What is an Adaptogen and Why Should I Care?

If you want to know what adaptogens are, what they do, how they work, and why you should consider supplementing with them, you want to read this article.


Work deadlines, overdue bills, rush hour traffic, and crying newborns.


What do these four things have in common?


They all cause stress.


Stress is nothing new to us; it’s a part of everyday life.


At times, stress can be helpful, and even necessary, in order to get things done. Giving just enough of a mental boost to get going and get sh*t done.


There’s even a phenomenon known as “The Yerkes-Dodson law,” which describes how performance increases with certain amounts of physiological or mental stress. But, like most things in life, more is not always better, especially in the case of stress.


Too much stress leads to a cavalcade of consequences including decreased performance (mentally and physically), reduced productivity[1], and low testosterone levels.[2] It can even promote unwanted weight gain, too!


So, what is it about stress that does this?


Well, as you probably know, your body is hardwired to release the hormone cortisol in response to stress. When cortisol levels rise, your “fight or flight” response kicks into gear, which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and your adrenal glands to release a cascade of hormones including epinephrine (adrenaline) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine). These hormones increase heart rate and motivate you to get moving ASAP.


In acute bursts, these spikes of hormonal activity can be great for beating a tight deadline, dominating a workout, or speaking a wildebeast for dinner (if we’re back in prehistoric times).


However, if we’re chronically stressed, cortisol levels become chronically elevated for prolonged periods of time, which can negatively affect every physiological system in your body, including your adrenal glands and thyroid.


When faced with chronic stress, individuals quite frequently turn to synthetic pharmaceuticals to artificially dampen their cortisol response. But with those, often come a host of undesirable drawbacks.


Fortunately, mother nature has provided a supreme stress relief supplement in adaptogens.


These powerful agents help soothe stress and control cortisol to help you stay calm, cool, and collected no matter how tumultuous your life my get.


If you’re not familiar with adaptogens, sit back, relax, and get ready to understand just what in the hell an adaptogen is and why it should be a priority on your supplement list.

What are Adaptogens?


Adaptogens are healing plants that improve your body’s response to stress. In other words, adaptogens help restore, balance, and protect your body from stress.


The term “adaptogen” was first coined in 1947 by the Russian scientist Dr. Nikolai Lazarev; however, it wasn’t until 1968 that adaptogen was formally defined thanks to the work of Israel Brekhman, PhD and Dr. I. V. Darymovhe. These days you can find adaptogens in all kinds of supplements including pre workouts, nootropic pills, stress-relief aids, weight loss supplements, and even standalone adaptogen supplements.


The two scientists set forth three criteria which a compound must satisfy in order to qualify as an adaptogen:


  1. An adaptogen must be relatively nontoxic to the recipient.
  2. An adaptogen generates a broad nonspecific response in the body, increasing its resistance to adverse physical, chemical, or biological agents.
  3. An adaptogen has a normalizing effect on physiology


Now, that all sounds fairly convoluted, so, to put it in more layman’s terms, an adaptogen must:


  • Be safe
  • Improve the body’s response to stress
  • Promote homeostasis and support overall health

    How Do Adaptogens Work?


    Now that you’ve got a grasp of what an adaptogen is, and what it does. The next question on your mind is…


    “How Does It Work?”


    Well, the scientific answer to that as defined by researchers is:


    “the beneficial stress-protective effect of adaptogens is related to regulation of homeostasis via several mechanisms of action associated with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the control of key mediators of stress response such as molecular chaperons (e.g. Hsp70), stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK1), Forkhead Box O transcription factor DAF-16, cortisol and nitric oxide (NO).


    The key point of action of phytoadaptogens appears to be their up-regulating and stress-mimetic effects on the “stress-sensor” protein Hsp70, which plays an important role in cell survival and apoptosis. Hsp70 inhibits the expression of NO synthase II gene and interacts with glucocorticoid receptors directly and via the JNK pathway, thus affecting the levels of circulating cortisol and NO. Prevention of stress-induced increase in NO, and the associated decrease in ATP production, results in increased performance and endurance. Adaptogen-induced up-regulation of Hsp70 triggers stress-induced JNK-1 and DAF-16-mediated pathways regulating the resistance to stress and resulting in enhanced mental and physical performance and, possibly, increased longevity.”[3]


    Chances are most of you reading that had not the slightest clue what was stated, so let’s see if we can break it down into something that actually makes sense for the everyday health enthusiast.


    When we experience a stressor, the body goes through three phases:


  • Alarm
  • Resistance
  • Exhaustion

    Upon encountering the stressor, an “alarm” is sounded in the body, and it releases hormones, such as adrenaline, that improves concentration and performance to help us handle the task we’re about to face.


    “Resistance” is literally that -- we’re resisting or “dealing with” the obstacle that made us alarmed. This could be lifting weights, being chased, or facing a deadline.


    After we’ve dealt with the stressor, we become fatigued and enter the “exhaustion” phase.


    Adaptogen supplements work at a molecular level by maintaining balance in the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal axis (HPA axis, for short), by basically lengthening the “resistance” phases. This allows us to enjoy the “sweet spot” of the stress response where we’re stimulated from the rush of catecholamines and hormones for longer while at the same time holding off exhaustion. So, rather than crash during, or immediately after, a stressful encounter, we maintain homeostasis and keep going about our day.


    In a sense, adaptogens allow us to “hack” our stress response.

    Why Should I Care?


    No doubt adaptogens are pretty intriguing. Anything that could help us deal with the myriad of stressful situations that we encounter on a daily basis sounds like a must-have kind of thing.


    But, aside from helping not feel so stressed out all the time, is there really any reason to use adaptogens?




    Adaptogens have been extensively studied in both animals and humans, and researchers have found a slew of significant benefits that adaptogens may impart to the body, including[4,5,6,7,8]:


    • Neuroprotection
    • Anti-fatigue properties
    • Antidepressive effects
    • Energizes the central nervous system
    • Reduces cortisol levels
    • Elevates testosterone levels
    • Improves cardiovascular fitness
    • Enhances muscle mass and strength
    • Increases attention


    Essentially, adaptogen supplements may improve just about anything related to physical or mental performance.


    Racing against the clock to finish that report for your boss? -- Adaptogens can help.


    Heading into a set of max rep squats on leg day? -- Yep, adaptogens can help that too.


    Trying to keep your cool while dealing with a screaming baby? -- You’re definitely going to want some adaptogen supplements around!


    Anyway you look at it, adaptogens can help make a stressful situation much more manageable and help you be more successful in how you deal with it.


    So, the next question is…


    What are the best Adaptogen Supplements?


    There are well over a dozen different adaptogens regularly used in various supplements and nootropic pills. Each with its own different mechanisms of actions and benefits. But, far and away, the two that are the most researched and widely used are ashwagandha and rhodiola rosea.


    Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) is grown in bushes that are native to India and has traditionally been used for anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, mild obsessive compulsive disorder, and nervous exhaustion. More recently, ashwagandha has been extensively studied for its stress-lowering properties as well as its ability to improve physical and mental performance. And, believe it or not, this old world herb even has been used in the treatment male infertility and thyroid dysfunction.


    Rhodiola Rosea (a.k.a. golden root) is a perennial flowering plant typically grown in colder regions of the globe (even in the arctic!). Similar to ashwagandha, rhodiola has a long history of use in traditional medicine for treating a wide assortment of disorders, including anxiety and depression. Modern research has noted that supplementing with rhodiola is effective for staving off both physical and mental fatigue, which explains the increased use of rhodiola in pre workout supplements and nootropic pills.



    Adaptogens have been around for thousands of years and used to treat all manner of disease and disorder. They improve our ability to encounter and respond to all manner of stress, and they even help us come out of the stressful situation feeling less “beat up.”

    As such, adaptogen supplements are on the rise aiming to help you think more clearly, have greater energy, and be more productive. Given the ever-increasing demands placed on us, adaptogen supplements may just be the all natural “silver bullet” we need to fix our escalating levels of stress, anxiety, and fatigue.



    1. George Halkos, Dimitrios Bousinakis, (2010) "The effect of stress and satisfaction on productivity", International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management,Vol. 59 Issue: 5, pp.415-431, https://doi.org/10.1108/17410401011052869
    2. Brownlee KK, Moore AW, Hackney AC. Relationship Between Circulating Cortisol and Testosterone: Influence of Physical Exercise. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 2005;4(1):76-83.
    3. Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2009). Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. Current Clinical Pharmacology, 4(3), 198–219.
    4. Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals. 2010;3(1):188-224. doi:10.3390/ph3010188.
    5. Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial Wankhede, S., Langade, D., Joshi, K., Sinha, S. R., & Bhattacharyya, S. (2015). Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1), 43.
    6. Efficacy of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera [L.] Dunal) in improving cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy athletic adults Choudhary, B., Shetty, A., & Langade, D. G. (2015). Ayu, 36(1), 63.
    7. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). Indian journal of psychological medicine, 34(3), 255.
    8. Ishaque S, Shamseer L, Bukutu C, Vohra S. Rhodiola rosea for physical and mental fatigue: a systematic review. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2012;12:70. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-12-70.
    Cropley, M., Banks, A. P., & Boyle, J. (2015). The Effects of Rhodiola rosea L. Extract on Anxiety, Stress, Cognition and Other  Mood Symptoms. Phytotherapy Research : PTR, 29(12), 1934–1939. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.5486

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