Adaptogens are a category of herbs and mushrooms that help promote physiological processes to maintain homeostasis at a molecular level. In other words, they help the body cope with various types of stressors.
While the traditional uses of many adaptogens go back thousands of years, Western commercial market usage is still relatively new [but growing rapidly]. Despite a numerous and continuously growing body of research supporting the efficacy of adaptogenic properties, public knowledge of adaptogens hasn’t quite kept up. Recent studies have shown us that the effects of different adaptogens cover a spectra of benefits- from sleep to energy and from focus to relaxation - because of their ability to combat stress. This includes [but not limited to] emotional stress, cognitive stress, physical stress, immune stress, and more. The adaptogen’s ultimate effect is dependent on the plant, the part of the plant, the extraction method and the dose.
Most of these herbs have been used for millennia. Many date back to traditional medicinal practices of Asian cultures including traditional Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese medicine¹. For example, Ashwagandha - a popular adaptogen - has been used for 6,000 years in Ayurvedic medicine²; Reishi - an adaptogenic mushroom - has been used for over 2,000 years in Chinese medicine³; Mucuna - an adaptogenic legume - has been used for at least 3,000 years⁴. All are different plants, with different parts used in consumption, and with different effects, but they are all classified as adaptogens because of their ability to combat stress.
To understand the wide-ranging benefits that can be attributed to different adaptogens, we can continue looking at Mucuna, Reishi, and Ashwagandha. Mucuna is a climbing shrub - a legume whose beans contain important adaptogenic compounds - and is grown throughout the tropics of the world. Mucuna contains levodopa, a precursor to dopamine, and a very important chemical for our bodies and brains⁴. Levodopa and the other constituents of the Mucuna bean - like coQ10 - make it a useful neuroprotective, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory. Recent research even suggests that Mucuna may help with anxiety and depression (though studies are ongoing)⁵.
Interestingly, Mucuna has anti-venom properties and has traditionally been used throughout the tropics to protect against snake bites and scorpion stings⁶. The high content of levodopa has also been shown to be effective combating the impacts of Parkinson’s disease⁴.
The fungus Reishi has similarly diverse effects. Reishi is believed to be an immune system booster and potential anti-tumor [clinical studies needed to confirm] and can be found naturally throughout the wooded parts of Asia. Reishi is a mushroom whose fruiting body [the part of the fungus that most of us would call the mushroom] can provide beneficial effects when it is heated up and the chitin, which acts as a type of cell wall for the mushroom, is broken down. It is often, but not always, the case that the effects of these plants stem from certain molecular compounds that are found within them, like polysaccharides. Reishi is, however, a potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-stress mushroom. The triterpenes and polysaccharides contained within the fruiting body of the mushroom are believed to be the mechanism behind the molecular functions of Reishi.
A completely different plant, Ashwagandha, has also been found to be clinically effective against a huge variety of conditions. Ashwagandha is mainly grown in the dry areas of northern India and Asia. It is a potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, cognition-boosting, stamina-increasing, anxiolytic plant. It is a perennial shrub whose roots contain withanolides, a potent molecule which is thought to be the source of many of its effects. Recent studies even suggest it has anti-arthritic and anti-tumor properties².
Adaptogens are a lot of things. They’re shrubs; they’re beans; they’re mushrooms; they’re roots; sometimes they’re even plant residue scraped off high altitude rocks in the Himalayas, also known as Shilajit. But at their core, they’re a variety of organic compounds that help us stay balanced.
Whether that’s through withanolides from Ashwagandha keeping our stress levels down, the constituents of Reishi cleaning our body of free radicals, or levodopa from Mucuna helping with our mood and focus, they help us maintain. Modern life is full of stress - from fatigue at work, to stress at home, to overexertion at the gym and adaptogens can help us stay ourselves.
For answers to the 5 questions we are most often asked about adaptogens, visit our Intro to Adaptogens.
Panossian, Alexander and George Wikman. “Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity.” US National Library of Medicine, 19 Jan, 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/.
---. “An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda.” African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines, vol 8, no. 5S, 2011, pp 208-213. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252722/.
---. “Ganoderma Lucidum (Lingzhi or Reishi).” Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, 2nd Edition. CRC Press/Taylor&Francis, 2011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92757/.
---. “The Magic Velvet Bean of Mucuna pruriens.” Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, vol 2, no. 4, 2012, pp 331-339. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3942911/.
Simmons, Adam D. “Mucuna pruiriens.” Integrative Medicine, vol 4, no. 3, 2018, pp 143-151. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/pharmacology-toxicology-and-pharmaceutical-science/mucuna-pruriens.
Tan, Nget Hong, et al. “The Protective Effect of Mucuna Pruriens Seeds against Snake Venom Poisoning.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 123, no. 2, June 2009, pp. 356-358