Adaptogens: an introduction

Herbal gifts for balanced energy (without the stimulants)

Harmony. To a musician, the concept is familiar: notes in a chord resonate together, reinforcing each other and expanding the sound. The math behind this--“constructive interference” of waveforms leading to a pleasing synergy--seems far away from our day-to-day. But you exploit the same principle when you get on a swing: to push higher, you have to “pump”, or swing your weight forward, at just the right time. Synchronizing the rhythm of the swing with your body’s force allows you to trace ever higher arcs. Applying the same amount of force at the wrong time wouldn’t help, and might slow you down instead.

If you understand this idea of resonance--of moving, or swinging, at the right time to create positive reinforcement--then you have already grasped the basic power of adaptogens. These remedies, derived from plants and mushrooms, set the stage for a balanced response to stress and protect the body from feeling drained by life’s challenges. As we learn more about them and how they work, we’re finding that at every level of the physiology--from the cells in every tissue to networks of nerves and hormones--adaptogens balance our vital functions, supporting resonance and healthy efficiency. In fact, just like with a swing, resonance and efficient function are linked in our bodies. And that efficiency is what brings all the benefits: resistance to occasional stress, calm and focused responses, and good energy, vitality, and endurance for both mind and body.*


The quest for vitality has placed adaptogens firmly at the center of tonic herbal formulas from the traditional healing systems of Ayurveda (from the Indian subcontinent), Kampo (from Japan), and traditional Chinese medicine. Across these traditions, ginseng and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) roots, schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) berries and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) mushrooms, leaves of tulsi (Ocimum sanctum, O. gratissimum, and others) and jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum), among many others, were suggested for endurance in the face of occasional stress, but also traditionally thought to confer long life. In some cases, they were blended into purported “elixirs of immortality”. This makes sense: when responding to challenge, a more efficient use of resources allows those resources to go further. 

What, then, are these challenges? What is stress? Is it universally bad? Stressors are clear-cut when looking at individual cells. A lack of nutrients, for example, leads to noticeable changes in behavior. So do traumatic environmental changes, like increases in temperature. Whether because of “starvation” or “heat shock”, cells adapt: and for a cell, this means changing the types of proteins it produces, modifying the delicate balance of energy production, metabolism, protection, and recycling of internal components. It’s interesting to note that, while complete starvation or very high temperatures usually kill cells, more moderate exposure to these stressors--such as caloric restriction, or mild heat stress--seem to activate a host of protective strategies that end up increasing survival. Cell biologists refer to this phenomenon as “hormesis”: high stress levels may harm, but moderate stress levels benefit overall resilience. In cells and simple organisms, adaptogens seem to display hormesis-like effects: curiously, adaptogens in tiny doses make cells behave as if they were under moderate stress1.

In exercise, in learning, even during of emotional and spiritual stress, we find the same phenomenon. Termed the “Goldilocks hypothesis”2, it posits that moderate stress and challenge activate processes of growth and adaptation: for increasing physical fitness, for mastering a new skill, and for finding creative solutions, there’s nothing like that “just right” sweet spot that’s barely past our comfort zone. Our nerve and hormone integration centers process all of this with the same response pattern as the cells that make up our bodies: they rise to the occasion and build engaged resilience.


This is where adaptogens come in. We rely on our physiology to meet stress with an effective, measured response: without this, the stressor can have a greater impact than it should. The rich chemistry found in adaptogens, helps at every level of the physiology by supporting an active, effective resonance with the circumstances. Going back to our musical analogy, we can think of adaptogens as allies that help to “tune” the human system so that it can play along in harmony with its environment.*

We are just starting to explore how the chemistry in these plants and mushrooms can impact the human system. In the end, it is likely that there are multiple mechanisms at work: polysaccharide starches from roots and mushrooms may be able to affect structures in our guts that are part of the immune system; aromatic molecules from herbs like tulsi balance our perception of stress; and different types of terpenes and phenolic compounds may support important hormone and neurotransmitter pathways.* 


In this last category, for instance, we see that phenolics like the rosavins and their cousins the salidrosides in rhodiola root may be able to impact structures in the brain related to attention and vigilance, along with their relevant neurotransmitters3). Glycosides from ginseng and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) may also be able to impact  the structures in our brains and bodies that are sensitive to stress hormones and neurotransmitters4. In all these cases, adaptogens display a unique and interesting property: they help support a healthy stress response below the “Goldilocks” zone, helping us with mental and physical performance (maybe via hormetic effects). But when, occasionally, levels of stress rise outside that optimal range, adaptogens counteract the effect of that stress. Researchers call this a “biphasic” response, and while many herbs show it, adaptogens are unique in that their effects can seem to change in response to both the external and the internal environments. This is, of course, because they balance our stress response system, one of the key ways in which we interact with the world. Helping our stress response system achieve resonance with our environment has amazing consequences--all because we live and act with less friction, pushing the swing at the right time. 

…. But what does this all mean in daily life?

There is an effective way to measure the overall degree of resonance a human being is experiencing. Tracing “heart rate variability”5, or the fluctuations in heart rate over time, gives us an overview of how “in tune” we are to the current circumstances. This is usually done using heart rate monitors, but you can get a sense of this yourself by feeling your pulse as it changes in response to your breathing patterns: is there a resonance there? Does the heart rate speed up as you inhale and slow down as you exhale? While aromatic plants can support this heart rate variability during occasional stress6, adaptogens build it over time7, keeping the system resonant, tuning the waveform, helping us manage the shifts.* And as Qi Bo, the lead medical and spiritual advisor to the mythical Yellow Emperor of China, once said, “When one can manage the polarity changes of the Universe, one will have clarity and not be confused by any disorder.” (from the Neijing, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine).

Adaptogens are easy and fun to prepare and make welcome additions to the herbalist’s kitchen. I like to use a few different preparations to provide variety and convenience: bliss balls, infused honeys, simple tinctures and teas give you options for both rushed mornings and leisurely afternoons. But as you’re enjoying your adaptogens, remember: whether for athletic performance, sharp and focused mind, or just overall creative vitality, our bodies and minds move in cycles, mirroring the world of nature all around us. Constant peak performance is as realistic as an endless summer--and our plant allies know this. So it’s often best to use adaptogens in cycles, too, by alternating them with gentle, mineralizing herbs, aromatic nervines, remedies that support good circulation, and those that help support the body’s recovery from the inflammation that follows exercise. By understanding that adaptogens are not stimulants, but harmonizers, you will become more aware of the natural cycles in your own life, and learn how to swing through their arcs, pushing hard at just the right moments and resting when the momentum carries you. And that may be the biggest gift of all.

 american ginseng


“Bliss” Balls

Use powdered herbs for this classic preparation, sort of like an adaptogenic version of a chocolate-nut truffle. The recipe variations on this basic template are almost endless. Make a big batch once a week to keep in the fridge for a low-glycemic, tonic snack.

Mix together:

  • 1 ½ cup almond butter, peanut butter, or sunflower seed butter (room temp is easier)
  • 1 cup honey
  • Blend together and slowly add to the molasses/butter mix:
  • 10 TBS of herb powder, and 5 TBS of cacao (chocolate) powder, or carob powder.
  • Some adaptogens to use for the 10TBS of herb powder include rooty, fibrous herbs and some of the more woody mushrooms.  Make sure you have a good-quality supply that has been freshly made. Try this combination to start, and modify for your needs: reishi 2 TBS, eleuthero 3 TBS, ashwagandha 3 TBS, cordyceps 2 TBS (Cordyceps sinensis, C. militaris).
  • Roll into balls about 2 inches in diameter. You can then roll them in dried shredded coconut or dehydrated crushed raspberries.
  • This makes about 5 days' worth, somewhere between 20 and 30 "balls" depending how big you make them. Getting to a round number helps with dosing (i.e. 20 = 4/day, 30 = 6/day).


Infused honey

This preparation works well with leaves and berries, and while I’ve made tulsi-infused honey before, my favorite preparation is honey saturated with dry schisandra berries. A traditional Korean preparation, it has an incredible flavor, and I don’t even strain it out: after a few weeks of steeping, you can just take a big tablespoon full of honey, berries, and all, place it in the bottom of a tea cup, and pour boiling water over the top. Voilá: instant adaptogen power. Feel free to strain before drinking. But you’ll find the flavor of the berries has mellowed wonderfully from the time spent in honey.*

Use a pint-sized mason jar.

Add 10-12TBS of dried berries (and/or leaves) of schisandra (dry is important to avoid introducing moisture).

Add raw honey sufficient to get to the top of the jar (about 8-10 oz). You may want to warm the honey in a hot water bath before adding: it flows more easily, and percolates more quickly through the herbal material. Check back after an hour or so to make sure all the herbs are saturated, and seal the jar well with a tight-fitting lid.

Turn your jar over every day or two, and after about two weeks you can start to enjoy the infused honey.


Simple tincture

Alcohol-based extraction isn’t for everyone, but it is an effective way to concentrate and preserve the active chemistry of adaptogens. And when a plant has a really intense flavor, a tincture is quick and easy to take and travels well, too. It’s pretty much the only way I use rhodiola, but almost all the adaptogens, except maybe the mushrooms, lend themselves well to this method.

Use a pint-sized mason jar.

Add 2 ounces (60g) of dry, chopped rhodiola root (or other herb as desired)

Add 12 ounces (360ml) of alcohol at 100 proof (50% ethanol).

Cover the jar and seal well with a tight-fitting lid.

Shake the jar every few days, and strain after three weeks. For rhodiola, a typical dose is ½ teaspoon of this tincture once or twice a day.


Herbal infusion

The infusion, or medicinal tea, is a great way to extract leafy adaptogens like tulsi and jiaogulan (or even, as some folks suggest, leaves of the ginseng plant). It’s less useful for roots and barks, or for mushrooms: for these, use the same proportions but start with cold water and simmer in a covered saucepan for a few hours to make a decoction.

Use a quart-sized mason jar.

Add about 6-8TBS of tulsi leaves and flowers.

Fill the jar with hot water just off the boil.

Close and steep until cool, or at least 10 minutes.

Strain and drink throughout the day. The tea will keep in the fridge for a day (especially with tulsi), but freshly-made tea is always best.


  1. Wiegant, F. A. C., et al. "Plant adaptogens increase lifespan and stress resistance in C. elegans." Biogerontology1 (2009): 27-42. For a more specific discussion on eleuthero, rhodiola and schisandra, cellular heat shock proteins, antioxidant levels, and membrane integrity in experimental models, see Wiegant, F. A. C., G. Limandjaja, and S. A. H. de Pootº. "23. Plant Adaptogens Activate Cellular Adaptive Mechanisms by Causing Mild Damage." Adaptation Biology and Medicine:|5 (2008): 319.
  2. Seery, Mark D., E. Alison Holman, and Roxane Cohen Silver. "Whatever does not kill us: cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience." Journal of personality and social psychology6 (2010): 1025.
  3. Brown, Richard P., Patricia L. Gerbarg, and Z. Ramazanov. "Rhodiola rosea." A phytomedicinal overview. HerbalGram56 (2002): 40-52.
  4. Gaffney, B. T., H. M. Hügel, and P. A. Rich. "Panax ginseng and Eleutherococcus senticosus may exaggerate an already existing biphasic response to stress via inhibition of enzymes which limit the binding of stress hormones to their receptors." Medical hypotheses5 (2001): 567-572.
  5. Kim, Hye-Geum, et al. "Stress and heart rate variability: A meta-analysis and review of the literature." Psychiatry investigation3 (2018): 235.
  6. For an interesting experiment among many others featuring aromatic plants and their essential oils, see Bradley, Belinda F., et al. "Effects of orally administered lavender essential oil on responses to anxiety‐provoking film clips." Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental4 (2009): 319-330.
  7. For example, see a recent exploration of jiaogulan: Choi, Eun-Kyung, et al. "Supplementation with extract of Gynostemma pentaphyllum leaves reduces anxiety in healthy subjects with chronic psychological stress: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial." Phytomedicine52 (2019): 198-205.
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