Adaptogenic herbs are plants and plant substances from all over the world originally used in traditional ancient medicines, such as Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine practices. With that said, adaptogens have had a resurgence in popularity, becoming wildly popular in western holistic communities and are even being used in modern medicine.
What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogenic herbs, also referred to as adaptogens, are an ancient form of plant-based medicines. These days, adaptogens are part of a practice called phytotherapy, the “use of plants for their healing abilities.” While, adaptogens seek to “balance, restore, and protect the body,” they primarily focus on the body’s stress response, a natural response that releases “the hormone cortisol to respond to stress.” Long-term elevated cortisol levels have been shown to negatively “affect every physiological system in your body, including your thyroid and adrenal glands.”
In our high-stress society, adaptogens are the hidden tool to help the body process, release, and heal from these stressors.
Adaptogenic herbs aren’t necessarily meant to target a specific malady or ailment — such as curing one headache or a current skin rash — but instead, they are used to normalize physiological functions. Adaptogens focus on a whole-body function approach to healing.
With that said, groups of adaptogenic herbs can be used to target treatment for larger conditions needing healing such as trouble sleep, high levels of anxiety and stress, low sex drive, and so on.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Adaptogenic herbs have been “used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions.” Yet, back in ancient times, they didn’t know the science behind their uses, only that they were incredibly effective.
Since then, we’ve discovered a lot about them. Due to the potential health benefits, studies have been conducted on the effects and efficiency of adaptogenic herbs. One such study entitled, Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress conducted by the Swedish Herbal Institute Research & Development in Åskloster, Sweden found that “adaptogens have not only specific therapeutic effects in some stress-induced and stress-related disorders but will also have an impact on the quality of life of patients when implemented … in the standard therapy of many chronic diseases and pathological conditions.” The Swedish study went further to claim that adaptogens may potentially be used as a treatment in neurodegenerative disease and cardiovascular diseases.
More research is necessary to fully understand adaptogenic herbs, yet what we do know is fascinating! First off, it seems that adaptogens “have a balancing effect on something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-endocrine axis … [referring to] the delicate dance between your brain and hormone system.” When your moods are stable, your metabolism and energy balanced, and sex drive and immune system healthy, this means that your “brain-adrenal (HPA) axis, brain-thyroid (HPT) and brain-gonadal axis (HPG)” are communicating harmoniously.
With that said, when that harmony is disrupted it means that the “HP axis is unbalanced [which] leads to hormone problems like adrenal fatigue, thyroid problems, and libido issues.” Adaptogens to the rescue! These powerful herbs have an equilibrating effect, seeking to balance-hormones and right the topsy-turvy alignment of your axis.
10 Beneficial Adaptogens
While this is all most-likely interesting and useful information, here is the truly fun part! Below is a list of 10 of the most widely used adaptogenic herbs in the western world and a bit of information about each. With that said, before using adaptogenic herbs, it’s incredibly important to speak with your doctor, especially if you are currently treating a condition that may be adversely affected by these powerful herbs.
Holy basil, also referred to as Tulsi, is part of the mint family and is native to tropical Asia. This adaptogen is a “powerful antioxidant with demonstrated antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.” Medicinally, holy basil has been used to treat “everything from the common cold to bronchitis to fever to certain digestive complaints, including ulcers.”
Chaga’s are one of the more well-known and widely-used medicinal mushrooms on the market. While chaga mushrooms are now available in powdered supplement forms, the traditional way of consuming this adaptogen is in tea. Found in cold climates, such as “Northern Europe, Siberia, Russia, Korea, Northern Canada, and Alaska,” the chaga mushroom goes by many names including “black mass, clinker polypore, birch canker polypore, cinder conk, and the sterile conk trunk rot (of birch).”
Alright, so it may not have the best reputation based upon those alternative names, but the soft orange core of this mushroom offers wonderfully rich medicinal meat. Chaga has been known to boost immunity, and “treat diabetes, certain cancers, and heart disease.”
Maca (not to be confused with the green tea extract matcha), also called Peruvian ginseng, is a cruciferous veggie and a popular adaptogen. This root grows mainly “in the Andes of central Peru, in harsh conditions and at very high altitudes – above 13,000 feet (4,000 meters).” The root of the maca holds all the nutritional and medicinal properties and, due to its popularity, is now available in powder, liquid, and supplement form.
While maca root is highly nutritious, it’s also been hailed for its many adaptogenic health benefits including relieving menopause symptoms, reducing anxiety and depression, helping increase muscle mass, boosting energy, and improving brain function.
If you don’t have a stash of goji berries in your kitchen, then it’s time to try these delicious little adaptogens out! Goji berries, also referred to as wolfberries, have been used medicinally in China for thousands of years to treat a variety of ailments including complications with the kidneys, eyes, and the liver. Goji berries have “all 8 essential amino acids,” meaning they are the perfect vegan source of protein! In fact, “a single 4 ounce serving provides nearly 10 percent of your daily value for protein.” They have been known to boost the immune system, are a great source of antioxidants, and help maintain blood sugar.
Licorice root, also referred to as sweet root, is wildly popular in sweet recipes, but is also known for its medicinal benefits including soothing and healing gastrointestinal issues, treating respiratory problems, and even reducing stress. On top of that, licorice root “can increase energy and endurance, plus help boost the immune system,” as well as potentially help with “fat reduction and decrease of androgen and testosterone in women.” While licorice root is a great adaptogen, it’s important to only use it in “cycles of 12 weeks” due to the fact that it can affect your blood pressure.
Ginseng is a powerful adaptogen containing “two significant compounds: ginsenosides and gintonin.” This adaptogen is known for its antioxidant potency and health benefits including anti-inflammatory properties, improved brain function, a boost for the immune system, lowering blood sugar, helps fight cancer, and provides energy and decreases fatigue.
The reishi mushroom is traditionally used in Eastern medicines due to “several molecules, including triterpenoids, polysaccharides and peptidoglycans,” which have been attributed to its many health benefits. While most adaptogens focus on similar health benefits — such as better immune system function, anti-cancer properties, fighting fatigue, lowering depression, and high antioxidants — reishi mushroom has also been attributed to lower triglycerides, higher “good” HDL cholesterol, and lower blood sugar levels.
Yet another wonderful medicinal mushroom! Lion’s Mane Mushroom is largely used both for culinary and medicinal purposes in “Asian countries like China, India, Japan and Korea.” When you see one, you’ll know it. This mushroom generally grows as a “large, white, shaggy” fungi, resembling “a lion’s mane as they grow.” Along with adaptogenic powers, this mushroom has been known to enhance brain function, protect against cancer, support circulatory system health, improve digestive health, and reduce inflammation. Lion’s mane, in particular, has been said to taste much like sea-food, making it a great vegan substitute in seafood recipes.
Let’s talk raw cacao. This adaptogen has various health benefits such as combating fatigue, balancing mood swings, rejuvenating your skin, improving digestion, and boosting cognitive functioning, to name just a few. This ancient ingredient is believed to “have first been used by the Maya civilization of Central America.” With that said, it’s popularity has propelled it to become one of the most used ingredients for many plant-based eaters.
The maitake mushroom is found naturally in “parts of Japan, China, and North America [growing] at the bottom of Oak, Elm, and Maple trees.” While this adaptogen has been used for thousands of years in Asia, it’s relatively new in states, but has quickly gained popularity due to “its promises of health, vitality, and longevity.” As is the case with most adaptogens, maitake mushrooms are known for high levels of antioxidants, yet this particular mushroom also provides beta-glucans, copper, potassium, fiber, amino acids, and an assortment of minerals. Mushrooms are great culinary ingredients for vegans due to the fact that they can be used in lieu of meat in meat-based recipes.
How to Use Adaptogens
We know what they are, where they come from, and which ones we’re interested in. How in the world do we use them? As with most plant-based substances, it’s all about lifestyle. If you lead a hectic life, you may want to try out supplements or powdered versions in your morning coffee or lunch-time smoothie. With that said, if you’ve got a little time on your hands, you can always try cooking or baking with the raw adaptogenic ingredients such as mushrooms and raw cacao. Here are a few recommendations for everyone!
One of the most popular ways to use adaptogenic herbs is in your favorite beverage. Even in ancient times, adaptogenic herbs and substances were dried and turned into powders which could then be used in a variety of ways. Nowadays, you can easily purchase these powders at your local grocery or health food store.
You can use adaptogenic herbs in caffeinated beverages to begin your day, such as this Tulsi Chai Concentrate — a congregation of revitalizing and healing ingredients of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and anise, and holy basil — this Chocolate Reishi Latte, or this Chaga Mushroom Tea. If this isn’t your jam, try using adaptogens in your favorite sweet treat beverage such as this Strawberry Maca Milkshake — chalk-full of potassium-rich banana, fiber-rich dates, vitamin C-rich strawberries, and maca root — or this Goji Berry and Ginger Smoothie which incorporates the sweet, rich, and luxurious flavors of goji berries, coconut, banana, and vanilla, along with a bit of savory ginger!
Did you know that adaptogens can be used like any old ingredient in some of your favorite recipes? This means that the next plant-based meal you whip can be nutrient-rich, nourishing, tasty, and hormone balancing! Some of the heartiest, vegan recipes I’ve used have also included adaptogenic herbs such as these Shiitake Mushroom Soft Tacos or these Blackened Maitake Steaks.
Plus, using adaptogens isn’t relegated to cooking, but you can also make adaptogen-rich desserts such as this Marzipan Maca Hibiscus Cups, these Raw Raspberry Licorice Mini Cakes, or these Raw Chocolate Energy Bars. For those that need a super powerful pick-up, I’d recommend trying out this Raw Superfood Chocolate that includes not one, not two, not three, but four adaptogens: raw cacao, maca powder, goji berries, and reishi mushrooms.
Supplements are all the rage these days! Most of us have incredibly busy lives, therefore taking the time to create adaptogenic meals may not be an option. Luckily, there are some great options to get adaptogenic herbs and their wonderful benefits in capsule form. Look for non-GMO, vegetarian or vegan, and organic supplements, such as these Nature’s Way Licorice Root vegetarian capsules or these Gaia Herbs Holy Basil Leaf Liquid Phyto-Capsules.
If you’re looking for a bit of a booster shot, try this 5 Defenders Organic Mushroom Extract Blend by Real Mushrooms, which blends together reishi, shiitake, chaga, maitake, and turkey tail mushroom powders for the ultimate immune defense!
For more adaptogenic herb-rich recipes, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!