Okay, so what are adaptogens, exactly? This word is buzzing around the health & wellness world, but it feels like most folks have an elusive understanding of what adaptogens really are. First, we have to talk about why they are getting so much hype. 

Today’s world is filled with to-do lists, appointments, social-media, and a never-ending slew of emails. Not to mention the kids! On top of all the tasks, many of you also have little ones to care for. Which really means more to-do’s and less time to yourself. 

Sigh. How are you supposed to keep up? This is where adaptogens come into the picture. Adaptogens are herbs that help your body adapt to stress through supporting balance within the stress-hormone and neurotransmitter production.1 The key word here is adapt. I think our shallow understanding of adaptogens comes from a misunderstanding in wording–or perhaps a little hopeful thinking. 

We all want a quick fix to feel less stressed, but the reality is that we have to work to create more balance. This is exactly what adaptogens help your body do. These herbs don’t erase stress from the equation. What they do is much more complex. Over time, they help our bodies experience stress in a different way. Adaptogens are often referred to as “modulating,” for their ability to increase or decrease stress-hormone levels based on what the body needs.1 Pretty cool, huh? 

Rather than being categorized by a plant family, or chemical constituents, they are classified by a list of actions. That is, Adaptogens are herbs that: 

● are fairly non-toxic/safe to use 

● have a modulating effect within the body, helping to strike balance 

● tend to benefit an array of body systems 

● may work on the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) to result in changes to your body’s stress response1 

Overall, these herbs help you feel less stressed, and less run down. There are different categories of adaptogens, which this blog will explore in detail. 

Calming Adaptogens

These adaptogens help ease anxiety and offer a calming effect. They are not the same as nervine-sedatives, which can result in drowsiness that isn’t ideal during the day. These herbs tend to be more gentle than energizing adaptogens, offering subtle support to the nervous system. CHECK OUT OUR BULK HERB OPTIONS HERE

Holy Basil/Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum, O. tenuiflorum

Habitat: Tulsi is native to India, and has grown well in Mediterranean climates for centuries. While it does best in warm, sunny, moist climates, it can also grow in temperate zones. It prefers full sun, with moist soil that is well-drained. 

Energetics: warm, pungent, sweet 

Historical Use: This plant has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 5,000 years. It is Sacred to Hinduism and can be found growing in pots around temples. There are even instances where Tulsi will have its own altar which individuals can pray at, and/or leave offerings. It is often thought of as a bridge between heaven and Earth, and is thus given to individuals on their deathbed to help guide their soul.2 Tulsi’s spiritual qualities lend it towards use for offering inspiration, hope, and quelling hopelessness. Traditionally, it is used by mixing the powdered root with ghee, or as a decoction for bug bites, malarial fever, and to help increase sexual stamina. The seeds have been used in combination with milk, water, or juice for low energy and digestive strife. It has many historical uses in Ayurvedic medicine. It is revered for its support in immunity, infections, digestion, and inflammation.2 

Western Therapeutics: In Western medicine, Tulsi can be used for respiratory support, immune support, and as a cardiovascular tonic. It can also be used to help protect against viral, fungal, and bacterial infection. But Tulsi’s most common Western use is for calming, energizing, and quieting anxiety. It can help combat mental fog and general exhaustion through its cortisol and blood-sugar balancing qualities.1 

How to Use: While Tulsi has a variety of uses, it is most favorably prepared as a tea. It’s aromatic, peaceful scent makes it perfect for a warm, calming beverage. 


Steep 1 tsp of loose leaf tea in 8oz of water (purified if available) for at least 5 minutes. Enjoy this beverage in the evening, when you can fully embrace its relaxing benefits. 

Contraindications: Tulsi is generally safe, but those that are pregnant or trying to conceive should refrain from use without professional guidance. 

Reishi, Ganoderma lucidum 

Energetics: mildly warm, sweet 

Historical Use: Reishi is widely known as the “mushroom of immortality,”1 and has been traditionally used to enhance longevity and vitality in Chinese medicine. Its use dates back to 200 BC in Traditional Chinese Medicine texts. It has a record of being used for cancer, fatigue, and lung deficiency, among many other applications.3 

Western Therapeutics: Western practices recognize reishi as an immune tonic, inflammation support, and respiratory support.4 Much like other edible/medicinal mushrooms, reishi is high in

complex starches–specifically glucans–which the body interprets as a threat. This sounds spooky, but since these starches aren’t a real threat, the immune system gets low-stakes “training” on how to respond to something more serious. An added bonus is that this reaction can also draw attention away from allergies or inflammatory immune response.1 Reishi also supports lung structure and function, helps to cope with fatigue, and may support brain function. It is slow building, meaning that balance is achieved over time. This medicinal mushroom is also known for boosting energy, vitality, and promoting a sense of ease. Its calming quality is thought to promote restful sleep. Because of its support on both the nervous and immune systems, it shows promise in assisting with recovery from illness.3 

How to Use: The entire fruiting body of reishi can be taken as a decoction, dried in capsules, or as a double fluid extraction. 

Contraindications: While reishi is generally safe, there is some room for caution when using with mold-sensitive individuals.4It may also be good to pay attention to potential interaction if someone is taking immunosuppressive pharmaceuticals.3 Should any issues arise, discontinue use. 

Balancing Adaptogens

These herbs offer a calming, yet uplifting effect. They offer support for a range of conditions and are generally well-tolerated. Balancing Adaptogens offer subtle, balanced support for stress response, and many of them have side-benefits which should not be overlooked. CHECK OUT OUR BULK HERB OPTIONS HERE

Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera 

Habitat: native to India, Middle East, & Africa. This shrubby plant grows in zones 3-10 with a preference for full sun, and fairly dry soil. 

Energetics: warm, sweet, bitter 

Historical Use: Though Western Herbalism cautions against use during pregnancy, Ayurvedic medicine touts this herb as pregnancy tonic. In Ayurveda, it is also used to help increase postpartum milk production by boiling fresh roots in milk–which is thought to reduce potential toxins.5 Ayurvedic medicine considers it a “rasayana” herb, meaning it enhances youth and vitality. In this system of healing, it is most commonly used for men, elderly, and those with “nervous debility.”6 The dried root and whole plant have record of use in multiple traditional medicine systems aside from Ayurveda. Such uses include, but are not limited to: memory support, sleep aid, rejuvenation tonic, and nervine tonic.6 

Western Therapeutics: Western practices recognize this herb as having energy building properties, helping combat sexual fatigue, enhancing focus, supporting fertility, and offering respite to inflamed joints.5 Studies on Ashwagandha show promise in supporting thyroid

function.1 This herb can also offer support for stress, anxiety, fatigue, immune deficiencies, and low libido. Ashwagandha also works to calm the nervous system and uplift the spirit.1 Because of its support in inflammation and stress, Ashwagandha could be helpful in dealing with the negative cycle between pain, mood, and stress. 

How to Use: This herb is best used dried, either in powder, or sliced. It is most traditionally simmered in milk. 

Here is a yummy recipe for Adaptogenic Golden Milk

Contraindications: Western medicine indicates that aerial parts contain potentially toxic compounds. Drying the root can reduce potential side-effects.5 Consider additional cautions against use with pregnancy–seek professional guidance for continued use. It is also important to know that this herb is in the Solanacea family, and thus should be avoided if there is a known nightshade allergy. 

Stimulating Adaptogens

Alas, our third and final adaptogen category. Stimulating adaptogens give the strongest mental and physical energetic boost. They are worth considering when you’re feeling deeply depleted, as they tend to have a less subtle effect than the above options. 

Combining them with calming herbs generally softens their stimulating nature. These herbs are best taken in the morning, so as not to interfere with sleep. Use caution if dealing with extreme overstimulation, heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, hypertension, and mania.1It’s always best to start with smaller doses with these herbs….you can always build up later or when needed. CHECK OUT OUR BULK HERB OPTIONS HERE

American Ginseng, Panax quinquefolium 

Habitat: Native growth in Northern to Eastern Canada. This plant prefers rich soils and full shade in deciduous woodlands. 

Energetics: sweet, bitter, moist, mildly cooling 

Historical Use: This herb has been well sought after in the United States for several centuries. Fur trader Daniel Boone made most of his money on harvesting and selling this herb amongst the wealthy elite. Much of his harvest was shipped to China to keep up with high cultural demands for ginseng.7 This plant was primarily used to enhance male libido and performance as well as alleviate fatigue. American ginseng has a long list of uses in Appalachia, and is most traditionally prepared as a folk tincture. A shot of this preparation taken every so often is thought to be “good for what ails you.”7In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ginseng species have been revered for enhancing whole body balance, vitality, libido/fertility, and immunity.1

Western Therapeutics: American ginseng is seen as a mild nervous system stimulant and is used for chronic fatigue, jet lag, and overall energy.7It can help modulate the immune system, balance adrenal function, and support the endocrine system. It’s also useful for chronic colds, allergies, asthma, jet lag, chronic fatigue, digestion support,7 as well as demonstrating ability to 

protect the liver and support blood sugar balance.1 

How to Use: American Ginseng root can be taken as a tea, dried, or even used in recipes. Some folks in Appalachia still chew on the root for on-the-go support. 

Try adding 30g of dried root to Elaine Sheff’s Immune Soup Recipe. 

Contraindications: This herb takes 7 years to grow to a mature, harvest-able state. What’s more is that Ginseng spp. have a historically high demand in Chinese medicine, with a history of over-use. For these reasons, avoid using “wild ginseng.” High doses may interfere with warfarin.7 

Eleuthero, Eleutherococcus senticosus 

Habitat: Native to Northern and Eastern Russia along with Northern China. Energetics: warm, sweet, pungent 

Historical Use: The leaf of Eleuthero has been used as a poultice for anti-inflammatory purposes by Taiga region inhabitants of Siberia. It is revered for its ability to increase resistance to infection, increase stamina in harsh conditions, and enhance resiliency. It wasn’t until 1950 that this became more widely used/known throughout Russia.8 

Western Therapeutics: Eleuthero is perhaps the most well-researched herb in western medicine. There are over 3,000 studies published on this herb, which has been researched on divers, miners, athletes, factory workers, train conductors and cosmonauts.8It is hailed as being energy building, stress relieving, and having a strong ability to balance response to physical and mental stress. It shows strength in offering resiliency in extreme temperatures, overworking conditions, and alleviating performance anxiety in athletes and academics alike. Eleuthero offers whole body stress support, in an energizing, yet sustaining way. This herb can also be used to stimulate concentration. 

How to Use: The root can be used dried, as a liquid extract, or as a tea. 

We have a delicious recipe for an Eleuthero Electuary Chai that you will love to try. 

Contraindications: Eleuthero may increase blood pressure in high doses, but is seen to have a more modulating effect in lower doses.8 High doses/overdose can also cause drowsiness and

temporary flush in the face and chest. It is recommended to decrease dose or discontinue use altogether if this occurs.5 

Rhodiola, Rodiola rosea 

Habitat: native to Southwest China, and the Himalayas. It prefers dry, sandy growing conditions and grows in high altitudes in arctic climates. 

Energetics: sweet, bitter, warm, pungent, dry 

Historical: Individuals in Siberia are known to make a folk tincture using vodka. The extraction is used for vitality and longevity.1In Russia and Scandinavia, this herb has also been used to enhance work productivity. Vikings used it to build strength and endurance, and Mongolian doctors used it for tuberculosis and cancer treatment. This herb is still gifted to newlywed couples in alpine Siberian villages. It is received in a bouquet as a promise of fertility and vibrancy in life.9 

Western Therapeutics: Rhodiola is newer to the Western medicine scene, but has gained increasing popularity. It can help with cellular energy, focus, memory, mental stamina, and brain fog. It supports and protects overall brain function and is also thought to alleviate exam stress. Unlike other adaptogenic herbs, it acts quickly within the body.1 Additionally, this herb can enhance productivity, aid with altitude sickness, and help quell anxiety.5 

How to Use: the root of rhodiola can be taken as a tea, dried, or in tincture form. For more traditional use, consider making your own folk tincture using these instructions from Mountain Rose Herbs.


  1. Groves, M. N. (2016). Body Into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self-Care. Storey Publishing, LLC.
  2. Hayes, R. (n.d.). Tulsi Monograph — HerbRally. HerbRally. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.herbrally.com/monographs/tulsi-rh
  3. Reishi Monograph — HerbRally. (n.d.). HerbRally. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.herbrally.com/monographs/reishi-mushroom
  4. Tierra, L. (2003). Healing with the Herbs of Life: Hundreds of Herbal Remedies, Therapies, and Preparations. Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed.
  5. Cech, R. (2000). Making Plant Medicine. Herbal Reads LLC.
  6. Ashwagandha. (n.d.). American Botanical Council. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/99/table-of-contents/hg99-herbprofile-ashwagandha/
  7. Winston, D., & Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief (2nd ed.). Healing Arts Press. https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/31806083/9781594771583_salesext-libre.pdf?1392365581=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DAdaptogens_Herbs_for_Strength_Stamina_an.pdf&Expires=1677200307&Signature=KF8dUDP34GfBD0-hrgYsLnjBLF9Xes3jHUBlamWx
  8. Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism: Eleutherococcus senticosus monograph. (2013). Healing Arts Press. http://adaptogensbook.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Eleuthero-monograph-excerpt-AMH-D.R.Yance-2013.pdf
  9. ., R. P., Brown, R. P., Gerbarg, P. L., & Ramazanov, Z. (n.d.). Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview. American Botanical Council. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/56/table-of-contents/article2333/

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