What You’ll Learn

Category: Articles
  • What would be even better than giving your immune system a boost? – How about teaching it to boost itself on demand?
  • Adaptogens are naturally occurring substances that do not aim to stimulate or suppress bodily functions (like immune, autonomic, hormonal, endocrine, and brain function) but rather, to restore the body’s own ability to self-regulate and self-manage.
  • In an age of violent fluctuations that challenge the human body, perhaps the most valuable asset is to improve the body’s ability to adapt to such changes.
  • IM’s top picks for adaptogen supplements sure to help you improve your body’s natural healing potential.

Simple Solutions for a Healthier You in 2020

If you’re coming down with an infection, taking spoonfuls of manuka honey almost certainly won’t help your body fight it. Lavender essential oil in your diffuser might give you a relaxed feeling, but it will not make you measurably healthier either. And no matter how relaxing and fun it might actually be, you don’t need a remote spa vacation to realign your energy and health this year. In fact, you don’t need a list of quick tips about “boosting your immune system”. What you DO need is to give your body the proper building blocks so that it can boost its own immune system, naturally. Think of your immune system as a tree. Externally stimulating or suppressing your immune system (even with natural products) is like overwatering your tree in a drought. What is healthier in the long term is to help your tree grow stronger roots through a nurturing and nutritious environment; THEN can your tree withstand that drought through its own resources. 

Adaptogens are well-known and have even been written in TIME Magazine for their ability to help the body “resist stressors of all kinds, whether physical, chemical or biological.” We’ll share our top 10 recommended adaptogenic supplements (and why they work) so you can get started as soon as possible.

Many herbs and extracts (such as dandelion root) are common adaptogens.

First, a brief history: the term “adaptogen” was coined in 1947 to indicate substances that help to build and strengthen the body’s own natural systems of defense, often through acting as a mild stressor. This is similar to how exercise makes your muscles and ligaments stronger by temporarily stressing them under load and then allowing them to recover ready for more.

These supplements are all readily available and have been used by many health systems and practitioners for hundreds and even thousands of years. Western medicine is spending considerable time and effort recently to quantify the benefits of these adaptogens and more—a great direction for research! Empirical studies that will put to paper results seen by patients and herbalists in the past and present are desirable for even broader acceptance and further development of herbal medicine as a whole. Just knowing which supplements are worth your time and hard-earned funds is half of the battle.

Here’s To Your Health: Our 10 Adaptogen Picks

Ashwagandha 

One of the most popular adaptogenic supplements in the world, ashwagandha has been used in traditional healing for thousands of years, starting in Asia. Why? Because this powerhouse has been associated with cognitive function, memory, and recovery from metabolic stress, as well as having a calming effect (which seems paradoxical, but is verified). There are several modern clinical studies that show improvements in function for patients with Alzheimer’s and bipolar disorder. Ashwagandha has proven to be quite the powerful (and versatile) aid.

Holy Basil (Tulsi)

If you are an avid herbal tea drinker, you’ve likely seen Tulsi tea on the shelves, but the history of this adaptogen goes far beyond modern packaged tea formulas. In India, Tulsi is known as “The Queen of Herbs” and indispensable for good health. Even the Tulsi plant is seen as a valuable member of homes practicing ayurvedic medicine, an ancient Indian practice.

In India, Tulsi is known as “The Queen of Herbs” and indispensable for good health.

But for us, adding Tulsi can mean giving our body additional anti-free-radical compounds as well as the capacity to fight off some infections (even impacting cancer). Tulsi in either tea or root form should be in all of our tool kits for improved health.

Rhodiola 

Rhodiola Rosea has been used since the 1700s for stamina, particularly for athletes in the early modern Olympics. It grows in cold and mountainous regions all over the world and recently has been tested as a potential therapy for depression with results that were comparable to one of the more popular pharmaceuticals. Day to day uses still include the boosting of daily mental clarity and energy for athletic pursuits, with the same lack of side effects that are seen in most herbs and adaptogens. 

Astragalus 

What we know about astragalus barely touches the surface of what it can do, as it has been used in traditional medicine along with licorice root and other herbs for thousands of years. However, this plant is ripe for medical research in order to give it the status it justly deserves. This is an herb and adaptogen that is used for everything from general wellbeing to stress and anxiety over hundreds of years. It comes from a whole family of plants: nearly 2000 species of astragalus exist! 

Rose Hips 

Traditionally associated with high Vitamin C content, Rose Hips are part of the rose plant and do indeed have very high levels of Vitamin C, but only when unprocessed. This means that much of the vitamin is gone by the time the plant is prepared for tea or supplements.

During the 14th century, sailors began bringing dried rose hip berries from the beach rose found in Asia to fight off scurvy during the long winter months. A cupful of pared rose hips contains as much Vitamin C as a dozen oranges.

However, there is a synergy of other compounds in rose hips that are of potential benefit when taken in the full-plant form. Relief from osteoarthritis stiffness and pain is a commonly reported use of rose hips. Additionally, it helps defy illness with its potent antioxidant benefits. 

Licorice Root 

Far from “just” that flavoring that goes into the chewy candy, licorice root has a long history of treatment-use for general well-being. One of the bioactive compounds in licorice is Glycyrrhizin and has been used in addressing very specific concerns such as low blood pressure, stomach, and digestive problems, and treating acute cough. Glycyrrhizin can have interactions with other medications as well as lower your blood potassium levels, so consult a trusted resource before you dive in. 

Reishi 

Reishi mushrooms are just one of a few species of mushroom that hold significant potential for health benefits far beyond simply being edible and delicious.

Also known as the “mushroom of immortality”, Reishi can be consumed as tea or directly packaged in powdered supplement form.

Like many of the other adaptogens here, these mushrooms are a powerful antioxidant as well an anti-inflammatory and capable of working with our immune system to become stronger without side effects or harsh interventions from pharmaceuticals. Research on Reishi is building, but anecdotal benefits are widespread and worth considering. 

Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng)  

The use of Panax Ginseng (next on the list) has been known for decades in health-seeking circles, but enthusiasm has led to overharvesting, and in the search for other options Eleuthero was cultivated by Russian scientists in the 1990s. It works not through the ginsenosides compound found in Panax but rather through a different set of compounds called glycosides. Eleuthero is still an adaptogen, having benefits that include better circulation, modulating of blood pressure, and helping to balance sleep irregularities. 

Panax Ginseng 

Panax Ginseng might be the very first adaptogen we’ve all heard about, especially if you started paying attention to herbal supplements in the 1990s. Panax ginseng was discovered in the mountains of China over 5000 years ago and was known then as a booster of strength and vitality, especially for warriors. The root panax ginseng is fascinating because it is one of the rarest herbs that was chosen for its anthropomorphic qualities: it looks like a figure, standing with straight or twisted limbs.

Ginseng is known for its anthropomorphic shape.

And today, panax ginseng offers a whole bevy of benefits, some highly regarded for hundreds of years or more and many backed by new medical research. What can panax do? Here is just a short list of well-known uses: vitality, digestive strength, concentration, memory improvement, fighting bacterial infections, treating MS and Alzheimer’s. True Panax Ginseng is not inexpensive: make sure your source is trusted. 

Muco Coccinum 

Rounding out our list is an option that does not strictly fit our earlier definition of an adaptogen, but we’re including Muco Coccinum as a good addition to your wellness cabinet.  A favorite of patients at the New York Center for Innovative Medicine, this homeopathic remedy from Germany is similar to Boiron’s version of Oscillococcinum, only Unda is a more trusted brand among integrative physicians. Compared to something like ginseng or rhodiola, Muco Coccinum as a formula is vastly different, using a dilution of active ingredients to elicit your body’s response. The way a preparation like Muco Coccinum helps is in supporting your body in modulating its immune system function via subtle rather than direct actions. And like many other interventions, its effectiveness is further supported by your holistic approach to health. Bottom line: when it comes to effectiveness, it is worth your consideration.   

Adapt And Thrive: Innovative Health

Adaptogens are well-known in the health sphere and perhaps a bit misunderstood. Having the right amount of knowledge and a healthy enthusiasm for your own healing journey is key to building a stronger constitution.

Adaptogens are right in that sweet spot, offering long histories of anecdotal benefits, research results, and minimal to no risk Remember that your immune system is a tree: providing for ample light, good soil, and natural rainfall is what will help your tree thrive even in times of environmental stress, rather than throwing fertilizer on if some of the branches seem to be dying.

Learn More And Be Well 

With all of these adaptogens, it’s a good idea to learn the basics of safety, dose, and possible interactions with other supplements or medications you are taking. Ask your trusted health professional, always. And, there are a few good websites with information about possible interactions between the most commonly taken herbal supplements (not just adaptogens). They are:

  1. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
  2. American Family Physician Journal

How have adaptogens benefitted your health? Which on this list are new to you and you’re excited to try in the coming weeks and months? We want to hear your thoughts! 

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About Andrea Feucht

Andrea Feucht started geeking out on the body and health in grade school, became an athlete at age 13, and started writing for joy in high school. Even while working tech and data jobs, nothing has kept her far from her early loves. She’s taken night classes on organic chemistry, read hundreds of health books, worked as a restaurant critic, and built a 30 year career as a trail and ultra runner. She’s seen the dark side, too; an eating disorder taught her more about the fragile edges of human health than any textbook could, building both knowledge and empathy. Andrea is based in Salt Lake City, a writer of emotionally evocative storytelling and some poetry on the side. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Edible Communities, Paleo Magazine, Blue Zones LLC, GapingVoid, and McCormick Spice Company. She does not like long walks on the beach or puppies. But single origin coffee and kittens…? Definitely.