What foods are adaptogens and what are their benefits?

What foods are adaptogens? A nutritionist highlights the best ones to try

A collection of ashwagandha, to illustrate what foods are adaptogens
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Wondering what foods are adaptogens to incorporate more into your diet? Whether you're constantly feeling tired or looking to give your immune system a boost, there are plenty out there that promote a huge range of benefits. 

Adaptogens and supplements in general are just that though - supplements. Having a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits, vitamins and minerals will keep your body healthy and adaptogens work to take things one step further by helping to improve our physical response to stress. 

But if you don't what adaptogens are, we've got you covered too. While they've been around for millennia, many people in the Western world have only caught onto adaptogens and their benefits in the last few years. As one of the biggest wellness trends for 2022, this is what you need to know. 

What foods are adaptogens?

1. Cordyceps mushrooms

These are medicinal mushrooms that provide a natural, caffeine-free energy boost without the crash that we associate with other stimulants, says Berry. This is what makes them one of the healthy coffee alternatives to try if you're looking to switch out traditional caffeine sources.

Benefits: “Alongside its stress-relieving properties, it supports the body’s energy systems, oxygen delivery, and respiratory health,” DIRTEA (opens in new tab)’s clinical nutritionist Clarissa Berry says. “It’s also a popular pre-workout as it can enhance endurance, athletic performance, and recovery.”

It also supports the respiratory system with studies by Capital Medical University (opens in new tab) showing it may be beneficial for those with asthma, as it contributes to improved lung function, and therefore, fewer instances of symptom flare-ups.

Cordyceps mushrooms can boost your sex drive, help fight fatigue, and they’re packed with antioxidants that offer protection against the negative effects of aging.”

A bowl of ashwagandha capsules, one of the adaptogen foods

(Image credit: Getty Images)

2. Ashwagandha

Unlike cordyceps mushrooms, ashwagandha is a type of shrub. It grows in India, parts of Africa, and the Middle East. It's probably one of the most famous adaptogens as it's been used in traditional history for hundreds of years.

But much like cordyceps, it's normally consumed in herbal teas and other infusions, including coffee and cacao. 

Benefits: “This Ayurvedic herb has been used for thousands of years in India for its balancing effects. It’s incredible for reducing stress and anxiety by reducing cortisol levels, and it can significantly improve sleep quality,” says nutritionist Clarissa Berry. So if you're looking for how to sleep better, an ashwagandha infusion tea before bed could be the answer.

Studies linked to Hebrew University Medical Faculty (opens in new tab) have also shown it can help to balance blood sugar, reduce inflammation, and may even enhance male fertility thanks to a compound in the shrub called withaferin A. 

“Ashwagandha is a fantastic option if you’re looking for support with both stress and sleep,” Berry says. 

Rhodiola tea

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3. Rhodiola

“Another popular adaptogen, Rhodiola is a root that grows in mountainous Europe and Asia. Its ability to balance the body’s systems makes it a powerful aid against stress and fatigue,” Berry tells us. 

Rhodiola is mainly found in popular herbal teas and infusions, however, you can also buy extracts of the root in capsule form. 

Benefits: “It may help to improve brain function and physical performance,” she says. “It also has a positive effect on mood, with studies from University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (opens in new tab) indicating that it may help to reduce symptoms of depression.”

While no adaptogen is going to be a replacement for adequate mental health support, this study compared the effects of Rhodiola with sertraline, a commonly-prescribed anti-depressant. Both reduced symptoms of depression overall, with sertraline having the better effect, but Rhodiola produced fewer side effects and was better tolerated by the 57 participants. 

Lions mane mushroom, one of the adaptogen foods

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4. Lion's mane

Lion’s mane is another functional mushroom, similar to cordyceps. As this shroom grows, it forms a shaggy outer shell, similar to a lion's mane which is where it gets the name from.

Lion's mane can be consumed raw, cooked, or dried, making it one of the most versatile mushrooms. It's commonly ground down into capsule form, however.

Benefits: “It has incredible benefits for the nervous system,” Clarissa Berry says. “It can boost mental performance, memory, and focus, making it a wonderful addition to your morning routine. It’s also mood-balancing, reduces inflammation, and supports healthy digestion.” If you're considering a Sunday reset routine, Lion’s mane could be a great way to wind down for the start of the new week. 

Research from the University of Malaya (opens in new tab) suggests it may also be protective against dementia, given its ability to stimulate the growth and repair of nerve cells. For this same reason, some experts believe lion’s mane may offer support for those with Lyme’s disease.

panax, otherwise known as Asian ginseng, in both root and capsule form

(Image credit: Getty Images)

5. Panax

Asian ginseng is used in traditional Chinese medicine for its powerful medicinal properties. So much so, in fact, that its name comes from a word meaning “cure-all”. 

Other types of ginseng include American and Siberian, which are also considered adaptogens and offer similar benefits.

Benefits: “It’s another adaptogen that provides a natural, caffeine-free energy boost and an increase in mental alertness,” says Berry. Some studies from the Medical School of Nantong University (opens in new tab) show that it can also improve memory and brain function, including memory and mood, help control blood sugar and strengthen the immune system. 

A further study of ginseng by Chonbuk National University (opens in new tab) suggests that the root can improve blood circulation, which as well as helping the muscles get what they need, aids the proper functioning of the digestive system. 

6. Maca

Found in the Andes mountains and also known as Peruvian ginseng, Maca is a plant with amazing abilities. 

Benefits: “Maca has been found to improve the body’s hormone balance, and studies from Charles Sturt University (opens in new tab) show benefits for aiding symptoms of menopause, PMS, and male fertility,” Berry explains. “It may also improve libido and enhance mood.”

What are the best adaptogens?

Panax (otherwise known as Asian ginseng) is the best adaptogen if you’re considering which one is the most powerful. According to the first comprehensive study on the herb by various departments at the Changchun University of Chinese Medicine (opens in new tab), it has two compounds: ginsenosides and gintonin, which offer a strong invigorating effect. 

The review found that these compounds can help to treat cardiovascular and metabolic diseases and improve the general quality of life, including sleep quality, mental health, and social functioning. 

But if you want to try adaptogens to learn about how to deal with stress and relax your mind, then you’ll want to try Panax quinquefolius (otherwise known as American ginseng). A study by Gachon University (opens in new tab) found that the herb helped to reduce body temperature in the short term and levels of serum thyroxin, a thyroid hormone. 

However as every body is different, everybody will respond to adaptogens slightly differently. “Different adaptogens are suited to different people, so firstly I’d recommend finding the one or ones that feel best for you,” says Berry. 

Grace Walsh
Grace Walsh

A digital health journalist with over five years experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.

She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.