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What Are Adaptogens?

Read time: 5 minutes


Adaptogens Explained


Adaptogen is an herbal action term used to describe the medicinal effect a plant has on our bodies. Adaptogens help the body handle stress, anxiety, and fatigue over time [7]. They probably aren’t going to work overnight, but taken daily as a tonic, they will help bring the body back into balance. Adaptogens promote adaptability and resiliency when the body is experiencing physical, chemical, or psychological stress [7].

Adaptogenic herbs have a non-specific response on the neuroendocrine and immune systems. In simpler terms, it means they display multiple effects on our bodies and treat a wide variety of conditions [7]. In general, they promote good health and vitality while combating premature aging.

Many herbs that fall under the adaptogen category have been used medicinally for centuries. However, the term “adaptogen” was coined in the 1940s by Dr. Nikolai Lazarev of the Soviet Union [7]. Dr. Lazarev and other Soviet scientists wanted to find natural remedies for stamina, endurance, and performance for their military members during World War II [7]. Since then, there have been over a thousand studies on adaptogens and their efficacy [7].



Definition: Adaptogens are botanicals that increase adaptability, resilience, and survival of organisms to stress [7].

Mechanism of action: Multitarget effects on neuroendocrine‐immune system including:

  • Triggering of intracellular and extracellular adaptive signaling pathways that promote cell survival and organismal resilience in stress
  • Regulation of metabolism and homeostasis via effects on expression of stress hormones (corticotropin and gonadotropin‐releasing hormones, urocortin, cortisol, neuropeptide Y, heat shock proteins Hsp70) and their receptors [7].

Indications for use: Stress‐induced fatigue, mental and behavioral disorders, aging‐associated diseases [7].

5 Common Adaptogens

1. Ashwagandha

Withania somnifera

[2, 7]
  • Energetics: Warming and moistening
  • Parts Used: Root, leaf, berries
  • Preparations: Decoction, powder, tincture

Ashwagandha is used in Ayurveda to promote health and longevity, slow the aging process, revitalize the body, reduce anxiety, and create a general sense of well‐being [7]. It is part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), and its other names include winter cherry and Indian ginseng. It is considered generally safe however, do not take it if pregnant or breastfeeding. Herbalists use ashwagandha to promote sleep, decrease anxiety, increase energy, improve memory, support the immune system, and provide support for degenerative diseases [2].

Ashwagandha is also used to help with infertility. It helps balance hormones and increase sperm counts.

Make an ashwagandha decoction by simmering 1 – 2 tsp. dried root per 8 oz water. Simmer for approximately 20 minutes then remove from heat. Strain and serve. The dried root powder is often taken with milk, ghee, or honey.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

2. Astragalus Root

Astragalus membranaceus or Astragalus propinquus


  • Energetics: Slightly warming and slightly drying
  • Parts Used: Root
  • Preparations: Decoction, broths, soups, powder, tincture

Astragalus is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and has been adopted into Western herbalism. It is part of the pea family (Fabaceae), and its other common names include huang qi and radix astragali [2]. Herbalists use astragalus to support the immune system, increase energy, and to strengthen the heart, liver, and kidneys [2].

Make an astragalus decoction by simmering 1 tsp. – 1 tbs. of dried root slices per 8 oz water. Simmer for approximately 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep for up to 2 hours. Strain and serve.

Dried astragalus root
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

3. Cordyceps Mushroom

Cordyceps militaris

[4, 5]

  • Energetics: Balancing and slightly warming
  • Preparations: Broth, tea, tincture, capsule

Cordyceps is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and became a popular research topic in the West after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing [4]. Cordyceps is a genus of fungi with around 400 different species with Cordyceps militaris used most commonly [4]. Herbalists use it to strengthen the immune system; support lungs, kidneys, and adrenal glands; and strengthen the cardiovascular system [4].

Make a broth or tea from dried cordyceps powder. You can take approximately 5 – 10 mg daily [4, 5].

Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris)

4. Gotu Kola

Centella asiatica

[1, 4, 6]

  • Energetics: Cooling and drying
  • Parts Used: Arial parts
  • Preparations: Tea, tincture, capsule

Gotu Kola is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda for memory and brain function [4]. It is part of the carrot family (Apiaceae), and its other common names include Asiatic pennywort, Indian pennywort, and ji xue cao [1, 6]. Gotu Kola leaves are often used as food and have a sweet, bitter taste [1, 6]. Herbalists use it to improve memory and brain function, balance adrenals, skin conditions, and wound healing [4].

Make a gotu kola infusion using 1-2 tsp. dried aerial parts and 8 oz. boiling water. Let steep for at least 10 minutes, strain and serve. The infusion may be taken up to 3 times per day.

gotu kola
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)

5. Holy Basil

Ocimum tenuiflorum

[2, 4]

  • Energetics: Warming and drying
  • Parts Used: Leaves and flowers
  • Preparations: Tea, decoction, tincture, poultice, powder

Holy Basil is used in Ayurveda and is considered a sacred plant in India [2]. It is part of the mint family (Lamiaceae), and it is often referred to as Tulsi. Holy Basil is part of the same genus as other basils but exhibits different medicinal effects. Herbalists use it to reduce anxiety and stress, improve brain function, support the immune system, strengthen the cardiovascular system, strengthen the lungs and respiratory system, improve digestion, and help with insulin resistance[2].

Make a holy basil infusion using 1-2 tsp. dried aerial parts and 8 oz. boiling water. Let steep for at least 10 minutes, strain and serve. The infusion may be taken up to 3 times per day.

holy basil adaptogen
Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)

Disclaimer: We consider adaptogens to be generally safe, although there are circumstances when you should not take a particular herb. I am providing a brief and general overview of common adaptogenic herbs for educational purposes only.

Related Posts


1.  Chevallier A. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. Third. Penguin Random House; 2016.
2.  De La Foret R. Alchemy of Herbs. Hay House Inc.; 2017.
3.  How to Take Ashwagandha Correctly | What You DONT Know About Ashwagandha.; 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehCdFJp1xmw
4.  Easley T, Horne S. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicicne-Making Guide. North Atlantic Books; 2016.
5.  Mountain Rose Herbs. Cordyceps Mushroom Powder. Mountain Rose Herbs.  https://mountainroseherbs.com/cordyceps-mushroom-powder
6.  Mountain Rose Herbs. Gotu Kola Powder. Mountain Rose Herbs https://mountainroseherbs.com/gotu-kola-powder
7.  Panossian AG, Efferth T, Shikov AN, et al. Evolution of the adaptogenic concept from traditional use to medical systems: Pharmacology of stress‐ and aging‐related diseases. Med Res Rev. 2021;41(1):630-703. doi:10.1002/med.21743

Hello and welcome! My name is Kate and I am an herbalist and backyard farmer. If you are a beginner herbalist or just looking for information on plants, I write about gardening, natural remedies, and herbalism.




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