Adaptogenic Herbs: What They Do and When to Take Them
First and foremost, it should be understood that adaptogens are in a class of their own. They work best when coordinated and taken when stress is on the rise. And it is best to combine herbal medicines with changes in lifestyle and healthy eating. Because they tend to be stronger in nature, adaptogenic herbs should be taken short term and ideally in combination with other herbs to gain a synergistic effect.
Adaptogens got their name from their ability to help the body “adapt” to higher than normal levels of stress or change, as they are known to confer a regulatory and normalizing effect.
Some defining elements of adaptogens include:
Adaptogenic herbs help to regulate and balance the neurological response to stress. Some of the health issues they can effectively address include poor sleep, blood pressure (high and low), glucose management, heart rate, and fatigue.
There are hundreds of adaptogenic herbs, and certain ones are being more studied than others due to their wide range of benefits. A few examples of the most clinically studied adaptogens, with correlating benefits:
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), ci wu jia, is the most widely studied adaptogenic herb and is often referred to as the “king of adaptogens (Yance, 2010).” There are more published studies on eleuthero (more than three thousand) than on any other herb in the world. For good reason. Eleuthero has been used for centuries to prevent cold and flu. Perhaps its greatest caveat is that it has a normalizing effect on body systems regardless of health state (e.g. normalization of blood pressure in both hypotensive and hypertensive cases, and normalization of blood sugar levels in hyper- and hypoglycemia).
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), wu wei zi, has a beneficial effect on sleep, and can actually improve sleep quality. It is noted for its dual, rather unusual character in that it not only calms stress, it also increases focus and mental clarity (Winston & Maimes, 2007).
Turmeric (Curcuma longa), jiang huang, contains curcuminoids, and curcumin in particular, is extensively studied for its effects on inflammation. The phenolic compound in curcumin has been found to inhibit beta-amyloid - the plaque-forming agent of the brain. Curcumin studied in vitro inhibits beta-amyloid formation better than ibuprofen or naproxen, both of which are being studied for Alzheimer prevention.
Red ginseng, also known as Korean ginseng or Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng), ren shen, is one of the most famous herbs, especially for frail, weak, depleted states with signs such as cold extremities, cold sweat, and shortness of breath. It is warming and consolidating, and also reviving; some indications for its use are post-surgical, post-traumatic or PTSD, and for debility from prolonged illness. It is often prescribed by herbalists for the elderly who are weak and frail.
Phytochemistry of Adaptogens
Chemical analyses have shown that adaptogens contain either complex phenolics or tetracyclic triterpenoids/steroids. The phenolics resemble catecholamines (chemicals that prepare the body for fight or flight such as epinephrine and adrenaline) whereas the triterpenoids resemble corticosteroids (chemicals that inactivate stress hormones in order to protect the nervous system).
Some key effects of adaptogens are neuroprotective, hepatoprotective, cardioprotective, gastroprotective, oxidative stress, hypotensive, anti-inflammatory, CNS stimulating (enhances cognitive performance (memory and learning) and physical performance (Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010).
Use Caution, Even with Herbs
While adaptogenic herbs are true warriors during times of stress and illness, it should also be noted that they can be very strong and overstimulating when used at the wrong time or for the wrong purpose. They should not be used to “enhance performance,” as to run harder, stay up all night studying, or work 70 hours a week. If used for this purpose they will either not provide the desired result, or could potentially damage the body.
Combine to Protect
A traditional and effective means to ensure safe use of adaptogens is by combining them with other herbs in a formula. Combining herbs is a well-honed practice that expands the benefits of herbal ingredients, and also protects the system from overstimulation by one herb or ingredient.
For example, red ginseng (Panax ginseng), ren shen, can be too stimulating if taken in high doses. Yet in small doses, and combined with other herbs into a formula (ginseng taking up about 8 to 10 percent of formula) the beneficial effects are amplified, particularly for heart, lungs, and immune system, making it very useful in the treatment of asthma and coronary arterial circulation, for example.
The art of combining herbs was known before any laboratory analyses of herbal constituents was ever performed. The art, known as “dui yao,” or “two herbs,” takes into account the role of principal herbs. Typically the strongest of the group; these “chief” herbs are often also adaptogenic herbs. The principal herb dictates the therapeutic signature such as “tonify Spleen and Kidney qi,” meaning that herb has beneficial effects on digestion, recovery, and endurance. Other herbs in that formula take on secondary, and assistive roles, to support the chief herb.
Herbal formulas in TCM may contain anywhere from five to 25 or more herbs. For example the formula known as Six Gentlemen Decoction, Liu Jun zi tang, contains ginseng (chief herb) along with white atractylodes, licorice, and poria, as well as others. Licorice is believed to mitigate toxicity of some herbs that are strong and can be too excitatory, and so is often included in formulas. Licorice also eases stomach issues such as nausea or stomach irritation and minimizes irritation of throat caused by acrid herbs.
Consult Your Herbalist
Not all adaptogens work for everything or everyone. This is why it is important to know something about the person’s constitution - are they hot, dry, cold or damp? For example, red ginseng, ren shen, is contraindicated for the excessive type A person, or anyone prone to hypertension or insomnia. Yet it can be a life-saver for the “damp-cold” type of person who sleeps all day and still has no energy, for example.
The ways in which herbs are selected, whether singly or in a formula, is very elegant in the Ayurvedic or Asian medicine systems. Even for short-term use, it can be wise to consult an herbalist to make sure the herbs chosen are appropriate and can match your unique set of signs and symptoms.
Arouca A, et al. (2013). Eleutherococcus senticosus: Studies and effects. [Abstract]. Retrieved from
Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 3(1), 188–224. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph3010188
Winston, D. & Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions/Bear & Co.
Yance, D. (2013). Adaptogens in medical herbalism: Elite herbs and natural compounds for mastering stress, disease, and aging. Fairfield, CT: Healing Arts Press.
Zhang C, Mao X, Zhao X, et al. (2014). Gomisin N isolated from Schisandra chinensis augments pentobarbital-induced sleep behaviors through the modification of the serotonergic and GABAergic system. Fitoterapia. 96:123-130. doi:10.1016/j.fitote.2014.04.017