What Are Adaptogens?

adaptogens and ground plants

carlosgaw / Getty Images

Whether you're someone who keeps abreast of health trends in food or not, chances are adaptogens have crossed your path recently at the grocery store, drug store, or online. And the idea of them may have left you asking, adapto-whats?? Adaptogens have hit the mainstream market with a big splash, claiming to improve your life in ways varying from more energy to better sleep.

For everyone wondering why this food group is all the rage, and if it really lives up to the hype, we have the info you need. Read on to find out what adaptogens are, what they are believed to do, whether they're right for you, and how you can go about incorporating them into your diet.

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are often referred to as functional foods. As a rule, foods are called adaptogenic when they help our bodies respond to stress, but these foods can have other health-promoting values and properties.

Adaptogens are usually plants or plant parts. They can be roots, stems, leaves, entire plants, or extractives. Most adaptogenic ingredients are new to Western culture, particularly the ones that aren't used in food. Despite their newness in our culture, they've been used in Eastern healing practices like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine for millennia.

What Are Their Benefits?

Assisting our bodies with adapting to stress is only one of many functions that adaptogenic foods are believed to have. Some adaptogens are thought to have one main benefit, but many are felt to have several more. They may have these benefits, but we don't know for sure as more study is needed on adaptogens and their functions.

Stress Relief

This is the most notable benefit adaptogens are believed to have because it's the most unique. Adaptogens are felt to help our bodies react to stress, doing things like balancing and controlling our cortisol levels. Cortisol is the chief hormone that bodies produce in times of stress, so the ability to modulate it is an important function that can also prevent stress-induced illnesses. Ashwagandha and rhodiola are most popular for this function.

More Energy

One of the biggest complaints people have in our modern world is how exhausting daily life can be. Many adaptogens functions are believed to increase our energy on a cellular level. That's different than other ingredients we consume for energy, such as caffeine, because the change is happening on a more internal level. With caffeine, you notice more energy, and then it's gone. With adaptogens, it is believed that you likely feel less, if anything at all, but you don't get tired as quickly as usual. Eleuthero and ginseng are favorites for energy. The usage of adaptogens for energy can also extend to physical endurance, such as with sports and exercise.

Better Sleep

There are no good days without restful nights. By assisting with sleep duration and quality, adaptogens may make waking life more smooth. Various adaptogens are thought to help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and/or sleep more deeply.

Which Foods Are Adaptogens?

There are about seventy different ingredients that are categorized as adaptogens. They all have one or more of the above properties. The below list contains the most agreed-upon foods that are considered adaptogens, which are the most commonly sold in this country.

  • Ashwagandha
  • Chaga
  • Cordyceps
  • Damiana
  • Elderberry
  • Ginseng
  • Holy Basil (Tulsi)
  • Lion's Mane
  • Maca
  • Mucuna Pruriens (L Dopa)
  • Reishi
  • Rhodiola
  • Schisandra
  • Turmeric

Are Adaptogens Safe? Do They Have Side Effects?

Some adaptogens, like turmeric, have been studied thoroughly; many others have little clinical research behind them, if at all. The most consistent criticisms of adaptogens are that they are understudied and that products made with them don't perform up to the level of their claims. Generally, however, the research looks promising that adaptogens can be helpful.

As with any supplements you take, it's wisest to first consult your medical practitioner. Sometimes people will attempt to self-medicate with adaptogens without fully understanding the cause of their condition, and without realizing that their condition would be better addressed another way. Also, specific medications can be contraindicated with different foods or ingredients.

How Do I Consume Them?

Because these are single food ingredients, there are an assortment of ways to consume them. The most important element to note is that, as adaptogens are herbs, roots, leaves, stems, and other plant parts, they can taste pretty earthy. If you are averse to flavors that people describe as earthy, or other similar descriptors, you'll want to choose more ready-made snacks or pills over powders.


Adaptogens are available as single herb powders or as blends. When sold as blends, they are usually categorized by function, such as a stress relief blend, a sleep blend, or an energy blend. These powders are mixed into beverages or foods. The most accessible way to try an adaptogen powder, whether single herb or blend, is to add it to your morning coffee. Coffee is one of the strongest, earthiest beverages we drink, so you will notice their taste less this way than, say, in a fruit smoothie. But, beware that they may still taste very strong.

Drinks and Snacks

There are many premade adaptogen foods and drinks. This piece shares a wide range of them and includes popcorn, alcoholic beverages, chocolate, and ice cream. If you are interested in trying adaptogens, these products offer a more consumer-friendly introduction to them over straight powders.


For those who have no interest at all in tasting earthy powders in their food or drink, adaptogens are available in supplement pill format. Just like with powders, you can find them in single-ingredient formulas or in functional blends designed to perform a specific task. This is the most straightforward way to give them a try if you prefer your food and drink unadulterated.

Article Sources
The Spruce Eats uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. [Updated 2021 Sep 6]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-.

  2. Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012;34(3):255-262. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022

  3. Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010;3(1):188-224. Published 2010 Jan 19. doi:10.3390/ph3010188

  4. Liao LY, He YF, Li L, et al. A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chin Med. 2018;13:57. Published 2018 Nov 16. doi:10.1186/s13020-018-0214-9

  5. Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human HealthFoods. 2017;6(10):92. Published 2017 Oct 22. doi:10.3390/foods6100092

  6. Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010;3(1):188-224. Published 2010 Jan 19. doi:10.3390/ph3010188