by Dr. Will Cole
The health blogosphere has been captivated by all things adaptogenic and “adaptogens” is the hottest new buzzword in the health world – but what the heck are they and why should you care? I’m glad you asked. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is your personal guide to the adaptogenic kingdom.
Adaptogens aren’t just any old group of plant medicines.
Adaptogens are a broad family of herbs and plant medicines that have been used for thousands of years throughout the world. To be labeled an adaptogen, a plant medicine must fulfill at least three specific criteria:
- They are generally safe (for just about everyone).
- They help you handle stress.
- They work to balance your hormones.
This is how adaptogens work in the body.
Adaptogens balance out your hormones and help calm stress levels – but there’s so much more! Your body’s stress system, the sympathetic nervous system, controls hundreds of pathways that are responsible for inflammation. And this is important because the hectic, crazy, modern world we live in can leave us feeling exhausted, inflamed, irritable, hangry, and emotionally spent – all of which can lead to hormonal problems like adrenal fatigue, low sex drive, and thyroid problems.
Adaptogens give the stress system (and you) a big proverbial cuddle – keeping inflammation levels in check. And because chronic inflammation is linked to many of the common health problems we see today, the medical literature has found adaptogens to have more cool and far-reaching health benefits like:
- lowering cortisol levels
- regenerating brain cells
- alleviating depression and anxiety
- protecting heart health
- protecting the liver
- preventing and fighting cancer
- lowering cholesterol
- protecting against radiation
- balancing the immune system
- decreasing fatigue
Take-home message: Adaptogens are badass.
All of these little guys fight inflammation and generally have a knack for bringing some zen to your adrenal, thyroid, and sex hormones. But each adaptogen also has its own special set of skills. Here are the 12 most popular adaptogens and what you should know about each:
1. Ginseng: the pick-me-up
Asian White, Asian Red, American White, the ginseng varieties are great for people who want an extra boost of energy without the jitters of caffeine. I love using ginseng for jet lag!
2. Pearl: the beauty secret
Crushed-up pearl powder is a great source of aminos and will nourish skin, hair, and nails.
3. Rhodiola: the stress calmer
Rhodiola rosea can be a great tool to use for people struggling with adrenal fatigue and fibromyalgia. But, warning: If you are extra sensitive, Rhodiola can keep you up at night.
4. Schisandra: the adrenal balancer
Another super adrenal supporter, this berry is one I used on a regular basis during my journey recovering from adrenal fatigue.
5. Shilajit: the sex hormone igniter
People with low libido or sex hormone imbalance can benefit from shilajit. This Ayurvedic herb translates as “conqueror of mountains and destroyer of weakness.” Sounds good to me.
6. Ashwagandha: the thyroid + mood master
A superstar adaptogen, this popular herb is a great tool in supporting optimal thyroid function and if you are known to get mood swings. Ashwagandha is also a nightshade, which some people with autoimmune conditions can’t handle.
7. Maca: the energizer
Maca is a great way to boost energy and also calm anxiety naturally. Maca is a rich source of vitamin C, making it great for boosting the immune system. There are three types of maca powders: red, yellow, and black. Red maca is the sweetest and mildest tasting. Yellow maca is the least sweet, and black maca is somewhere in between the two.
8. Holy Basil (Tulsi): the memory booster
I find holy basil to be great for people with brain fog, gently working to increase cognitive function. Tulsi is also great for bloating and gas.
9. Ho Shou Wu: the libido pumper-upper
Another great tool for people with a low sex drive, this herb has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine.
10. Mucuna pruriens: nature’s chill pill
This adaptogenic bean extract is jam-packed with L-DOPA, the precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine. I take this daily as it helps with my focus and calming me down during my busy day.
11. Eleuthero: the battery pack
If you are dragging through the day, this is another way to optimize your energy levels. Extra stressful week? Eleuthero is your guy.
12. Adaptogenic mushrooms
Within the adaptogenic kingdom there is also an extra-special group of medicinal mushrooms that offer some of the same hormone-balancing benefits as the adaptogens above and some extra immune-boosting qualities too:
- Lion’s Mane
- Turkey Tail
Here’s how to use adaptogens
Because each adaptogen offers its own unique benefit, I am a fan of using blends in elixirs and smoothies. Have fun with it! Here are the recipes I commonly use.
Sex Hormone Boosting Elixir
- 2 cups full-fat coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon cacao powder
- 1 teaspoon shilajit powder
- 1 teaspoon Ho Shou Wu
- 1 teaspoon mucuna pruriens powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon raw honey
- Blend ingredients well in a blender.
- Pour into saucepan and heat for 3 to 5 minutes over medium heat until warm.
Anti-Inflammatory Mushroom Elixir
- 1 1/2 cups plain full-fat organic coconut milk
- 1/2 teaspoon each of organic powdered of chaga, reishi, lion’s mane, turkey tail, cordyceps, shiitake, and himematsutake
- 1 teaspoon chia seed
- 1 tablespoon raw organic honey
- 2 pitted medjool dates (more if you want it sweeter!)
- 2 tablespoons raw cacao powder
- 1 teaspoon maca powder
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- Himalayan sea salt to taste
- Blend all ingredients in a blender. Serve cold, or, if it’s chilly where you are, warm it up in a pot and enjoy!
- 1 cup full-fat coconut milk
- 1 scoop collagen protein
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin coconut oil
- 1 cup mixed greens
- 2 Brazil nuts
- 1 avocado
- 1 stick celery
- 2 tablespoons dulse flakes
- 1 tablespoon maca powder
- 1 cup organic frozen berries
- Blend all ingredients in a blender.
Refreshing Adrenal-Balancing Iced Tea
- 1 teaspoon ashwagandha powder
- 1 teaspoon rhodiola powder
- 1 teaspoon holy basil powder
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Pour 1 to 2 cups of hot water over herbs. Let steep for 15 minutes and then pour over ice.
Create a routine that fits your specific body.
We are all different. If you are going through hormone problems and want a functional medicine perspective on your health case, take advantage of our free webcam or phone health evaluation.
I originally wrote this article for mindbodygreen.