If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard the term adaptogen thrown around a fair bit, but may not know exactly what it means.

Everybody from health and wellness blogs to professional athletes have been talking about adaptogens.

They’ve suggested adaptogenic supplements like Rhodiola and Pterostilbene to speed recovery, boost athletic and cognitive performance, and make us more resistant to stress.

In this article, we’ll discuss exactly what adaptogens are, how they work, and why they’re an important supplement class to be aware of in the modern era.

So let’s get started.

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are any plant (like rhodiola, ginseng, or suma), animal part (like black ant or deer antler velvet), or nutritional substance (like pterostilbene or resveratrol) that help the body resist stress.

In the most basic definition, an adaptogen is a plant or substance that has the ability to improve adaptability

What does this mean?

All animals have the ability to adapt to their environment — this is what allows us to maintain our core body temperature in the freezing cold winter as well as the blazing hot summer.

This adaptation process relies heavily on a system known as the hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary-axis (HPA axis) — which is also responsible for the stress response in humans.

Stress in this context can be defined as any external push away from optimal balance (homeostasis) — such as fluctuations in temperature in our environment, as well as other factors like humidity changes, physical attack or trauma, and exposure to toxins like snake venom or bee stings.

If we don’t adapt to these forces we’ll quickly fall out of balance — which can make us sick and die. We need to maintain an internal balance to remain healthy. Even mild shifts can lead to poor physical or mental performance.

When external pressure or stress is exerted on the body, our stress response system kicks in to counteract the changes. Regions in the brain like the hypothalamus serve as the control center which sends signals to other organs of the body to tell them what to do in order to re-establish balance.

3d rendered medically accurate illustration of the hypothalamus

How the Hypothalamus Maintains Balance

  1. Signaling the thyroid gland to either ramp up or slow down metabolism — controlling how much body heat is generated.
  2. Signaling the adrenal glands to release cortisol — leading to most of the common changes experienced while stressed (such as increased alertness, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure).
  3. Signaling the digestive system to slow down — reserving vital energy to put towards managing the cause of the stress.
  4. Signaling other regions of the brain to release neurotransmitters like epinephrine — to wake us up and increase vigilance.


How do Adaptogens Work?

There are many different kinds of adaptogens — each one with its own mechanism responsible for its effects.

In general, adaptogens rely on an ability to interact with the HPA-axis in some way — either directly in the brain, on the adrenal glands, or on other endocrine organs. It all depends on the individual compound — but the overall effect is going to be an improvement in our ability to adapt to different kinds of stress.

Let’s cover some of the most common mechanisms adaptogens use to support the body and some of the popular adaptogen options for each category.


1. Supports the Hypothalamus (Control Center)

As we already mentioned, the hypothalamus is a special region in the brain that serves as the control center for adaptation. 

The hypothalamus is constantly receiving information from other areas of the brain and decides if any changes need to be made to the body. It monitors information on blood pH, body temperature, the presence of danger, causes of emotional stress, pain, and other forms of sensory information.

After long-term, chronic exposure to stress, the hypothalamus may become less responsive. If this happens, it can take longer to begin making changes to the cause of stress — allowing us to fall out of balance more easily before the hypothalamus has the ability to step in and bring us back.

Many adaptogens work directly on the hypothalamus by increasing the sensitivity of the brain region to the effects of cortisol, other neurotransmitters, and incoming sensory information from other areas of the brain.

Adaptogens that work through this mechanism generally need a longer time to exert their effects. The average time for an adaptogen with this mechanism of action to take effect is about two weeks of regular use.

Some of the key adaptogens with this mechanism include:

  1. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
  2. Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
  3. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
  4. Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa)
  5. Bacopa (Bacopa monieri)


2. Activates Heat-Shock Proteins

The heat shock proteins (HSP) are a class of compounds produced by the cells of the body in response to stress.

As the name implies, these proteins are activated by exposure to heat — which is a form of stress. These proteins are also activated by other forms of stress as well such as UV exposure, cold, oxygen deprivation, and damage to the tissues after an injury or workout.

These proteins do many different things to help us resist stress — primarily revolving around the repair of damaged proteins and cells.

There are a few key adaptogens that work through this system. They cause small amounts of stress to the body — which activates heat shock proteins. This response is much stronger than the initial cause of stress — helping the body resist and adapt to stress.

This concept is known as hormesis — which refers to a low-dose stimulation for a high-level effect.

Some of the key adaptogens with this mechanism include:



3. Supports Adrenal Health

One of the main components of the stress-response system is the adrenal glands. These glands produce cortisol — which is responsible for most of the effects commonly attributed to feeling “stressed”.

Cortisol causes our heart rate to increase, blood pressure to rise, muscles to tense up, and stimulates the brain to make us feel more awake.

In the short-term, the cortisol released from the adrenals does a great job to help us manage stress. However, if the stress goes on for too long, we can develop issues with the overall function of the adrenal system.

In some cases, the adrenals may become “burned out” from over-producing cortisol — leading to an overall reduction of this important hormone. If this happens, we feel tired, sluggish, and may have poor reactivity to stressors in our environment.

On the other hand, chronic stress can also cause the adrenal glands to overcompensate — causing us to feel excessive stress in response to minor changes in the environment. The littlest thing can set us off into a downward spiral of stress and anxiety.

Both forms of adrenal dysfunction can result in poor adaptability.

There are a few adaptogens that work specifically on the adrenal glands by supporting the production of cortisol. Others regulate the conversion of active cortisol to inactive cortisone in the bloodstream.

These effects help balance the stress response — preventing overcompensation, and increasing activity in under-functioning adrenal glands.


Some of the key adaptogens with this mechanism include:

    1. Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa)
    2. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
    3. Ashwagandha KSM-66 (Withania somnifera)
    4. L-tyrosine
    5. Magnesium
    6. Phosphatidylserine
    7. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)

Final Thoughts: Adaptogens

Adaptogens are plants or nutrients that support our ability to resist and adapt to stresses in our environment. Sources of stress include everything from changes in temperature, to trauma or injury, to emotional stresses like financial debt or relationship issues.

Adaptogenic supplements provide a boost to our stress-resistance — helping us maintain balance (homeostasis) more effectively, reducing fight or flight reactions, and improving our cardiovascular, immune, and cognitive health long-term.

Most adaptogens require time to take effect — so these supplements need to be taken regularly for a few weeks. Rarely will an adaptogen provide its associated benefits overnight.

For best results, try to remain consistent with your dosing, take other measures to support the effects of the adaptogens. Practice sleep hygiene, exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, and avoid obvious triggers for stress.