Adaptogens: Can they improve the body's response to stress?

June 21, 2017
By: Stacy Leung, RDN, CDN, CLC

Similar to how nutrition may be a preventative measure for chronic disease, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic Medicine may be methods to help protect the body from ailments. TCM and Ayurveda have many facets of preventive care, one of them being the use of adaptogens.

Adaptogens provide the ability to adapt to psychological and physical stress and help prevent the development of stress-related diseases. Studies demonstrate that adaptogens work upon the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis and inhibit or decrease circulating levels of nitric oxide and cortisol. Prescribed by an herbalist, adaptogens can be taken orally through capsules and tinctures. They can also come whole or in powder form to be used in cooking. For example, they may be boiled whole to make broths or mixed as a powder into dishes or drinks.


A·dapt·o·gen: A class of non-toxic herbs that improve your body’s response to stress.

Stress and our health

A little stress in life isn’t a bad thing. Studies show that acute stress can improve memory and minimize the chances of getting sick in the short-term. However, when our body is constantly exposed to stress, it can decrease our body’s ability to return to homeostasis, leading to health issues such as hypertension, insulin resistance, and obesity.

Common adaptogens

The list of adaptogens used in TCM and Ayurveda is quite lengthy. Some of the most common and better researched are:

Panax Ginseng, also known as Korean ginseng, should not to be confused with American or Siberian ginseng. This root can be steamed or sun-dried. The steamed version is known as red ginseng and the sun-dried version is known as white ginseng. The different processing can produce different physical effects. However, generally speaking, this adaptogen can be used to lower blood sugar, lower cholesterol, anxiolytic, immunomodulating, and decrease the body’s stress in those with cardiovascular issues.

Withania Somnifera, more commonly known as ashwagandha, is typically used in Ayurveda. Ashwagandha is known to provide vitality, may assist in improving libido, may be used as a sleep aid for insomnia, and, like ginseng, can be an immunomodulant and anxiolytic. While this adaptogen can be sedative, it can also be taken in the morning for those with anxiety to help calm nerves.

Ocimum tenuiflorum, known as tulsi or holy basil, widely used in the Ayurvedic tradition for medicinal and spiritual practices. This adaptogenic herb has many uses, such as combating metabolic stress and helping to alleviate anxiety and depression. Religiously, Tulsi is planted in one’s home to purify the surroundings, and its wood or seeds are used to make malas, a string of beads used to help focus the mind in meditation.

The future of adaptogens

Even though adaptogens have been used for centuries in the Eastern world, limited research studies have been conducted on humans. With the Western world catching up, we should expect to see more evidence emerge about the benefits of adaptogens and their ability to normalize stress. With more evidence and information being presented in the media, our clients may be coming to us with questions.

Are your clients asking about adaptogens?  Which ones do they ask about most frequently?

To learn more about adaptogens and Ayurveda, you may want to check out our Archived Webinars titled Foundations of Herbal Medicine: Getting to Know Herbs and Can the Wisdom of Ayurveda Complement Modern Dietetics? in the Members-Only section of our website. Not a DIFM Member? Learn more here and join today!