What Exactly Are Adaptogens and How Do You Know if Need Them?

A number of adaptogens are made from mushrooms,. Unsplash/Joanna Kosinska

“I slept eight hours but I’m exhausted.”

“I’d love to meet for dinner, but I’m just so tired.”

“I can barely keep my eyes open, thank goodness for coffee.”

Any of these statement sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Burnout, adrenal fatigue and adrenal insufficiency affect tens of thousands of people in developed countries. The reason? Our adrenal glands find it difficult to keep pace with the constant demands of modern life. The chronic stress of living in a big city, having a demanding job, and even chronic illness can tax your adrenals. Though this theory has come under much scrutiny as of late, the rebuttal suggests that blood tests are not yet sophisticated enough to really identify adrenal fatigue or insufficiency. But the functional medicine community believes your body often knows best and if you’re feeling constantly fatigued, it’s time to check in with your GP and inquire about adaptogens.

What are adaptogens? In short, adaptogens are herbs that help your body better “adapt”—whether that’s boosting a depressed immune response, regulating your hormonal response, or helping the body cope with stress. And though the initial response may be subtle, adaptogens can help your body do a full 180 over time.

How many varieties of adaptogens are there? Good question! There is much debate in the medical and wellness community about what actually qualifies as an adaptogenic herb. However, those listed below are generally accepted as true herbal adaptogens.

Which adaptogens are right for me? You should always consult with a healthcare practitioner before selecting adaptogens to work into your regimen. Many of the above herbs can be have contraindications, so a recommendation really depends on your health history and current health status. Ask your doctor or nutritionist which herbs are right for you at your next visit.

With that said, here are a few favorites that many people take regularly to support the daily grind.

Codyceps: These mighty mushrooms are like little energy powerhouses!  They are widely used to enhance athletic performance, but their uses go far beyond that. Cordyceps are powerful fatigue fighters (adios, coffee!) and improve mental energy while combatting muscle weakness. As someone with Epstein Barr Virus, I regularly work cordyceps powder into my smoothies. I even credit them with returning me to my normal vigor after a mono relapse last spring.

Ashwagandha: know for it’s powerful fatigue fighting properties, there are over 200 studies to date that cite ashwagandha’s powerful healing properties. From immune system support to improved memory, there isn’t much ashwagandha can’t do.

Panax Ginseng: According to Dr. Sarah Emily Sajdak, DAOM, “the most well-known Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) herbal adaptogen is Ginseng, lauded for improving mental performance. In TCM, Ginseng strengthens your qi (energy) for chronic fatigue or recovery from an illness, and can calm anxiety and stress.  There are a few different kinds of Ginseng, so it’s always best to consult with a Doctor of Chinese Medicine to determine which kind is best for you and your unique constitution.” Research has proven red ginseng to increase mental performance (yes!), boost mood and even support lower blood pressure.

Where can I buy them? Adaptogens can be found in whole food formats as well as powders, liquids, pills or tinctures.  Ask your doctor or health care practitioner for recommended brands and dosages that work well for you.

How do I incorporate them into my diet? If your doctor has recommended powders, you can work adaptogens into your morning smoothies. My daily breakfast shake is loaded with adaptogens from cordyceps to ashwagandha to fuel me through the day! Liquids, whole foods and tinctures can all be made into teas that you can sip in the morning or throughout the day.

Nationally recognized wellness expert Amina AlTai is a Nutrition and Corporate Wellness Consultant and founder of Brooklyn-based Busy Happy Healthy. With training in nutrition, fitness and meditation—and having triumphed over burnout to reclaim her own health—Amina specializes in developing meaningful lifestyle practices that enhance the whole person, not just pieces of our lives. Along with individual clients, progressive companies such as Bliss, Deloitte and HUGE have partnered with Amina for wellness coaching that breaks the mold. In addition to penning pieces for digital destinations like MindBodyGreen, Barry’s Bootcamp and Charlotte’s Book, Amina is currently in the midst of writing Busy Happy Healthy’s first book.

What Exactly Are Adaptogens and How Do You Know if Need Them?