Right now, adaptogenic herbs are creating quite a buzz in the wellness world. They are showing up everywhere, from juice bars to crystal-packed Instagram feeds to alchemical wellness cookbooks. But if you’re looking to slap some money down and get in on the healing herbal action, the options can become pretty overwhelming—especially if you are not familiar with what these herbs can actually do.
So, rather than just randomly adding spoonfuls of expensive magic dust into your DIY smoothie potions, let's clear things up a little. First things first: What's an adaptogen, anyway?
Refreshingly, adaptogens actually have a fairly straightforward definition. In order for something to be considered an adaptogen, it must be a substance that is safe and nontoxic, reduces the body's stress response, and supports the body in promoting overall balance. Pretty simple. Even better, most adaptogens work synergistically, meaning you can combine a few adaptogens to pack an even more potent punch.
So which adaptogenic herbs are right for you? Here’s a rundown on the real science behind some of the most popular herbs you’ve always been curious about…
If you're trying to reduce stress and anxiety, ashwagandha has your back. But it's not just a stress-buster. This Ayurvedic herb is purported to support the immune system, improve thyroid function and stamina, support healthy libido and fertility, and balance blood sugar levels. Studies on ashwagandha have shown that it promotes healthy cognition, especially in those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. It also has inflammation-busting properties, which are especially beneficial to those suffering from arthritis. As one of the big shots in Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is truly an all-purpose soother. Sure, the taste isn't great—it's very deep and earthy—but that's what ugly, kitchen sink smoothies are for!
Bacopa Monnieri is a potent herb that has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine. It has a long-standing history as a memory and learning aid—with nearly 3000 years of recorded usage. The extract of this plant contains numerous different compounds that give this nootropic herb the ability to improve our memory processing speeds, protect against stress, and protect against neurotoxins. It’s been well-documented and shown to improve both long-term and short-term memory, reduce anxiety, enhance focus, and give a general boost to cognitive performance.
But it doesn’t stop there. As an adaptogen, bacopa doesn’t just suppress your body’s stress response. It actually modulates it and prepares the body to better handle future sources of stress. So, when it’s crunch time on that next project, Bacopa can help protect your brain from burn-out.
Famous for strengthening immune response, this root is able to powerfully activate T cells (a type of white blood cell) even more than echinacea. Astragalus also improves metabolism, skin health, and overall energy levels while fighting inflammation. (It actually reduces c-reactive protein, a major marker of inflammation in the body.) But it may also hold the key to graceful aging. Astragalus is one of few natural substances that helps to increase cell life by lengthening telomeres. Some believe that telomere length is the key to longevity and a more gradual aging process. A more powerful immune system, less inflammation, and anti-aging properties? Warm up our blender!
This smoothie classic contains a wide array of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Also known as “Miracle Leaf”, energizing moringa is rich in antioxidant flavonoids that fight off day-to-day free radical damage. It is best known for its anti-tumor, antibacterial, anti-fungal, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antihypertensive properties. Studies have shown that regular consumption of moringa can specifically help balance blood sugar and cholesterol levels, but it is a fantastic all-around health tonic. Even better, moringa has no known interactions or side effects, so make room for another superfood powder in your pantry!
Used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, the extract of this nootropic plant is incredibly powerful when it comes to supporting healthy cognition, focus, and memory. In fact, the flavonoids found in ginkgo actually interact with receptors in the brain that are associated with memory, cognition, and learning. These flavonoids have also been shown to increase levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps facilitate the growth of new neurons so that you can more easily form and maintain memories.
Meanwhile, the terpenoids in ginkgo extract act as an antioxidant in the brain. When you’re stressed, your mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) produces what free radicals, which can cause damage to the surrounding tissue and sometimes even kill cells (which is one of the main contributors to cognitive decline). These terpenoids help to stop that process. They also have the ability to increase blood flow to the brain. Why is this great? Well, the more blood flow your brain is getting, the greater number of nutrients you can deliver to the hungry nerve cells (which is especially important when you’re working on something mentally demanding).
If you frequent a Bulletproof Coffee shop, you may have had this in your creamy java. In Ayurvedic medicine, rhodiola is commonly used to treat mental ailments such as anxiety, stress, depression, and lack of focus. It actually works to boost serotonin levels and is potentially useful in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Also known for its anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties, rhodiola is incredibly energizing. A recent study showed that cyclists who consumed rhodiola before a race were significantly faster than the placebo group and had lower heart rates post warm-up. Cosmonauts even enjoyed rhodiola to improve both mood and endurance on the Russian Space Station! That's right. Adaptogens. In. Space!
This skin-boosting superstar is making an appearance at some of the most acclaimed juice and wellness bars around. An incredibly rich source of fat soluble vitamin E, most tocos (short for tocotrienols) are derived from brown rice bran. The crumbly powder—which is said to taste like astronaut ice cream—excels at supporting healthy muscles, connective tissue, and skin. Even better, when added to porridges and drinks, it acts as a creamy thickener—almost like a super nourishing non-dairy creamer. And while vitamin E in general is a powerful antioxidant, tocos have been shown to excel at hydrating the skin and connective tissue. Tocos is fantastic in bulletproof coffees, oatmeal, smoothies, and juices (some forms of tocos may be delicate and heat-sensitive, so only stir in to foods that are eating-temperature—below 160 degrees F or 70 degrees C). For a luxurious skin treat, we’re big fans of combining tocos with our antioxidant rich buckwheat honey to make a re-hydrating and anti-inflammatory face mask.
Whether you're healing a connective tissue injury or you're cultivating a clearer complexion, get ready to glow.
There are loads more adaptogenic herbs out there, but now you've got some basic knowledge under your belt. Now go hit the tonic bar with a little more confidence and reap the healthy benefits! *
IMPORTANT: This article is meant for educational purposes only. Some adaptogenic herbs are very powerful and can interact with certain conditions and prescription medications, including antidepressants, birth control pills, and diabetes and thyroid medications. Those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or preparing for surgery should also exert caution. Always consult your doctor or trusted professional before starting on a new herbal regimen.