Adaptogens Guide: What Are They & Which Ones to Choose
Adaptogens are potent roots and herbs that have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic and Chinese healing traditions—and they’re making a big comeback. Read on to find out what they do, how they’re used and why we think this wellness trend is here to stay.
What are adaptogens?
Chances are, you’ve heard of adaptogens by now. Big in the wellness world, they’ve been popping up lately in health food stores, smoothie shops, coffee drink powders—even skincare products. Amid all the surrounding information and buzz, it’s easy to get confused about what exactly adaptogens are—you likely know they’re supposed to be good for you, but you might not know much more beyond that. Trust us, we’ve been there!
“There are many benefits of taking adaptogens,” explains Mariesette Santiago, ND, The Detox Market’s in-house naturopathic doctor. “They can improve your energy, calm you down, reduce mental fatigue and enhance physical capacity.”
Simply put, adaptogens are plants that work to protect the body from stress of all kinds. Whether it be mental (feeling foggy or unable to focus), physical (skin breakouts) or emotional (being super anxiety-ridden), adaptogens aim to restore internal balance while reducing the negative effects of stress. In other words: by adapting to what our bodies need in any given moment, they help our internal pendulum swing back to the middle, where we feel our best.
Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder of Moon Juice, an L.A.-based health food store offering a range of adaptogenic dusts, protein powders and more, says, “I think of adaptogens like SPF—a non-negotiable daily practice. They promote the body’s ability to cope and recover from stress by boosting the adaptive store in every one of our biological systems. Ultimately, they’re non-stimulating, non-addictive super-herbs and super-mushrooms that will naturally help guide your body to its own natural homeostasis.”
In today’s chaotic and demanding world, adaptogens can be a tool in finding respite from the common stressors we face on a daily basis (traffic, sleepless nights, processed takeout and looming deadlines, anyone?).
How to choose
With all of the options out there, choosing the right adaptogen(s) can feel overwhelming. Should you take ashwagandha or rhodiola? Tocotrienols or mucuna pruriens? A pill or a powder?
Before we get into the specifics of how to narrow down the selection, it’s important to note that adaptogens affect each of us differently, depending on what our body’s systems need at any given time. It should also be noted that all adaptogens, in their own ways, seek to cultivate balanced energy, a calm mindset and a resilient body. (People often feel positive change after they begin incorporating adaptogens into their daily routines, regardless of the specific kinds they choose, because of their innate ability to regulate our systems as needed.)
That being said, there are adaptogens known to help target specific problems, as well as ones that are broadly recommended to boost anyone’s wellbeing—including people without a specific area to address.
Here are some of the most popular adaptogens and how they may benefit your mind, body and beauty:
- Ashwagandha: For first timers, this herb is a great segue into experimenting with adaptogens because of its all-purpose nature. Believed to support emotional balance and brain function—while strengthening the immune system—many find ashwagandha helps them feel calm and centered throughout their days.
- Cordyceps: A potent energy food, cordyceps are mushrooms that can help provide feelings of alertness—without those distracting, caffeine-induced jitters that come from drinking one too many cups of coffee. Traditionally used to enhance stamina and energy (particularly after a period of sickness), it’s a popular choice among active people, as well as those looking to up their sex drives.
- He Shou Wu: Long revered as one of the most powerful plants in Chinese medicine, this Taoist herb was used throughout history to increase feelings of strength and liveliness while preventing illness. Because He Shou Wu supports blood health—the skin’s nutrition supply—many also consider it a beauty-boosting supplement.
- Mucuna Pruriens: Mucuna pruriens—also known as velvet bean—contains a high percentage of L-Dopa, the precursor to dopamine. Linked to increased feelings of wellbeing and improved moods, mucuna pruriens can help users maintain a more positive outlook on life. A little goes a long way. Trust!
- Reishi: Reishi is soothing and calming for the body, encouraging stress relief and improved sleep quality. Considered a longevity tonic (thanks to the mushroom’s immune-boosting properties), we particularly love taking reishi in the evening as a pre-bedtime nightcap. Just add warm almond milk and let the day’s tension melt away.
- Rhodiola: Great for enhancing energy, productivity and endurance, this root is the go-to for activating your brain and body. Known to encourage focus while combating brain fog, it’s a good addition to your morning cup to help you wake up and conquer the workday.
- Tocotrienols: Referred to as tocos for short, these crucial Vitamin E building blocks are nature’s creamiest skin food. Just one scoop of this beautifying powder promotes skin tissue connectivity and facilitates toxin removal. Just sweet enough, it’s delicious by itself or mixed into a warm beverage.
As you can see, the answer to, “How do I choose the right adaptogen for me?” really depends on your specific needs and preferences. When in doubt, start with ashwagandha and go from there. You can always adjust accordingly and branch out once you get comfortable.
The great thing about adaptogens—aside from their targeted, self-regulating nature—is their versatility: whatever your desired state, you can brew a personalized adaptogenic concoction to meet your needs. Since adaptogens can be taken alone or in combination with each other, become an alchemist of sorts and see what resonates with your body. Some call it holistic—we call it empowering.
How to use
Now that you have an understanding of what adaptogens are and what role they can play in supporting your health, your next question is likely, “How do I incorporate them into my lifestyle?”
Again, as with most wellness-related rituals, it’s really up to you.
Adaptogens come in several different forms, from powders to pills to teas to liquid tinctures. There’s no one correct way to consume them, since it all comes down to personal preference and what works with your routine. The important thing is consistency—be realistic, and choose the method that you know you’ll stick with to reap the best results. If you know you’re not a hands-on person, a pill might be ideal since it’s easy and doesn’t require daily preparation. If you love waking up to make your morning coffee (or smoothie!), try a powdered formula that you can stir or blend right in. Are you the grab-and-go type? Pick up a liquid tincture or tea you can stash in your bag and take with you to work, to lunch or on your commute.
Think of taking adaptogens like working out. When you first start a fitness routine, you don’t get overnight results—but the more consistently you show up and do the work, the stronger your body gets. Eventually, you can run faster or lift more without getting as winded.
Same with adaptogens: the longer you take them, the more effectively your body becomes at dealing with all kinds of stressors. The ultimate goal is not quantity, it’s consistency—these are herbs you want to take regularly over a long period of time. Like exercising, you’ll get the most sustained results when you approach adaptogens as just one part of a healthy lifestyle, rather than a quick fix.
When + how often to take
Many people take adaptogens every day, while others choose to take them several times a week. Some take a day or two off every week or month. There are those who prefer to take their adaptogens in the mornings, some who love the afternoon pick-me-up and still others who feel the best with their evening dose. Experiment to see what works well for you and really tune into your body—after all, you are your own best expert. Regardless of your chosen adaptogen, method and time of ingestion, we recommend starting slow and being patient. While adaptogens are certainly powerful—and may very well take effect within a day or two—it might be a few weeks before you notice a real difference!
Things to remember
Make it a point to think of adaptogens as tools in your wellness arsenal. While they can’t make up for a lousy lifestyle, they can provide the necessary support your mind, body and soul need to thrive day in and day out.
That being said, before turning to adaptogens to aid your health journey, remember to check in with yourself. Are you drinking enough water? Are you eating a colorful diet, filled with fruits, vegetables and whole foods? Are you getting regular restorative sleep? Are you exercising and/or meditating to manage your stress levels?
We can’t emphasize this point enough: there is no supplement or powder that can make up for an unhealthy lifestyle. You have to take care of yourself first by laying down a solid foundation for true wellness.
When it comes to the safety of taking adaptogens, Dr. Santiago says: “Adaptogens are considered to be generally safe with few or rare side effects, and many studies provide support that adaptogens are also safe to use long term.”
However, she adds, “Most adaptogens are not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Some adaptogens can affect your blood pressure, while others are not ideal if you are diagnosed with depression. That’s why it’s so important that you consult a qualified healthcare practitioner before making any decisions about your health.”
Our favorite picks
The benefits of these super-herbs don’t end with ingestion—adaptogen-infused skincare and topical remedies are also on the rise. Topical application of adaptogens may promote a calm complexion and work to reduce visible signs of aging, as well as support overall skin health and appearance. Whether you’re looking to boost your energy, minimize your stress levels or enhance your beauty, there’s an adaptogen for that. See our favorite picks—for inside and out—below.
Feeling blah? Turn to this potent traditional Taoist herb. Just one spoonful daily helps increase feelings of vitality, energy and strength. (Also rumored to increase hair growth and immune system strength.)
Panax Ginseng is rich in phytonutrients, making this citrus-infused universal oil especially nourishing and youth-preserving. We adore the spray bottle, which makes for a clean, precise application—from your head to your toes.
This cult favorite daily supplement packs in shatavari, ashwagandha, rhodiola and amla—four powerhouse adaptogens thought to reduce stress levels while enhancing energy, mood, focus and beauty. Need we say more?
Warning: Dangerously addicting. Might cause your water bill to skyrocket due to increased shower time. Feelings of calm rejuvenation may follow, thanks to fresh, organic ashwagandha and ginger extract.
Dive deep into this adaptogen-packed supplement of beautifying pearl and calming holy basil. Infused with mineral-rich spirulina and marine collagen, this glow-inducing potion also doubles as a face mask—who said multitasking was impossible?