Feeling stressed? The better question would be who isn't feeling stressed these days? But if stress turns you into a hot mess, you may want to ask your doctor about adaptogens. Adaptogens are a class of herbs commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine that work with your body to decrease the negative effects of stress — most commonly fatigue and general poor performance.
Everyone responds differently to stress, and the effects can lead to depression, anxiety and chronic illness. Instead of immediately turning to pharmaceuticals, finding a natural supplement to help your body control your stress response may be a good first step. Here are six to consider.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea)
Stress got you feeling run-down? You're not alone! Rhodiola supplementation is commonly used in Europe and Asia to reduce stress-related fatigue. A 2012 review published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine supports its use for just that. More surprising, though, may be its promise in helping combat depression.
A study published in 2015 in Phytomedicine showed a reduction in depression for those taking rhodiola. The decrease wasn't as much as traditional antidepressants, but it didn't come with any of the less-than-desirable side effects often associated with pharmaceuticals.
In fact, according the National Institutes of Health, the only side effects that have been reported are dizziness and dry mouth. Rhodiola is most often consumed in capsule form, though some people choose to buy the root from a health food store and infuse it into their tea.
Asian Ginseng (Panax Ginseng) and American Ginseng (Panax Quinquefolius)
Chances are you've probably heard of ginseng. In fact, some consider it the king of all herbs. Ginseng is a popular antioxidant used around the world to treat the nasty effects of stress.
A 2017 review in the Journal of Ginseng Research indicates that it effectively reduce the types of depression, anxiety and fatigue triggered by stress. It's also known for helping reduce inflammation. You can buy ginseng as a tea, in supplement form or use the root itself and boil it into soup. Try brewing a cup of Four Sigmatic's Adaptogen Blend ($24.99).
While it's safe for short-term use, research on long-term use is still inconclusive. The most common side effects are headache, insomnia and digestive problems. It is possible that ginseng could interact with certain medications, so if you're being treated for high blood pressure or diabetes or are on blood thinners, talk to your doctor first.
Holy Basil (Ocimum Sanctum L or O. Tenuiflorum)
Holy basil, Batman! Also called tulsi, this is a medicinal herb that's been used in India for more than 3,000 years. A 2017 review published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded that holy basil may be an effective adaptogen against the effects of stress on the body. It's available in liquid extract, in capsules or it can be made into tea, but experts recommend consuming holy basil in different forms, depending on your needs.
Some of the other reported benefits were decreased anxiety, depression and fatigue, increased working memory and attention and a reduction in stress-related sexual and sleep problems. There were no adverse side effects to holy basil, other than a small bout of nausea in one study. But if you're taking blood thinners, you should be extra cautious and consult with your physician before adding holy basil to your wellness regimen.
Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera)
Ashwa-what?! Ashwagandha is a widely studied adaptogen and literally translated means "smell of horse" (a translation as strange to us Westerners as its pronunciation). That's often attributed to its unique odor and the folklore that anyone using it will develop the strength and vitality of a horse.
But this adaptogen may be able to live up to this hype. A 2012 study from the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine showed ashwagandha reduced feelings of stress and anxiety and increased general well-being by decreasing cortisol levels (a hormone associated with stress).
A 2014 review in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine confirmed these positive effects. There are no known serious side effects from taking ashwagandha, but pregnant women should avoid it, as it's reported to induce miscarriage or preterm labor.
Ashwagandha is sold as an extract or supplement and you can find the root in ground form to infuse into boiling water or milk. Try BareOrganics' Organic Ashwagandha Root Powder ($24.99) in your morning smoothie.
Maca (Lepidium Meyenii)
You may have noticed powdered maca as a trendy addition to your morning smoothie bowl. Its reputation as an adaptogen began with its roots in Peru, where it is believed to enhance libido, fertility and endurance.
More recently, a 2011 study published in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine drew a correlation between maca and a lower risk of bone fractures, lower body mass index and lower systolic blood pressure.
Researchers believe that using maca as an adaptogen shows great promise, but there isn't any current research to support its use in fighting stress. Maca is widely available in stores as a powder you can add to pretty much anything (think smoothies and acai bowls) and as a dietary supplement. Prana Snacks even makes delicious chocolate bark ($5.49) with maca and almonds.
Astragalus (Astragalus Membranaceus)
Another standard in traditional Chinese medicine, astragalus root has been used as a supplement for various ailments like diarrhea, fatigue, upper respiratory infections and fibromyalgia. There's not a ton of research on it yet, but many people still assert its adaptogenic powers of fighting fatigue and boosting immune system function.
Though the most common side effects are diarrhea and other mild gastrointestinal discomfort, it may also interfere with medications for diabetes and blood pressure or blood thinners.
And there's also the potential of getting the wrong type of toxic astragalus that contains the neurotoxin swainsonine, but that's generally not in the dietary supplements you'll find at health-food stores. The astragalus supplements you will see are available in capsules or in extract form.
Considering adding adaptogens to your daily wellness routine? Make sure to chat with your doctor first. She can help determine which of these might work best for you and the right dose for your needs.
And don’t take them if you’re pregnant or breast-feeding. You should also know there are different species of each adaptogen, so make sure you read the labels. Each of the scientific names for these specific adaptogens can be found above.
- BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Rhodiola rosea for physical and mental fatigue: a systematic review.
- Phytomedicine. Rhodiola rosea versus sertraline for major depressive disorder: A randomized placebo-controlled trial.
- Journal of Ginseng Research. Effects of ginseng on stress-related depression, anxiety, and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis.
- Evidence Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature.
- Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults.
- Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine. An Alternative Treatment for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of Human Trial Results Reported for the Ayurvedic Herb Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera).
- National Institutes of Health. Astragalus.
- Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands