What are adaptogens?

A bowl of food on top of a table.

Adaptogens are a class of medicinal herbs used since ancient times in China and India to improve strength, stamina and resilience. In China, they are known as Qi tonics and in India they are known as Rasayanas. As modern life becomes increasingly fast-paced and stressful, adaptogens can be used to normalize our stress response and maintain optimal homeostasis. Adaptogens increase the body’s resistance to physical, emotional and environmental stressors by restoring balance to our hormones and immune system. 

 To be classified as an adaptogen, an herb needs to be non-toxic, produce a non-specific response in the body and have a normalizing effect on physiology. Adaptogens work on a cellular level to help the body cope with stress. Most adaptogens are highly antioxidant and protect cells from free radicals and oxidative stress. Adaptogens also help to regulate the endocrine system, energy production, inflammation and immune response.

 Many adaptogens are stimulating and increase energy, the most famous being Asian Ginseng (Panax Ginseng). In Asia, ginseng is known as a Qi tonic and is often given to the elderly to increase vitality and longevity. Other well-known adaptogens that increase energy are Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherocococcus senticosus), American Ginseng (Panax quinqefolium, Poor Man’s Ginseng (Codonopsis pilulosa), Cordyceps(Cordyceps militaris) and Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosacea). Many of these are not even related to Asian ginseng (Panax spp.) but are referred to as ‘ginsengs’ because of their rejuvenative and adaptogenic qualities. 

 Indian Ginseng or Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an herb said to give the strength and vitality of a horse. In Ayurveda it is used as a powerful rejuvenative (Rasayana) tonic. A Rasayana describes an herbal preparation that promotes a youthful state of physical and mental health and expands happiness. It is given to children as a tonic and to the middle-aged and the elderly to improve longevity and vitality.

 Ashwagandha is especially useful in in today’s stressful world because it is a rare calming adaptogen. It won’t overstimulate an exhausted person and has anti-anxiety and nourishing properties when taken as a tonic herb. Traditionally, Ashwagandha was served in warm milk or with ghee as a relaxing bedtime drink. Below is a simple way to incorporate Ashwagandha into your daily routine.  Ashwagandha will nourish your adrenals and together with nutmeg, this combination will help relax muscles and calm an overactive mind. 


Ashwagandha Bedtime Tonic


 1 ½ cups of whole milk *

1 teaspoon ashwagandha powder

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon cinnamon powder

Pinch of sea salt

 *For a dairy free version, substitute almond milk or coconut milk.

 Method: Place all ingredients in a small saucepan and heat gently while stirring until just before boiling. Remove from heat.  Add honey or maple syrup to taste if desired. Relax and enjoy your night time tonic once it has cooled down enough to drink.

As a clinical herbalist and naturopath, I like to use adaptogens in many of my herbal formulas. Adaptogens work on the regulating the stress response via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and improving cell-mediated immunity. I often combine adaptogens with nervines (calming nerve tonics) or nootropics (substances that improve cognitive function) to enhance the action of the formula.  Some of my favorite adaptogens include Ashwagandha, Eleutherococcus, American Ginseng, Schizandra, Tulsi, Gynostema and Shatavari. 

 While adaptogens such as Asian Ginseng and Eleutherococcus are traditionally used for exhaustion, they cannot be substituted for adequate rest and a healthy diet and lifestyle. We simply cannot keep burning the candle at both ends and expect that adaptogens will keep us forever young and healthy. The burnout from propping ourselves up with adaptogens while refusing to deeply rest is real!

 That being said, adaptogens are a very precious and useful class of herbs that support our resilience in the face of ongoing stress. They can improve our vitality, longevity, and physical and mental performance. When taken as a tonic, along with a healthy lifestyle, adaptogens are an invaluable aid in helping us cope with modern life and enhance our overall wellbeing.

 To good health, happiness and long life!

Learn more about specific adaptogens at our upcoming class with instructor Daylin Wade.