Mya Care Blogger 19 Oct 2023

Adaptogens are a group of herbs and plants that have been utilized in traditional medicine for centuries to aid the body in adapting to stress and preserving balance. In this post, we will explore what adaptogens are, their benefits, and potential risks and side effects. The article also spotlights Ashwagandha for its unique hormonal and anti-aging properties.

What are Adaptogens?[1]

Coined in 1947 by Soviet toxicologist Nikolai Lazarev, the term “adaptogen” was introduced to describe substances that may increase resistance to stress.

Adaptogens are natural substances that support the body in adapting to stress and maintaining balance, or homeostasis. They are usually herbs or plant extracts that have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years, although many other plant chemicals have been identified in recent decades as having adaptogenic properties. Adaptogens are good for lowering stress, improving immunity and enhancing hormonal balance. They can be taken as supplement capsules, teas, or tinctures.

How Do Adaptogens Work?

Adaptogens work by regulating stress hormones and the functioning of the HPA axis, HPG axis and the immune system.

The HPA axis consists of the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain and adrenal glands above the kidneys (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis). The hormones released from this bodily system are involved in the physical response to stress yet are also required for maintaining general alertness and arousal. Chronic stress can lead to “burnout” of this system through hormone overload and eventual receptor loss (as seen with insulin resistance), contributing towards fatigue or reduced mental and physical alertness.

The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are involved in regulating reproductive hormones along a similar axis known as the HPG axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Gonadal axis). This axis governs the rhythmic release of hormones from the reproductive organs and their range of bodily benefits, including tissue growth and metabolism, cognition, bone density and cardiovascular protection. Long-term stress is well-known to impact reproductive hormones through the intersection of these systems.

The immune system is intimately linked to the functions of both the HPA axis and the HPG axis, as well as the body’s stress response at large. During injury, infection, allergy or any other similar situations, the immune system is actively involved in removing the problem and repairing any residual damage. Both stress and reproductive hormones affect the tone, quantity and quality of immune system responses.[2] Cortisol and corticosteroids suppress the immune system to limit inflammation, while reproductive hormones tend to enhance immune function, lower inflammation and promote repair.

By regulating the HPA axis, adaptogens help promote stress resilience, boost immunity and vitality, stabilize mood, and improve overall performance and focus. They can also enhance fertility in those with stress-induced reproductive problems.

While each adaptogen typically helps for balancing stress levels, the potency of each differs depending on its composition. The active ingredients possess unique properties that affect the HPA axis uniquely and often extend to other bodily systems. With this in mind, it is best to consult an experienced healthcare practitioner who can select the right one for you and work out an appropriate dose.

Do Adaptogens Really Work? Adaptogen Benefits

Adaptogenic herbs have been shown to provide many benefits for the body. Here are some of the most common benefits:

  1. Stress: Stress reduction is one of the main benefits ascribed to all adaptogens. Each type helps to regulate the body’s response to stress and/or the release of stress hormones like cortisol. It is worth noting that not all adaptogens are herbs that lower cortisol.
  2. Cognition: Lowered stress levels tend to improve cognition, memory and learning abilities, especially when one is placed under pressure or performing a mentally demanding task. Some adaptogens have been shown to improve brain function by lowering inflammation and protecting against oxidative stress and neurodegeneration.
  3. Immune Function: Adaptogens can help boost immune system function by increasing the production of white blood cells and regulating inflammation.
  4. Physical Performance: Many adaptogens have been shown to improve physical performance by reducing fatigue, increasing endurance, improving muscle contraction and strength, as well as lowering post-workout recovery time.
  5. Fertility. Through their anti-inflammatory effects and ability to regulate the HPA and HPG, adaptogens are often helpful for boosting fertility. The effects extend towards improving hormone levels, increasing sperm count, as well as enhancing libido and endurance.

Popular Adaptogenic Herbs

There are various types of adaptogenic herbs. Below is a list of some of the most popular ones, with a few of their unique benefits secondary to stress reduction:

  • Ashwagandha: Itis an herb that has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Ashwagandha is believed to help reduce anxiety, improve memory, boost testosterone and enhance male fertility. More research is needed to confirm these benefits.
  • Rhodiola: A flowering plant that grows in the cold regions of the world, Rhodiola may combat both mental and physical fatigue, improve cognitive clarity, and boost exercise performance.[3]
  • Ginseng: Ginseng is an ancient root that has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine. It is known to be a potent anti-inflammatory herb that boosts immune function, cognition, mood and blood flow. It may be beneficial for improving energy levels and aiding those with cardiovascular issues[4].
  • Holy Basil: Holy basil is another Ayurvedic herb that has been used for centuries. It is often supplemented for reducing anxiety and inflammation, protecting against physical exertion, and safeguarding against chemical or heavy metal exposures.[5]
  • Licorice Root: Licorice root has been used across cultures globally as a food flavoring and medicine. It may help reduce stress and inflammation, regulate adrenal function, improve digestive health, protect against liver disease, and boost immune system function.[6]
  • Cordyceps: Cordyceps is a type of fungus that grows at high altitudes and is commonly found in the Himalayas. It has a wide range of benefits, including improved energy levels, better exercise performance, and enhanced immunity. Cordyceps may also have anti-aging, anti-diabetic, and anti-cancer properties.[7]
  • Maca: Maca is a root vegetable natively found in the Andes Mountains in South America. It is known for promoting fertility, increasing libido, improving mood, and boosting energy levels. Maca may also help manage menopausal symptoms and strengthen bones.[8]
  • Schisandra: Schisandra is a fruit-bearing vine that grows in China and Russia. It acts as a stimulant that may aid liver function, reduce stress, protect against viral infections and improve mental performance. Schisandra may also have anti-inflammatory properties.[9]

Does Ashwagandha Work and Is Ashwagandha Safe?

While Ashwagandha is a well-known adaptogen capable of regulating stress, immune function and fertility, results are conflicting as to how effective it is. Most of the benefits may only be long-term effects of Ashwagandha, as many studies show that the benefits are marginal in the short term. However, other studies show great short-term improvements and the outcome may depend on the underlying cause of stress in those needing to take an adaptogen.

Mechanism of Action. Unlike other adaptogens, Ashwagandha’s main mechanism of action may not directly involve lowering cortisol. Instead, studies have revealed that it may be more beneficial for regulating acetylcholine levels and transmission in the nervous system.

Acetylcholine is an excitatory neurotransmitter that has been shown to increase in response to stress[10]. When levels are too high or low, it may contribute to depression, anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders. Ashwagandha can increase acetylcholine levels (as a mild acetylcholinesterase inhibitor), provide its precursor choline, and improve transmission, yet it can also block acetylcholine receptors[11]. This suggests that it regulates its activity in a way more beneficial than that of commercial acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (which can promote choline excess or deficit).

Acetylcholine has additionally been shown to improve cognition and memory in those with age-related declines, as well as enhance muscle contraction and strength. These also constitute the benefits of Ashwagandha supplementation. Choline transmission can also enhance or disrupt the brain-related aspects of the HPA and HPG[12], suggesting that Ashwagandha may help stabilize these by regulating neurotransmission. This may also explain why Ashwagandha can improve fertility in some but not all men and why its cortisol-lowering effects vary across studies.[13] [14]

Ashwagandha’s antioxidant profile serves to promote these benefits by protecting the brain and reproductive system from inflammatory damage, as well as enhancing physical endurance[15]. It is also known to possess antimicrobial, antidiabetic, anticarcinogenic, and cardioprotective properties. Ashwagandha may also increase thyroid hormone in those with lower levels and may also be beneficial for those with myasthenia gravis and other neuromuscular disorders.

All benefits together, Ashwagandha may be an ideal anti-aging herb capable of preventing muscle loss, slowing hormonal decline and improving cognitive function.

More human-based trials are required to confirm the benefits, effectiveness and safety of Ashwagandha.

Side Effects and Dangers of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is generally recognized as safe, especially as results tend to only be noticed in the long term across many studies. There are concerns that Ashwagandha shouldn’t be prescribed to women due to its testosterone-enhancing effects. However, Ashwagandha may equally promote estrogen levels in women[16], improve female sexual function, and help to treat female androgen deficiency syndrome through its actions on the HPA[17].

Ashwagandha may cause liver damage or jaundice if taken at higher doses or by those sensitive to it. Some people experience temporary side effects while on Ashwagandha, including drowsiness, digestive upset, nausea, and diarrhea or vomiting.

Ashwagandha is contraindicated for:

  • Liver disease
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Prostatic cancer
  • Those allergic to nightshades
  • Those on specific medications.

It may be contraindicated for pregnant women and those with autoimmune disease (due to possessing both pro and anti-inflammatory properties)

Are Adaptogens Safe? Potential Risks and Side Effects

While adaptogenic herbs are generally considered safe for most people, they can cause side effects in some cases. Here are some potential risks and side effects of adaptogens:

  1. Drug Interactions: Some adaptogens can interact with certain medications. This is especially important with regard to antidepressants, anticonvulsants or similar drugs that affect the brain. Diuretics, blood pressure medications, and heart medications may also be contraindicated. Check with your doctor before taking an adaptogen supplement, especially if you are on more than one medication.
  2. Allergic Reactions: Some people may be allergic to certain adaptogenic herbs. If you are prone to allergies, suffer from an autoimmune condition, or are generally sensitive, you may wish to consume a lower adaptogen dose at first and monitor your condition carefully for signs of allergy.
  3. Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: It is usually advised that pregnant and breastfeeding women avoid adaptogens as the benefits are often inconclusive, and they may be a cause for harm. It is important to talk to your doctor before taking them if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Dosing and Usage: When to Consult with a Natural Health Professional

While adaptogenic herbs are generally considered safe for most people, they can cause side effects in some cases, especially when taken at high doses or in combination with certain medications. It is not advisable to opt for several adaptogens at once.

When it comes to dosing and usage of adaptogens, follow the instructions on the adaptogen label. Most adaptogens come with recommended dosages and usage instructions that should be adhered to carefully. It is generally recommended to start off with a lower dose, gradually increasing it while monitoring your body’s response. This can help you identify any potential side effects or adverse reactions and adjust your dosage accordingly.

If you are unsure, have a health condition, or are on several medications, it is important to consult with a natural health professional about adaptogens. A natural health professional can help you determine the appropriate type and dosage for your individual needs and health status. They can also help you identify any potential risks or side effects and provide guidance on how to safely incorporate an adaptogen into your routine.


Adaptogenic herbs, like Ashwagandha, have been used for centuries in traditional medicine to help the body adapt to stress and maintain balance. While they provide many benefits for the body, it is important to talk to your doctor before taking them if you are on any medications, have a health condition, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. By incorporating adaptogenic herbs into your diet safely and effectively, you can promote vitality, stabilize mood, improve performance and focus, boost immune function, reduce stress levels, and much more.

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