5 Adaptogenic herbs for stress relief

Adaptogenic herbs, such as schisandra, provide nutrients that help the immune system enhance physical and mental performance1. Other adaptogenic plants, such as rhodiola, help the body adapt to emotional stress and physical exertion, while also stimulating the nervous system2.

Adaptogenic herbs are recommended as a supplement to help overcome challenges associated with our daily work or study, and even sports activities. This is because the term "adaptogenic" refers to substances that have the capacity to normalise the body’s natural functions. These substances also strengthen the body’s ability to deal with stress3

Russian scientist Nikolai Lazarev discovered adaptogenic herbs in the 1940s while conducting a scientific study. Lazarev was seeking ways of improving the population’s health and performance. During his research, he observed that certain natural plants and substances had components that could stimulate and boost the productivity of the people who took them. He called those herbs adaptogens4.

In the early 1960s, Lazarev’s work was continued by his former student, I. Brekhman. Years later, Brekham and V. Dardymov established four key criteria for plant-sourced adaptogens5

  • They must reduce the damage caused by stressors such as fatigue, infection and depression5.
  • They must have positive excitatory effects on the human body5
  • Unlike traditional stimulants, the excitatory effects produced by plant-sourced adaptogens should not cause side effects such as insomnia, low protein synthesis or excessive energy consumption5.
  • They must demonstrate zero toxicity and influence on the body’s natural functions5.

How do adaptogenic herbs work? 

When consumed, the active principles of adaptogenic herbs have the capacity to modulate physiological response in a way that adapts to each person’s body6. This means that certain substances in these plants do not just serve a single purpose; they can ‘identify’ what exactly the body needs to achieve balance.

The 5 best-known adaptogenic herbs

Adaptogenic plants have been used since ancient times and, in the case of rhodiola2, help the body adapt to emotional and physical stressors2. We explain the best known and most currently used adaptogenic herbs below.

Rhodiola

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea L.) is a plant whose root is used to help the body adapt to emotional and physical stressors2. As well as being an adaptogen that protects us during physical stress7, rhodiola promotes optimal mental and cognitive activity8, has beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system2, helps to maintain normal circulatory system function9 and normalises intestinal tract function10.

This plant is native to the colder regions of Siberia and China, and the plant’s root has been used by their populations for thousands of years.

Benefits of rhodiola

Rhodiola rosea L. root helps the body adapt to emotional and physical stressors2. It also helps to stimulate the nervous system2 and has beneficial effects on fatigue and stress-induced headaches2. It is also a beneficial plant for sleep problems, low appetite and reduced work performance2.

Rhodiola is used for gastrointestinal tract health, since it normalises intestinal tract function10

It can be an excellent supplement for athletes, as it is used for strength and physical conditioning, and for endurance in sports performance7. As an adaptogen that offers protection against physical stressors, it offers antioxidant properties for cell protection7.

Rhodiola contributes to normal blood circulation8. It is also associated with brain performance and responsiveness8.

Rhodiola rosea L. also promotes healthy circulatory system function, providing oxygen and nutrients to cells9

Ashwagandha 

Ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal) helps with sleep onset11 and improves the body’s resistance to stress12. Due to its adaptogenic properties, it helps maintain energy levels and is considered an energy tonic13. It has been the subject of a lot of scientific research examining its adaptogenic components14,15.

Ashwagandha is a shrub that grows in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, but can also be found along the European and African Mediterranean coast. Ayurveda, Indian traditional medicine, has used ashwagandha as a remedy for thousands of years. This is why it is commonly known as ‘Indian ginseng’.

Benefits of ashwagandha

Ashwagandha root has multiple benefits for the body. It has a general rejuvenating effect16 and helps maintain skin health17. It protects skin tissue from damage or injury and protects overall health thanks to its antioxidant activity in the body18.

It is also an excellent option for helping maintain mental and physical capacity when experiencing fatigue or loss of concentration12. It can also be said to contribute to emotional balance and general wellbeing19

The root of this plant can also improve the body’s resistance to stress11, and it has a high capacity to help induce sleep11. This is also backed by numerous studies20.

Another of ashwagandha’s benefits is that it helps maintain optimal endurance and feelings of physical and mental wellbeing and energy13, helping to maintain the body’s vitality13

It is also a plant recommended for couples trying to conceive. It supports the health of the female reproductive organs, while for men it helps to maintain sperm count and mobility21.

Finally, ashwagandha has beneficial effects on the heart and on the entire cardiovascular system22.

Schisandra

Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis (Turcz.) Baill.) is a climbing plant native to China. It is in fact its red berries that possess the adaptogenic properties. They are used mainly to increase capacity to adapt to stress23. This plant has been used since ancient times in traditional Chinese medicine as a tonic that contributes to adaptogenic activity24.

Benefits of schisandra

The multiple benefits of this adaptogenic plant include increasing capacity to adapt to stressful situations23. It is also an excellent detoxifier useful for maintaining the body’s detoxifying functions25 and helps restore mental and psychological wellbeing1. Its balsam also contains soothing properties that can be a particular aid during winter months26

It also increases the body’s physiological resistance, particularly to severe environmental conditions27.

Siberian ginseng

Siberian ginseng or eleutherococcus (Eleutherococcus senticosus (Rupr. et Maxim.) Maxim) is a thorny shrub found in the cold forests of Siberia and China. It is one of the most famous adaptogenic herbs, as a tonic that supports adaptogenic activity28.

Benefits of Siberian ginseng

Siberian ginseng can be seen as a blood sugar level regulator as it helps to maintain physiological sugar balance29. This has led several studies to be carried out using Siberian ginseng in order to verify its effect in diabetes cases30.

It has traditionally been known to aid blood circulation31 and contribute to normal blood circulation and contribute to normal blood circulation. This is associated with brain responsiveness and performance and therefore contributes to optimal mental and cognitive activity32, 33

This plant also increases the body’s physiological resistance to severe environmental conditions34, while supporting the immune system and the body’s defences through its antioxidant properties35, 36. It can also provide relief for throats during colder months and support the upper respiratory tract37.

It also has a relaxing effect and restores people’s natural good mood38. Finally, it supports mental and physical functions when experiencing fatigue and even when recovering from illness39. It is therefore considered an excellent plant for people in rehabilitation39.

Cordyceps 

Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc) is a parasitic fungus highly prized in China, Tibet and Nepal for centuries. It can be found in the group of adaptogenic herbs40 but is in fact a parasitic fungus that can be found only at altitudes of over 3,800 metres. Its life cycle is truly intriguing. Its mycelia grow on caterpillar larvae, dispersing spores in summer. Later, in winter, they invade the larvae while hibernating underground. With the arrival of spring, the mycelia emerge on the surface to greet the sun.

Some of the bioactive components of cordyceps identified include adenine, adenosine, cytosine, cytidine, uridine, guanine, guanosine, hypoxanthine, inosine, thymine, thymidine, 2’-desoxyuridine and cordycepin. These molecules regulate and modulate various physiological processes in the central nervous system41, 42.

Its main constituents include polysaccharides containing molecules such as mannitol43, a component widely studied for its antioxidant properties44.

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