What Are Adaptogens And What Can They Do For You?

The reign of the superfood may be coming to an end, ladies, because 2017 is set to be the year of the super herb. Thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow sharing the adaptogen-packed recipe for her morning smoothie, the world is going mad for them. Find out what they are, what they could do for you, and how to incorporate them into your daily routine…

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are a diverse range of herbs and fungi proven to tackle the negative effects of physical, emotional and environmental stress on the body (and that includes exercise, pollution and illness, as well as your irritating spouse). They support the adrenal glands (which manage our body’s response to stress) and fight cortisol-induced dysfunction at the cellular level. Used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, new research indicates that these substances could help to prevent and treat every illness from the common cold to cancer, improve both mental and physical performance, encourage weight loss and buffer the effects of ageing on the mind and body. Ready to hear more?

Which herbs count?

Eight to thirty varieties of herb and mushroom are currently considered adaptogens, depending on who you ask. These are the ones currently generating the biggest buzz in wellness circles:

Asian Ginseng

Asian ginseng (also known as red ginseng) is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. Research suggests that it could reduce your chances of catching a cold or flu (and decrease symptom severity if you do). It also seems to improve heart and lung function and decrease levels of ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol whilst increasing levels of ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol. It could slow down or arrest the growth of tumours and may protect against cancers of the lungs, liver, pancreas, ovaries and stomach.

Ginseng could help tune up your mind, too – research indicates benefits for memory, concentration, mental arithmetic and even the capacity for abstract thought. It has been associated with cognitive improvements in Alzheimer’s patients and reductions in ADHD symptomatology.

It seems to improve symptoms, mood and wellbeing for some women going through the menopause, whilst increasing sperm count and sex drive (and decreasing erectile dysfunction) in men.

And that’s not all – Asian ginseng is also credited with reducing fatigue, boosting metabolism and stimulating fat-burning.

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola significantly reduces feelings of fatigue associated with stress-induced ‘burnout’, according to research. It increases the levels of serotonin circulating in the brain whilst decreasing corticosteroid production, and appears to protect the brain from neurotoxins. Preliminary evidence also suggests it can reduce the urge to binge eat in response to stress and may even promote longevity.


Early evidence suggests that this unassuming turnip-like root vegetable, traditionally used as an aphrodisiac, may help to protect the brain from damage, improve bone health and enhance cognitive ability.


Also known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is completely distinct from American and Asian ginseng, with different active chemical components. It appears to stimulate the immune system, reducing the severity and length of a cold if taken within 72 hours of symptom onset, and may improve memory in middle age.


Research suggests that eating a single shiitake mushroom each day could boost your immune system, improve cell function and reduce systemic inflammation. Shiitake contain compounds which help to protect DNA from oxidative damage and heal the chromosomal damage inflicted by cancer treatments. They also seem to inhibit the growth of tumours and bacteria, reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol, support cardiovascular health and even prevent fat storage and weight gain.


Maitake mushrooms appear to lower blood pressure and blood sugar, improve cholesterol and support weight loss. They also contain chemical compounds thought to fight tumours and stimulate the immune system.


Reishi mushroom extract seems to activate the NK (natural killer) cells that fight viruses and tumours, and improves wellbeing and symptoms of fatigue for some people.


Cordyceps mushrooms have been lauded for their anti-ageing properties, claims which appear to be backed up by animal research. They may also improve physical endurance, banish post-workout muscle pain, fight diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disorders and respiratory infections and improve liver function.

Holy Basil

Traditionally used as an anti-fertility agent, this herb has antioxidant and immune-boosting properties. A growing body of research suggests that it may protect the liver, activate NK cells, improve blood glucose and reduce anxiety.


Fast becoming the new turmeric, ashwaganda has been found to reduce cortisol levels, dampen the suppressive effects of stress on the immune system, reduce anxiety, blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, increase physical power and improve sperm quality. It even shows promise in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.


Astralagus boasts immunity-boosting antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. It appears to have anti-diabetes and anti-cancer effects, help people recover more quickly and live longer following cancer treatment, support kidney function and improve heart function in those with heart disease. It also seems to reduce the symptoms of seasonal allergies such as hay fever.

How do I take them?

You can find adaptogenic supplements in pill, tincture, powder and tea form. If you don’t fancy gulping them down, try adding a few drops of tincture or spoonfuls of powder to soups, stews or smoothies. Do research the supplier and consult your doctor before adding a new supplement to your regimen, though. Some adaptogenic substances are unsuitable for people with certain disorders (e.g. autoimmune issues) or who are taking certain medications (e.g. blood thinners).

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