Here’s What the Science Actually Says About Using Adaptogens for Stress Relief

Photo: Getty Images/eskymaks
Everywhere from Erewhon to the internet, there are enticing promises about what powders, pills, and potions containing adaptogens can do for your body and mind. Using adaptogens for stress relief in particular has become a big business: says it’s a $10.3 billion industry, and is expected to nearly double in size by 2031 to $20.3 billion thanks to a “rising amount of consumer stress.” (At least someone's benefiting from the chaos that is existing in the 2020s!)

Experts say there is evidence that regularly taking certain herbal extracts that fall under the adaptogen umbrella can reduce stress over time. However, the likelihood that picking up an adaptogenic soda or tea will immediately induce a sense of calm, as so much of the marketing of these beverages imply, is slim to none.

The appeal of these promises is totally understandable. Something to relax you that won’t get you drunk or high? A dream! But fast-acting, short-term change is simply not how these herbs work.

That doesn’t mean adaptogens can’t add value to your life. You just have to be discerning about the products you go for, and somewhat disciplined about regularly taking them, in order to potentially see a meaningful effect.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are a class of herbs that affect your response to stress. They’re grouped together by what they do, rather than what they are.

“There are probably hundreds upon hundreds [of adaptogens], they just haven't been studied or identified yet,” Joseph Mather, MD, a physician and functional medicine practitioner, says. “They’re generally a class of herbal medications that have stress-balancing effects."

Some well known adaptogens are ashwagandha, rhodiola, reishi mushrooms, ginseng, cordyceps, and others. They have roots in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. You can see a comprehensive list compiled by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs' Whole Health Library here.

What do adaptogens do?

Experts say adaptogens bring balance to a person’s stress response. For example, if a person is highly anxious, they might respond more strongly to stressors. So adaptogens purportedly can make their stress responses more measured.

“We use cortisol as the main marker for stress hormones, [and] if the main stress hormone is too low, the herbal medicine can bring it up,” Dr. Mather says. “And if it's too high, it can bring it down.”

Judith Pentz, MD, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, who practices integrative and holistic psychiatry, explains that these herbs act upon the the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), affecting the amount of cortisol we secrete, and subsequently, other factors like blood pressure.

“It helps to stabilize the HPA axis and reset the system so that the body can manage the stress according to its need,” Dr. Pentz says.

How do adaptogens work?

Unlike pharmaceuticals that have a very targeted mechanism, Dr. Mather says that herbs work on a systemic level, with multiple active ingredients affecting our bodies as a whole. This is why adaptogens can also act upon the immune system—a system which incidentally has a symbiotic relationship with stress.

Additionally, different herbal extracts may have different active ingredients causing these effects. However, some researchers posit that molecules called glycosides, which can impact heart rate, may come into play.

That said, taking an adaptogenic herb once probably won’t do anything. To work, you have to take a consistent amount of a high enough dose at regular intervals, consistently over time.

“Any of these herbs can be beneficial, but there's a dose dependence in connection with it,” Dr. Pentz says. “Many of these actually need to be taken daily for the benefit to be noticed over time.”

What is the scientific evidence that adaptogens can reduce stress?

While varieties of adaptogens abound, when it comes to actual evidence for the efficacy of adaptogens, not all adaptogens are created equal. That’s partially because the class of herbs is so broad that they’re difficult to study as a whole.

“These are whole herbs we're talking about,” Dr. Pentz says. “They have many, many ways that they interface with the body and the brain. And each one is very specific as to what they do. So it's really hard to create a global perspective, because each one has its strengths.”

When assessing whether to recommend an adaptogen to patients, Dr. Mather looks for “randomized, placebo-controlled trials and better yet, you want to be using adaptogens that have a meta-analysis where they grouped many randomized, placebo-controlled trials.” (He also looks to make sure they were not funded by supplement makers.)

Dr. Mather is confident in the efficacy of ashwagandha in particular. He says two gold-standard meta-analyses—one from 2022, and the other from 2014—demonstrate that taking ashwagandha changes biomarkers related to stress (including cortisol levels) and inflammation, and has an impact on several different methods of measuring mood, and mental health over time.

“When clinicians are looking to give herbal medications to patients, we really want to see that there is really robust evidence showing that it helps, and that's what we have for ashwagandha,” Dr. Mather says. “We know it works.”

Rhodiola is another fairly well-studied herb, says Dr. Pentz.

“There is still a need for larger clinical studies, but [rhodiola] has been shown to be safe and effective to treat mild to moderate depression,” Dr. Pentz says. “It also was shown to have a slightly faster onset than pharmaceutical [medicine].”

What to look for in an adaptogen

If you want to get any sort of benefit from an adaptogenic beverage or supplement other than tasting good or making you feel good about yourself, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Select the right adaptogen for your needs, and take enough of it

The dosage should be significant—which probably isn’t actually the case in most adaptogenic beverages.

“One needs to be careful about using herbs, but the dose that's probably present in these drinks is at a non-risk level,” Dr. Pentz says. “For an impact to happen you need a minimum amount of milligrams for the benefit to be seen. And for the beverage to be labeled ‘non-medical,' they have to be careful with how much they put in there.”

When determining the right dosage—as well as the right adaptogen or adaptogen blend—you’ll probably want to work with a medical professional to assess, as you go along, whether the herbs are having any effect.

“Each of these really needs to be offered to the person according to their age and health and wellbeing as opposed to a panacea for everybody,” Dr. Pentz says.

There’s no one ideal adaptogen dose for all people. However, studies of rhodiola and adaptogens have administered doses between 150 and 350 milligrams, one or two times a day.

Buy from reputable sources

For supplements, you’ll want to make sure a third party body has validated that what the product says is in the supplement is actually in there. Since the supplement industry lacks oversight, labels aren't always reliable. But if you want something to work for you, make sure, ya know, you’re actually taking the herb you think you’re taking.

Be wary of adaptogenic beverage marketing claims (or implications)

Avoid products that imply fast-acting results, because this is a fundamentally misleading claim.

“Herbs really work more in terms of the long run as opposed to short term,” Dr. Pentz says. “It's a total body response for herbs, and it takes a while because it actually helps to create adjustments in the nervous system, in the hormonal system, for the overall benefit to manifest. So it's working at a molecular level to instill change in the human body and brain, and that takes time.”

"Herbs really work more in terms of the long run as opposed to short term." —Judith Pentz, MD

So no, sipping on a drink with adaptogens won't cause you to feel less stressed in the moment.

Know it's a tool, not a fix

Finally, know that adaptogens are just one way to address your mental health, and that addressing underlying stressors in your life is important to do in addition to finding a way to modulate your response to stress with adapatogens.

“It's a tool, not the solution to the problem,” Dr. Mather says. “It's really important to use tools like adaptogens or antidepressants or therapy to feel better, so that you can then do the work.”

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