How To Know Which Adaptogen Is Best For You (Because Dang, They're Expensive)
The word "adaptogen" is used to describe plant medicines that have a balancing effect on something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis1, which helps regulate the delicate dance between your brain and hormone system.
The HPA plays a role in everything from your mood and metabolism to energy and sex drive and when it's unbalanced, it can lead to health issues like adrenal fatigue, thyroid issues, and low libido.
In addition to helping balance out this important axis, adaptogens can have other beneficial effects on different body properties.
Here are the adaptogens I recommend to my patients based on their health needs. (Keep in mind that using the wrong adaptogens for your individual needs can be, at best, expensive, and, at worst, harmful for your body. Always talk to your doctor before adding new ones to your routine.)
The best adaptogens for different health needs:
- Best for hair and nails: Chaga, cordyceps, jiaogulan
- Best for stress: Rhodiola, mucuna pruriens, ashwagandha
- Best for fatigue: Ginseng, maca
- Best for sex drive: Shilajit
- Best for brain fog: Holy basil, rhaponticum
- Best for immunity: Maca, chaga, turkey tail, ashwagandha
- Best for anxiety: Lion’s mane, ashwagandha
- Best for blood sugar: Reishi
- Best for digestion: Holy basil, licorice root
Hair, nails, and complexion:
- Chaga: This superfood mushroom is loaded with antioxidants2 that help fight free radicals to keep skin youthful.
- Cordyceps: This mushroom is also high in antioxidants and it decreased the pro-inflammatory monoamine oxidase and lipid peroxidation activity3 (which causes signs of aging) in one study on mice.
- Jiaogulan: Consuming this adaptogen may help your body increase its production of superoxide dismutase—an enzyme that protects your cells against premature destruction and aging4.
- Rhodiola: This herb can help manage stress levels in the body as well as fight fatigue5. One clinical study also linked it to improved endurance6 during prolonged period of exercise.
- Mucuna pruriens: This bean extract is packed with L-DOPA—the precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine7—making it an effective mood booster.
- Ashwagandha: Since ashwagandha has the ability to help regulate levels of cortisol8, it's a powerful tool to have on hand during stressful times.
- Ginseng: Asian white, American white, Asian red, and Siberian (Eleuthero) all can help boost energy without the caffeine jitters.
- Maca: This herb is available in three different varieties: red, yellow, and black. Red is the sweetest but most mild tasting. Yellow is the least sweet, and black is right in the middle. They all are energy boosters, too.
- Shilajit: This herb is used in Ayurvedic medicine and translates to "conqueror of mountains and destroyer of weakness." Shilajit helps to support a healthy libido and balance sex hormones.
- Holy basil (Tulsi): Start incorporating this into your wellness routine if you struggle with occasional brain fog, as it's been shown to enhance cognitive function9.
- Rhaponticum: Some animal studies10 have shown that this root can also stimulate brain activity.
- Maca: Packed with vitamin C11, maca can help support immune health.
- Chaga: Studies have shown this mushroom12 to have powerful antiviral effects as well as immune-supporting properties.
- Turkey tail: When consumed daily, turkey tail has been shown to improve immune function.
- Ashwagandha: This one is traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to help support the immune system13 after sickness.
- Lion’s mane: Studies have shown14 that the consumption of lion’s mane can help reduce anxiousness.
- Ashwagandha: Taking ashwagandha has been shown to reduce anxiety by up to 44 percent in some trials.
Blood sugar balance:
- Reishi: This mushroom helps to support healthy blood sugar levels by down-regulating alpha-glucosidase15, the enzyme responsible for breaking down starches into sugars.
- Holy basil (tulsi): This little guy works hard to reduce occasional bloating and gas.
- Licorice root: This has been used for years as a common remedy to help gut discomfort since it's both soothing and anti-inflammatory.
The bottom line:
There are many different types of adaptogens out there, and some work better than others. This is my list of the top adaptogens to support various aspects of health, but always ask your doctor before adding these plant medicines to your routine.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian,The Inflammation Spectrum, and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.