Adaptogens: What Are They And Which Should I Take?

The word adaptogen has to be the most misunderstood word in all of herbalism. I am going to try to clarify things and hopefully you can clarify the subject to all the people you care about.

I feel very fortunate that I learned about this subject 40 years ago, before explanations got so twisted that now even some herbalists are confused. 

What is an Adaptogen?

Let's start with the actual word. What doesadaptogenmean? Let's take the word apart:genmeans to start or give birth to. As a suffix, - gen, it means someone or something that starts or gives birth to. 

The root of the word isadapt.Adaptmeans to make changes to fit a new situation. The "O" is just there to connect the two parts so it is more easily pronounced.

Put it all together and you getadaptogen- something that starts a change to fit into a new situation. There is a nuance there that can be easily missed. It doesn't CHANGE something so it fits. It STARTS a change to deal with a new situation. Missing this nuance is part of the confusion that has been created.

When you take atonic (something that strengthens and gives energy to) it goes to an area and builds up the tissues and creates energy within the cells. 

When you take anervine(something that gives nutrition to or affects the nervous system) the substance actually becomes a part of the nerves or brain to effect a change, like calming the system or it affects them locally.

When you take a constitutional herb (something that helps the physical tearing strength of your tissues. In other words, how strong is the material your parts are made of: tight and strong or mushy and tearable.) The substance introduces strength by making everything knit together more strongly. That's what improving your constitution means.

When you take asedative(something that calms and soothes.) It goes to an area or system and causes relaxation.

There used to be a list of functions that herbs and medicines would accomplish. I am shocked that this list of functions is nowhere to be found with the search engines I use. Well, at least I couldn't find it anyway. It's in old books which I unfortunately have lost track of. 

The reason I mention this is because I wanted to list all of them with their definitions here, so you could differentiate those functions from the adaptogen function. Those four I used as examples are the only ones I remember offhand. Herbalism, in the past, when it was clear and understandable was organized around this list of functions. Maybe tracking down that list could be a subject for another blog.

Ashwagandha plant, berries and roots

The Power of Adaptogens

Anyway, do you get the idea? All these substances make the change themselves. An adaptogen, however, does not do that. It REGULATES a system or systems of the body, so the body can create the changes. This means, since it is influencing a system, that it can turn things up or turn things down. It can tighten or loosen. It can pep you up or put you to sleep. Any herb that can cause the optimum change up or down of something or some other set of opposites is regulating it and is therefore an adaptogen.

Now you might ask, then why does it say in the dictionary that it helps with stress? This is another confusion brought about by, I think, two things. First and most importantly there are at least two different uses for the word stress. 

One is the scientific idea of stress, meaning the obstacles or counter intention that an organism, any organism, from a single cell to a human, encounters in the business of living. A stressor in the environment does not mean things that cause nervousness and anxiety. It can be just the normal obstacles of life. Some people like overcoming the obstacles of life, but scientifically those obstacles would still be called stressors or stress.  

The second reason for this confusion about the word stress is that the normal stressors of life have become so very much harder to overcome that they are causing the other kind of stress: worn out nerves and an inability to comfortably face the difficulty in overcoming life's obstacles. 

Now it's not the physical demand that makes it harder, but a subtle suppression of one's purpose and intention that one can't readily spot. It's the confusion injected into subjects, intentional or not that makes one go in circles instead of having a strong steady direction. Or it can send you in the wrong direction altogether. The confusion I am clearing up here is just one example of this.

There are many other ways and examples, and I couldeasily go off on a tangent talking about this. It is such an important subject. It is affecting more and more people. For this reason “stress” is a button and used for marketing purposes. People are all over the place just trying to survive their own flight or fight mechanisms because their environment seems more and more dangerous with no actual beast there to fight. That is stressful.

The solution to this kind of stress probably would lie in the area of locating these suppressions and remedying them or getting away from them. Herbs can only do so much.

So the stress an adaptogen helps you with is the new situation or obstacle. Say you are all worn out, but are too jacked up to sleep. An adaptogen that affects sleep can calm you down so you can get to sleep. But that same adaptogen taken when you are so exhausted that your body aches, but you need to keep going can soothe the aches and give you some energy to keep you awake and functioning.

Raw cayenne peppers and dried cayenne powder and flakes in a bowl

Types of Adaptogens

A blood flow adaptogen like cayenne pepper can send loads of blood to an area that needs nutrition and immune factors carried to it. You have seen it make things red. But, and this is a little known fact, it will stop the bleeding if there is a break and blood is spilling out into the wrong tissues or out of the skin. You have to see it to believe it. I have had cuts that were gushing and one dropperful of a very strong cayenne tincture down the throat stopped the bleeding. 

Now I am a little crazy when it comes to experimentation. I don't recommend that you wait to stop the bleeding till you find your cayenne tincture, you elevate and apply pressure immediately. But have some in your first aid kit. It works topically as well. It should be a tincture if you are taking it orally for speed or for internal bleeding. But the same cayenne you sprinkle in your chile can be used on your wound externally. Both should be organic as you don't need to be introducing toxins into your body.

It used to be that functions would be assigned to herbs. It wasn’t the other way around like it is now. Now we want to label an herb by a function. We want to say this is a nervine or this is an adaptogen and that's it. It is maybe the pharmaceutical influence because drugs are like that. Drugs are one dimensional. Herbs are not.

So one herb could have one or all of those functions. That's why herbology was organized by function, not by categories of herbs. The only way you could tell if something was adaptogenic in those days was whether it could both up regulate and down regulate something.

Now we have ways to tell if an herb is working straight out or if it is regulating function. But we have all this confusion too because all the basics have been dropped out. Now only scientists know what an adaptogen is because it is made to be so complicated, but that's only the ones working on that subject. I even found scientific papers that promoted confusion because they mixed up the definitions of stress, so they seemed confused too.

Now in science they have tracked how adaptogens work. They have shown that the things we called adaptogens before do indeed regulate systems. They have categorized these into three groups depending on how many systems they regulate. ThePrimary Adaptogens regulate on all systems. And have other characteristics like being tonics as well. TheSecondary Adaptogens regulate on all but one and don't necessarily have those other characteristics, but it isn't really known yet if they do. AndAdaptogenic Companionsregulate on the most important system, but not on all the others. They decided to call them companions because they assisted other adaptogens to work better.

Well at least they are giving a nod to synergy. But really all of them could be considered just adaptogens to the function they are observed to regulate. That is the difference between being classification happy and just wanting to know what to use the herb for.

Do you want to know something odd? The best definition I found of adaptogen was actually the one the FDA came up with in 1998. The only thing I disagree with is that they call them new. They have only been in use for at least 4,000 years. And I would have said proven instead of proved. Hence the [sic].  To refresh your memory, that's what you do when you are quoting something exactly that contains a misspelling or a grammatical error. It is Latin for So or Thus meaning that the error was in the original writing. 

They said it was “A new kind of metabolic regulator that has been proved [sic] to help in environmental adaptation and to prevent external harms. Adaptogen has been generally used as a functional term.”

Wow they even mentioned that it was a functional term as opposed to a classification. I feel some hope for this world.

A bunch of adaptogenic herbs including ginseng, ashwagandha, muchrooms with bottles of liquids

Most Powerful Adaptogenic Herbs

Well I thought I was going to have space to tell you about the most powerful and useful adaptogens, but all I can do is list them. I have already written blogs on the top two, so please refer to them and maybe blogs will be written about the other ones too. Anyway here is the list:

  • Ashwagandha
  • Ginseng
  • Reishi Mushroom
  • Rhodiola
  • Schisandra
  • Tulsi (Holy Basil from India)
  • Licorice
  • American Ginseng
  • Siberian Ginseng
  • Codonopsis pilosula (No American common name yet, Asian common name Dang Shen or Dong Sum)
  • Gynostemma pentaphyllum (No American common name yet. Asian common name, Jiaoguian.)
  • Suma ( Brazilian Ginseng) not proven yet to be a true adaptogen, but is strongly suspected due to its panacea-like characteristics.

Herbal Roots Adaptogens

We are proud of our Ashwagandha supplement. It is strong, not only because of the 1200 mg per serving, but it includes organic black pepper fruit to ensure that it can get into your system to work.

Our Ginseng is organic and grown on a best practices farm and it is 1000mg per serving. It is the Panax ginseng variety but is left raw unlike the Korean ginseng known as Red Ginseng which is actually steamed Panax ginseng.

Reishi Mushroom is part of our eight blend of the most powerful mushrooms in the world. The blend works even better due to the synergy effect.

I hope you feel empowered knowing amongst all the confusion what exactly an adaptogen is. And now you can feel confident about using them for general health. They aren't vitamins, but they sure will help you utilize all your nutrition in overcoming the normal and sometimes not so normal obstacles of life.

As we increase our Herbal Roots family I am sure we will carry more of these adaptogenic herbs in the future. But in the meantime partake. We do have the 3 top ones. Check out our store and try them for yourself.

*This article is intended for informational purposes. The statements above have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.


Rosalie Roder got her Bachelors' degrees in Chemistry and Biology from Mary Baldwin University in 1983. After graduation, with that background, her real education on natural health and healing and human potential began. It is a never ending study and she is always happy to share what she has found out so far.