by Dr. Will Cole
The health blogosphere has been captivated by all things adaptogenic, and “adaptogen” is the hottest new buzzword in health – but what the heck are they and why should you care? I’m glad you asked.
Adaptogens are plant medicines – but not just any old 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.
How adaptogens work
Stress and hormone pathways are connected – your body’s stress system, the sympathetic nervous system, controls hundreds of pathways that are responsible for inflammation, and when inflammation gets out of control, this can lead to hormonal problems like adrenal fatigue, low sex drive, and thyroid dysfunction.
Adaptogens help to regulate the sympathetic nervous system so everything downstream works better. And because chronic inflammation is linked to many of the common health problems we see today, the medical literature has found adaptogens to have even 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
They all mediate stress, fight inflammation, and bring balance to your hormonal system 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
Ginseng varieties, including Asian White, Asian Red, and American White, are great for those seeking an extra boost of energy without the jitters that can come from caffeine. Personally, I especially like to use it to combat jet lag.
2. Pearl: The beauty secret
Crushed-up pearl powder is a great source of amino acids and will nourish skin, hair, and nails.
3. Rhodiola: The stress calmer
Rhodiola rosea is good for people struggling with adrenal fatigue and fibromyalgia, but it can have a stimulating effect on the extra-sensitive, so take it before noon or it could keep you up at night.
4. Schisandra: The adrenal supporter
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’s name 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. If you tend to get mood swings, ashwagandha may also be all the remedy you need. Just watch out – ashwagandha is a nightshade, which may aggravate symptoms (such as joint pain) in some people with autoimmune conditions.
7. Maca: The energizer
Maca both boosts energy and calms anxiety. It’s also a rich source of vitamin C, making it an immunity enhancer. 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 recommend holy basil to my patients who complain of brain fog because it gently increases cognitive function. As a bonus, it’s 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 focus and calms me down during my busy day.
11. Eleuthero: The battery pack
If you are dragging through the day, this herb is another great one for optimizing energy levels. Extra stressful week? Eleuthero is your go-to.
12. Adaptogenic mushrooms
Within the adaptogenic kingdom, there is 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. These include:
- Lion’s Mane
- Turkey Tail
Take-home message: Adaptogens are baddass.
Because each adaptogen offers its own unique benefit, I am a fan of using blends in elixirs and smoothies. Here are the recipes I use the most:
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
- Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until fully combined.
- 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 chaga, reishi, lion’s main, turkey tail, cordyceps, shiitake, and himematsutake
- 1 teaspoon chia seeds
- 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.
- 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.