Healthy Beginnings

What are adaptogens, and should I be taking them?

Adaptogens have become more mainstream in the last decade. Photo: Claire Cudahy

If you’re the type of person who’s attended a meditation class or cleansed your home with palo santo, then you’ve probably heard of adaptogens, the class of plants ingested to help the body fight stress and stay balanced.

Though adaptogens are currently experiencing a renaissance of sorts, these plants have been used for centuries in Chinese, Scandinavian and Ayurvedic healing, to name a few.

Russian pharmacologist N.V. Lazarev coined the term in 1947 to categorize plants that cause the body no harm, help it adapt to varied stresses and have a “nonspecific” impact on the body, which supports all major systems.

The idea draws from the work of Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye who broke down humans’ stress response into three stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. Adaptogens are believed to decrease reactivity to stress, keeping the body in the resistance phase.

Dr. Tara Finley of The Finley Center in Reno has a doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine and two Masters in Oriental Medicine and Holistic Nutrition. She uses adaptogens in her practice regularly.

Herbalist Linda Steck weighs out suma root at her store, Natural Advantage Health Shoppe, in Reno. Photo: Claire Cudahy

“I have prescribed adaptogenic herbs as part of comprehensive treatment plans for fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleep disruptions and as an immune and longevity tonic,” said Finley. “Adaptogens have gained great popularity lately because many people are seeking ways to counteract the negative effects of stress — overwork, poor sleep, poor diet, lack of contact with nature and electronics overload.

“In the face of theses challenges in our lives, many of us look to more natural and non-pharmaceutical ways to help our bodies be more resilient to the stressors that we are unable or unwilling to change.”

Each adaptogen is reported to help with different imbalances in the body, and while more research is still needed, there are studies that point to the benefits of incorporating adaptogens into your regular diet.

One study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine in 2012 tested the effects of ashwagandha on 64 subjects with a history of chronic stress. After 60 days, the researchers found that the treatment group exhibited a “significant reduction” in their stress assessment scales and serum cortisol levels compared to the placebo group.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered that amateur cyclists given the adaptogen rhodiola — believed to increase energy, endurance and mental capacity — were able to complete a six-mile race faster than the placebo group. They also finished their warm-up ride with lower heart rates.

However, not all scientific studies have backed up the purported benefits of adaptogens, leaving some health care specialists skeptical. Nevertheless, the plants have continued to grow in popularity.

Linda Steck owns Natural Advantage Health Shoppe in Reno. Over the last decade, she’s noticed an increase in people turning to adaptogens and other all-natural solutions for ailments or overall wellness.

“Ashwagandha right now is the most popular one. Maca, which helps with stress, energy and hormone balance, was really big before that,” said Steck, who has a PhD in holistic nutrition and a professional herbalist certification. “It goes in fads because people read things online.”

Hop onto social media and it’s easy to find people posting photos of colorful smoothies blended with ashwagandha or bright-green matcha mixed with Holy Basil — touted for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

“You can take capsules, liquid extracts, powders, or cut and sifted herbs for tea,” explained Steck. “I personally have been taking a blend of ashwagandha for sleep, and I had rhodiola in my tea this morning.”

They can also be added to soups and stews.

“To make a safe addition of adaptogens to your diet, I would recommend adding astragalus to soups and stews throughout the cold an flu season for immune support and nourishment,” added Finley. “Holy basil tea on a daily basis, also known as tulsi, is another gentle way to introduce an adaptogen to your diet.”

Although adaptogens are considered safe, Finley recommends speaking with a physician or natural health care provider to discuss any possible interactions with medications before adding them into your diet.


Other common adaptogens

Cordyceps: Increase energy, boost immune system and reduce stress

Reishi: Enhance immune response and reduce dermal oxidation

Chaga: Rich in antioxidants, reduce inflammation and boost immunity

Tocos: High in Vitamin E

Claire Cudahy is a special assignments reporter for the Sierra Nevada Media Group, which publishes Healthy Beginnings. Email her at