Adaptogens For Stress & Fatigue: How They Work + 4 Of An M.D.'s Favorites
Judging from the proliferation of coffee and cupcake shops popping up these days, caffeine and sugar are what a lot of folks are using to try to fight back against stress and fatigue.
The problem is, these quick fixes don’t actually work long-term. The crash is never far behind—so it’s back to the coffee to start the cycle again, turning your day into a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows.
How do adaptogens combat stress and fatigue?
Adaptogens are a unique group of herbal ingredients used to support the health of your adrenal system—the system in charge of managing the body’s hormonal response to stress.
They enhance the body's ability to cope with stress slowly and gently, without jolts or crashes. They’re called adaptogens because of their unique ability to “adapt” their function according to your body’s specific needs. Though their effects may initially be subtle, they’re real and undeniable.
Adaptogens weren’t born yesterday. In fact, they’ve been used in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Recently, studies have found evidence to show that adaptogens offer positive benefits and are usually safe for long-term use.
How do they work?
Adaptogens work a bit like a thermostat. When the thermostat senses that the room temperature is too high it brings it down and when the temperature is too low it brings it up. Adaptogens can calm you down and enhance your energy at the same time without overstimulating.
By supporting adrenal function, they can help counteract the adverse effects of stress and help maintain balance in the body. They support cells eliminate toxic byproducts of the metabolic process, access more energy, and utilize oxygen more efficiently.
4 adaptogens to try for stress & fatigue:
The following are four adaptogen herbs I consider most important. You can take these adaptogens individually or in a combination formula, but be sure to consult a doctor before you start taking them and pay attention to the cautions I've listed below.
For thousands of years, Asian Ginseng has been one of the most valued (and most expensive) medicinal plants in the world.
It has been studied extensively for its ability to help the body withstand stress and is believed to influence metabolism within individual cells. Western herbalists also say that it helps maintain the body’s normal immune response and supports the growth of normal cells.
- Recommended dose: 100 to 200 mg per day of a standardized extract (most standardized ginseng extracts supply approximately 4 to 7% ginsenosides) or 1 to 2 grams per day of the dried, powdered root, usually taken in gelatin capsules.
- Caution: Ginseng is generally safe at the recommended dose, but occasionally it may cause agitation, palpitations or insomnia. Consuming large amounts of caffeine with large amounts of ginseng may increase the risk of overstimulation and gastrointestinal upset. If you have high blood pressure, your blood pressure should be monitored when taking it. Ginseng is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Eleuthero is used in traditional Chinese medicine for muscle spasms, joint pain, sleep issues, and fatigue. In Germany, its use is approved for chronic fatigue syndrome, impaired concentration, and illness recovery. Anecdotally, users claim that it can also enhance memory, mood, and feelings of well-being.
- Recommended dose: 2 to 3 grams per day of the dried root.
- Caution: As with Asian Ginseng, Eleuthero is generally safe, but has occasionally been associated with agitation, palpitations, or insomnia in patients with cardiovascular disorders. If you have high blood pressure, your blood pressure should be monitored when taking it. I generally don’t recommend it for pregnant or breastfeeding women, even though limited research shows no evidence of harmful effects on the fetus.
Today, herbalists often recommend it for people with sleep problems, fatigue, and impotence associated with stress or exhaustion. It's been shown to enhance endocrine function1, especially in the thyroid and adrenals. Ayurvedic healers have long prescribed the herb for exhaustion brought on by both physical and mental strain.
- Recommended dose: 3 to 6 grams per day of the dried root
- Caution: Avoid if you're pregnant, taking sedatives, or have severe gastric irritation or ulcers. People who are sensitive to the nightshade group of plants (i.e. potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers) should be careful when taking Ashwagandha as well.
- Recommended dose: 100 to 600 mg per day of a Rhodiola rosea
- Caution: Avoid if you have manic depression or are bipolar. Rhodiola is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Although it’s unusual, rhodiola can cause insomnia at high doses.
The bottom line:
When incorporated into a healthy routine, research shows that some adaptogens can help people better handle stress and fatigue. The four adaptogens that I usually recommend for this purpose are Asian Ginseng, Eleuthero, Ashwagandha, and Rhodiola Rosea, but you should always check in with your doctor before starting with any new herbal medicines.
For Dr. Frank Lipman, health is more than just the absence of disease: it is a total state of physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social wellbeing. Dr. Lipman is a widely recognized trailblazer and leader in functional and integrative medicine, and he is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, How to Be Well, The New Health Rules, Young and Slim for Life, Revive and Total Renewal.
After his initial medical training in his native South Africa, Lipman spent 18 months working at clinics in the bush. He became familiar with the local traditional healers, called sangomas, which kindled his interest in non-Western healing modalities
In 1984, Lipman immigrated to the United States, where he became the chief medical resident at Lincoln Hospital in Bronx, NY. While there, he became fascinated by the hospital’s addiction clinic, which used acupuncture and Chinese medicine making him even more aware of the potential of implementing non-Western medicine to promote holistic wellbeing.
He began studying nutrition, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, herbal medicine, functional medicine, biofeedback, meditation, and yoga. Lipman founded the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in 1992, where he combines the best of Western medicine and cutting edge nutritional science with age-old healing techniques from the East. As his patient, chef Seamus Mullen, told The New York Times, “If antibiotics are right, he’ll try it. If it’s an anti-inflammatory diet, he’ll do that. He’s looking at the body as a system rather than looking at isolated things.”
In addition to his practice, he is also an instructor in mbg's Functional Nutrition Program.