vitamin-like pill supplements, can be added as powder to food/drink, or are already contained in food and drink we consume regularly. Adaptogens might help us in our pursuit for wellness, much like some nootropics can.

Common adaptogens

Ashwagandha reduces stress and anxiety as claimed. This powdered root extract has more obvious effects on the human body than most other adaptogens on the market, and can be used to cognitively enhance, much like nootropics.

Generally it helps calm your body down and is similar to ginseng while helping the immune system work stronger. One risk of taking ashwagandha is unintentionally inducing thyroid issues; ashwagandha could exacerbate thyroid hormone production, causing some form of hyperthyroidism. As with any drug like this or on this list, please consult your doctor before taking it.

Rhodiola is a plant that grows in northern colder climates that’s claimed to help with fatigue and other issues that plague regular human existence. As with all of the substances on this list so far, everyone seems to claim it helps for a wide variety of things with minimal study or proof. However, it’s suggested that rhodiola with salidroside is more stimulating than rhodiola with rosavins, which does the opposite.

Cordyceps is a type of fungus that begins its life growing on the larvae of certain high elevation insects in Asia. Once the fungus has killed the larvae, it will grow from the body into a fruiting body to reproduce. The version of cordyceps that you can buy as a supplement is lab-grown and has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for hundreds of years.

In mice, cordyceps supplements have shown an ability to fight fatigue due to the ATP-boosting properties inherent in the fungi. Some human trials have shown that it boosts the ability for the body to bring oxygen to muscles during workouts, boosting energy during a session. Also in another study done with mice was evidence that cordyceps might increase the antioxidant enzyme count.

More mice study results here: cordyceps might mimic insulin and increase proinflammatory cytokines, which help boost the immune system. These results are more evidence for the necessity of human trials.

While ginseng has the possibility to cognitively help someone, there’s a severe lack of evidence that sticks out, and gives us reason to wait for more evidence—provided you’re not the adventurous type with vitamins, herbs, and minerals. Anecdotal evidence provides examples of ginseng working as the added ingredient in some naturally-branded energy drinks.

Just “claims” or is there more to it?

Most of the claims made about adaptogens are tenuous at best, reflecting the lack of proper study and examination of the effects and action they perform when taken. Valuable research into the possibilities of adaptogen use have been hampered by disinterest, bias, and regulatory speedbumps.

One study that does support the theory that adaptogens actually work was published in 2010 by the Swedish Herbal Institute. This study states that:

“Adaptogens may be regarded as a novel pharmacological category of anti-fatigue drugs that induce increased attention and endurance in situations of decreased performance caused by fatigue and/or sensation of weakness and reduce stress-induced impairments and disorders related to the function of stress (neuro-endocrine and immune) systems.”

While adaptogens remain under-studied to a significant degree, the good news is that they’re very low-risk. The dosage makes the poison, though, and any self-experimentation with new substances like adaptogens should be done with caution.

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About the Author

Will Long

Will Long

A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, Long has been a writer for Landmark Recovery since 2021. He specializes in research and writing about substance abuse from a scientific and social perspective. Unearthing information from underexplored, far-flung corners of the Internet, Long’s passion is finding emerging trends in substance use and treatment that the public should know about.