What Are Adaptogens?

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

You’ve likely heard the word “adaptogen” thrown around lately. But despite all the chatter you may still be wondering, adapt-o-what?

So, let me break it down for you: Adaptogens are a group of plants that, put simply, help us adapt to stress. All of these plants deal with stress in their own plant lives: They respond to environmental pollutants, withstand extreme weather, and even fight off predators. They have not only developed ways of responding to stressors but have also built up endurance to help them deal with stress overtime. When we work with adaptogens, their unique stress-fighting capability is imparted on our own bodies and minds.

Before we delve in to how adaptogens might help you with stress , let me emphasize this: Adaptogens are a personal practice. What works for someone might not work for another person. We’re talking about this on Kitchn today because we want to give you the tools to make decisions for yourself.

How Adaptogens Help Us with Stress

I have good news and kind of crummy news. First, the crummy news: Stress is not going away. It’s a very real and present part of the natural world. As modern people we already practice many behaviors for fighting off stress in our daily lives like trying to sleep eight to 10 hours per night; spending time with people we love; exercising; practicing meditation; cutting back on sugar, alcohol, and caffeine; and saying “no” to those who ask too much of us. There are times, though, when stress is so intense that it overcomes our regular defenses and we need extra help: This is where adaptogens come in.

If you were hoping that I would reveal to you the plants that would make stress disappear, I’m sorry to report that I can’t — because they don’t exist. I am just as sad as you, but pumped to deliver this good news: While adaptogens are not so skilled at eliminating stress, they are excellent at helping us adjust to stressful circumstances.

Like lots of things in the plant world, adaptogens are varied and the way they help us adapt to stress looks differently. Some adaptogens are roots, others the aerial parts of plants (flowers, berries, and leaves), and some are even funghi.

The Wild Medicine Solution by Guido Mase identifies the two ways we handle stress with plants: We can build up resilience to the problem or we can lessen the perception of the problem. In other words, some adaptogens build you up slowly, while others offer a quick fix.

One of my teachers Katja Swift likes to make a comparison to credit cards for the latter: these are strong stimulants that we essentially “borrow” energy from. It means that later we’ll have to pay it back, like with a big chunk of rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Unfortunately, we can’t live life off a credit card — we can try, but we’ll pay for it eventually. And just how different people choose different credit cards, so might each of us find that certain adaptogens suit our stressful situations better than others.

So, What Plants Are Adaptogens?

With that in mind, you might be wondering, OK, so which plants are adaptogens? Good question! In the interest of keeping things simple, but without oversimplifying, here are a sampling of plants that, among other amazing skills and gifts, share the title of adaptogen. I’ve divided them into two groups: those that build up resilience and strength (also known as tonics), and those that offer immediate relief (our credit cards, if you will).

  1. Resilience builders: Codonopsis, Tulsi, Burdock, Ashwagandha, Reishi, Elecampane
  2. Immediate relief: Eleuthro, Rhodiola, Spikenard, Ginseng

So, Where Do I Get Started?

It’s good practice to get in the habit of reading up on any plant you invite into your body or your home.

We’ve become accustomed to the idea of medicine as the following: I have this problem, where is the one solution? Plants don’t really work that way. In general, they work with and on large body systems and usually with specific organs to achieve an overall healthful effect. What this means is plants require that we meet them halfway, at least. In order to fully experience their healing we must also be willing to look at the parts of our lives where stress occurs and be willing to change or even eliminate them.

We might also consider that an entire team of plants would be appropriate for our healing. Not all, but many plants, including many adaptogens, are preventative and meant to be worked with for extended periods of time. In the case of adaptogens, after assessing what kind of stress you’re experiencing and what kind of herbal solution you’re after, take some time to explore the plant you’re drawn to.

Mrs M. Grieve’s thorough and widely referenced A Modern Herbal writings are available online; it’s an excellent resource whether you’re a beginning or seasoned plant fan. After you’ve investigated your plant, taste it! How you respond to its taste will be a good indication if it’s the right choice for you.

The rest of this mini series takes a more in-depth look at some of the plants in the first category: our green friends who can help us build up resistance and strength over time. We’ll be talking about tulsi, ashwagandha, and reishi.

More Resources for Learning about Adaptogens

Please note that we are not medical professionals, and we advise you to work with your doctor if you have serious physical or mental symptoms.

About CC Buckley

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

CC Buckley is the herbalist behind Ripe, a site dedicated to practicing herbalism in real life. She is a graduate of Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism. She’s also currently working on a medicinal plants book for Roost. Check out how she starts her herb-filled morning here.


Herbalism 101

Adaptogens are just one method some people use to help themselves feel better. Are they right for you? In this mini series we’re covering the basics of what adaptogens are, what they do, and how you can learn more about them. We’ll also be talking about a few popular adaptogens: Tulsi, Ashwagandha, and Reishi