The Top 5 Adaptogenic Herbs to Relieve Stress

Written by Tim Skwiat, MEd, CSCS, Pn2

Adaptogenic Herbs for Stress

Take a minute to ask anyone—including yourself—how they’re doing. Chances are you’ll hear words like “busy,” ”rushed,” or “swamped.” You know the drill; these are just ways folks communicate that they’re stressed. Stress is ubiquitous, and for most people, it serves as the backdrop of their lives. A mentor of mine has referred to stress as the “wallpaper of the 21st century.”

Many people celebrate stress and pride themselves on being busy. In fact, a good deal of folks would tell you they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they weren’t so busy. Ah, stress…what a bugger. Stress isn’t bad; in fact, just like the Goldilocks Principle tells us, we need just the right amount to thrive. Too little can be just as harmful and impairing as too much.

By and large, however, most people have too much on their plates (even if it’s just a matter of perception). And too much stress can do quite a number on:

• Mood and feelings of wellbeing
• Decision making and creativity
• Brain health and memory formation
• Weight management
• Eating behaviors
• Sleep
• Recovery and athletic performance
• Immunity
• Relationships
• Gut health
• Digestion
• Blood pressure and heart health
• Carb tolerance and insulin sensitivity
• Skin health
• Aging
• Muscle tension
• Sexual function and libido


That’s right, too much stress for too long can adversely affect virtually every aspect of your life. That’s why practicing stress-management tactics—like setting boundaries, practicing yoga, meditating, taking a walk, exercising, breathing deeply and slowly—are priceless for protecting you and your valuable, limited resources.

On top of that, making sure you’re getting plenty of restorative sleep, properly aligning your circadian rhythms, and eating the right foods in the right amounts at the right times are all important factors in keeping your stress levels in check.

Does all of that stress you out? Yeah, me too. Wouldn’t it be easier to just take a “chill pill”?

Adaptogenic Herbs and Stress

Believe it or not, herbalists have been keen on using certain herbs for quite some time to help regulate stress. They refer to these herbs as “adaptogens,” which essentially support the body’s ability to “adapt” ideally to its environment. Adaptogenic Herbs are thought to have very unique bimodal functions, either providing a stimulant effect or relaxing effect depending on the needs of the individual in a specific situation.

The term “adaptogen” is applied to an herb with phytonutrients that regulate metabolism when a body is perturbed by physical or mental stress and help the body adapt by: 1. Normalizing system functions; 2. Developing resistance to future such stress; and 3. Elevating the body’s functioning to a higher level of performance.1

Ideally, an adaptogenic herbs should: a) decrease stress-induced damage, b) be safe and produce a beneficial effect even if the number of administrations is more than required, c) be devoid of any negative effects such as withdrawal syndromes, and d) not influence the normal body functions more than necessary.2

In other words, adaptogenic herbs are used to strengthen the body’s immune response and increase an individual’s ability to cope with physical and mental stress. That is, adaptogens help shift the body toward balance.3

Adaptogens are typically used for stress relief, brain health, and adrenal health, and they have been shown to improve health in a variety of ways:3

  • Reduce fatigue
  • Regain or improve athletic performance
  • Regain or improve mental acuity
  • Improve appetite control
  • Improve sleep quality
  • Improve mood
  • Increase resistance to infection

There are several members of the adaptogenic herbs family, and here are some of the most popular and effective.

The Top 5 Herbs for Stress

1. Ashwagandha

Also known as Withania somnifera, Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub found in the arid parts of India. Ashwagandha literally means “smell of horse,” which is in part because it’s commonly believed that it can help develop strength and vitality similar to that of a horse.4

Referred to as a “royal herb” because of its well-known rejuvenating effects, Ashwagandha has been shown to combat stress, promote health and longevity, slow the aging process, revitalize the body, improve feelings of wellbeing, increase resilience and stress tolerance, improve sexual function, increase muscle mass and muscular strength, and boost endurance. Overall, Ashwagandha is one of my favorite adaptogenic herbs, and I prefer to use the multi-patented, all-natural Ashwagandha extract called Sensoril®.

Sensoril® contains the highest, most potent levels of stress-fighting, cognitive-enhancing bioactive constituents, and it has been shown to support stress reduction; promote energy levels, mental acuity, and concentration; support cardiovascular health; support healthy weight management; and promote more restful sleep. That’s why Ageless Body®, which contains Sensoril®, is a staple in my supplement arsenal.

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2. Rhodiola rosea

Rhodiola, also known as golden root, is used in Russia to combat fatigue, ward off sickness, and improve mood. Rhodiola’s most popular applications include relieving fatigue and improving concentration, memory, and productivity.1 Several studies have shown that supplementation with Rhodiola can:

  • Stimulate focus and cognitive function
  • Calm emotions
  • Enhance learning
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Improve sleep
  • Reduce irritability
  • Increase strength
  • Increase quantity and quality of work
  • Improve mental and physical performance
  • Improve feelings of wellbeing

Overall, Rhodiola is considered “an excellent choice for individuals who are weighed down by stress and fatigue as a result of demanding intellectual work.”1

While most Rhodiola supplements contain 3% Rosavins and 1% Salidrosides (the “active” components of the adaptogen), I prefer RhodiolaMax™, which contains 5% Rosavins and 2% Salidrosides. RhodiolaMax™ can be found only in Brain Bright®.

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3. Magnolia and Phellodendron

Magnolia (Magnolia officinalis) and Phellodendron (Phellodendron amurense) are adaptogenic herbs commonly used for reducing stress and anxiety. Research has shown that the combination of Magnolia and Phellodendron both reduces exposure to the stress hormone cortisol as well as the perception of stress and anxiety.

What’s more, this combo of adaptogenic herbs has been shown to improve weight loss in folks inclined to stress-related eating. In one recent study, participants using Magnolia and Phellodendron for 4 weeks had significantly lower cortisol levels compared to a placebo. What’s more, the folks using the adaptogens also reported more energy and better mood states, including less perceived stress, tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion.6

4. Ginseng

Ginseng is one of the most well-known adaptogenic herbs. In fact, Ashwagandha is often referred to as Indian ginseng. Along those lines, there are multiple types of ginseng. In this section, I’ll be referring to Asian ginseng, which also goes by the name Panax ginseng.

Asian ginseng is considered one of the most stimulating adaptogens, and several studies have demonstrated that Asian ginseng can enhance physical performance. What’s more, research has shown it may have a benefit on physical and mental fatigue, reaction time, and abstract thinking. Asian ginseng also has a reputation as a libido-enhancer.1

5. Eleuthero

Eleuthero, sometimes mistakenly referred to as Siberian ginseng (a name that was dropped because eleuthero is not really a member of the ginseng family), is a shrub or small tree native to central eastern Asia. Traditionally, eleuthero has been used to increase vitality and energy, improve quality of sleep, improve appetite control, and help manage activity-related flare-ups.

Eleuthero is arguably the most well-known and well-researched adaptogenic herbs, and it is often referred to as the “king” adaptogen. These predominantly Russian studies show that it can enhance:

  • Mental alertness
  • Mental acuity
  • Work output
  • Work quality
  • Athletic performance
  • Physical endurance
  • Exercise capacity
  • Recovery from stress
  • Circadian rhythms
  • Energy and vitality

Generally speaking, eleuthero is often a good choice for younger individuals as well as athletes.

Take a Chill Pill

Stress is ubiquitous. It’s inevitable. The irony is that we need it to get better in any domain in our lives. The conundrum is that most of us experience a bit too much of it—well, at least we perceive that we do. So, if you want to help your body best cope with and adapt to stress—whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional—you might find that the adaptogenic herbs, which give a whole new meaning to “chill pill,” discussed above might provide the subtle advantage you need to thrive.

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References

  • 1. Abascal K, Yarnell E. Increasing vitality with adaptogens: multifaceted herbs for treating physical and mental stress. Altern Complement Ther. 2003;9(2):54-60. doi:10.1089/107628003321536959.
  • 2. Panossian A, Wikman G. Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. Curr Clin Pharmacol. 2009;4(3):198-219.
  • 3. Seely D, Singh R. Adaptogenic potential of a polyherbal natural health product: report on a longitudinal clinical trial. Evid-Based Complement Altern Med ECAM. 2007;4(3):375-380. doi:10.1093/ecam/nel101.
  • 4. 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.
  • 5. Auddy B, Hazra J, Mitra A, Abedon B, Ghosal S. A standardized Withania somnifera extract significantly reduces stress-related parameters in chronically stressed humans: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. JANA. 2008;11(1):50-56.
  • 6. Talbott SM, Talbott JA, Pugh M. Effect of Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense (Relora®) on cortisol and psychological mood state in moderately stressed subjects. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10(1):37. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-37.