a pair of hands holding reishi mushrooms that are gold brown and tan bands shiny in appearance

What is an adaptogen, really?


What are they? Where did they come from?

You've likely heard of some popular herbs like ashwagandha, maca, reishi etc., but what specifically makes them adaptogenic and why are we hearing about them so much right now? Adaptogens are what help the body to adapt to both psychological and environmental stress. Some potent adaptogenic powers lie within medicinal mushrooms, which is one of the reasons that we are so excited about them.

What is an Adaptogen?

Adaptogens are a unique class of herbs (and fungi) that remarkably help the body adapt to stress, support normal metabolic function and help restore equilibrium in the body. They increase the body's resistance to physical, biological, emotional and environmental stressors and help boost our defence response to acute and chronic stress.


Herbs have been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic healing practices. However it wasn't until 1946 that Dr. Nikolai Lazarev started researching these natural chemical compounds, and in 1957 he proposed the concept of 'adaptogenic herbs that could increase the state of nonspecific resistance to stress.'

In 1968, adaptogens were given a formal, functional definition: 

  1. An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient in normal therapeutic doses

  2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific state of resistance to stress --  therefore, it allows the body to more effectively resist a wide range of stressors including physiological, biological, or chemical insults

  3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, regardless of the pathology

  4. The deeper the pathological** changes in the body, the greater the effect of the adaptogen is pronounced 

** pathology: the cause and effects of disease/injury **

A defining feature of adaptogens is that they are non-specific and work independently of the specific imbalance in the body. This means that these compounds can target multiple functions in the body, and “adapt” to what the body needs in a particular moment. They are functional remedies that respond dynamically with the state of our physiology moment to moment. For example, when we are fatigued, adaptogens give us energy. When we are overly stimulated, adaptogens calm us down.

How do they work?

They work by having a protective effect on our innate stress response - the one we are all born with that allows us to not succumb to disease just because we are running a race or have a deadline due. In order to understand how adaptogens work we need to understand a little bit about stress, homeostasis, the hormonal stress response, and the HPA axis.

Stress can be thought of as any stimulus that disturbs the body’s homeostasis. Homeostasis is our body's state of internal balance. We are said to be in homeostasis when all of our physiological systems are in a dynamic equilibrium with each other that leads to optimal functioning. The stimulus, or stressor, that causes an imbalance in this equilibrium can be mental or physical, a real threat or a perceived threat. Our bodies respond to stressors in a non-specific way by triggering the release of stress hormones that activate a well-orchestrated internal resistance system. This hormonal stress response includes physiological changes that allow us to fight the stressor, resist the stressor and ultimately return us to homeostasis. 

Our bodies go through 3 stages of the stress response before returning to homeostasis: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. It turns out that adaptogens help reduce the negative reactions during the alarm phase, and help us stay in the resistance phase longer via a stimulating effect that eliminates or at least decreases the onset of the exhaustion phase.

The HPA axis is a major neuroendocrine system that controls stress response. It is called a neuroendocrine system because it is composed of both the nervous system (the brain) and the endocrine system (glands that secrete hormones into the blood). The HPA axis is made up of the hypothalamus, the pituitary glands, and the adrenal glands.

*The HPA axis also regulates many other body processes including cognitive function, digestion, the immune system, moods and emotions, sexuality, and energy storage and expenditure.*

When a stressor comes along, the hypothalamus in the brain is activated. The hypothalamus acts as the command centre of the stress response and signals through the nervous system to the pituitary glands and the adrenal glands to start the production of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. A cascade of hormones in the body activates important physiological changes that act to keep the body alert including increasing heart rate and blood pressure, oxygen intake, and blood sugar, while suppressing the immune system, digestive system, and reproduction system so that the energy in the body is available for fight or flight. The system will self-regulate: when cortisol levels get high enough it signals to the brain to stop the response and the hormone levels will return to normal, restoring homeostasis. The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can lead to a disruption of almost all of our body’s processes increasing the risk for various health problems. Chronic stress can also lead to adrenal fatigue whereby the adrenal glands are overworked and become depleted, unable to produce cortisol efficiently anymore.

Adaptogens work via the HPA Axis

Adaptogens mainly function by affecting the HPA axis. These natural substances contain chemical structures similar to mediators of both the activation and inactivation of the stress response system. Studies have shown that they can maintain and/or help recover homeostasis when the body is exposed to stressors. Adaptogens can strengthen the functioning of each of the body’s systems in order to promote an optimal stress response, promote recovery of function, and help supply the body with a steady supply of energy by regulating hormone expression and enhancing cellular energy transfer. They can increase the effectiveness of adrenal gland secretion thereby avoiding excess cortisol production and adrenal fatigue. 

(image adapted from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/pdf/pharmaceuticals-03-00188.pdf)

Research shows us that adaptogens exert an influence on our bodies not just at the organ level by regulating hormones in the blood but also at the cellular level by regulating key mediators inside the cell involved in the cellular stress response (think: heat shock proteins, cortisol production, stress-hormone cellular receptor function). Adaptogens are shown to activate the protective mechanisms of cells, which is linked not only to stress protection but also to increased longevity!

We can think of adaptogens as mini stress vaccines. Research has shown that adaptogens induce a mild activation of the stress system, which in turn adapts both the cell and the body as a whole to mitigate more severe stress when it comes along. 

Adaptogens can Help Regulate Endocrine, Nervous System, Immune, Digestive and Cardiovascular Function

Clinical evidence 

The stress-protection effect is common to all adaptogens, however the effects may differ under various circumstances depending on what the body needs in order to remain in homeostasis. Adaptogens have a normalizing influence on the body’s physiology regardless of the type of imbalance. Studies have seen that adaptogens primarily regulate the endocrine, nervous and immune systems while secondarily regulating the digestive and cardiovascular systems.

Some of the most convincing clinical evidence of the efficacy of adaptogens is seen in their neuro-protective effects. Studies have shown that taking adaptogens can enhance cognitive function, mood in depressive disorders, and mental performance in fatigue settings. Adaptogens appear to have a stimulating effect in the brain.

Well-Researched Adaptogens:

American Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Asian Ginseng, Cordyceps medicinal mushroom, Eluethero, Rhodioloa, Schisandra, Shilajit

Probable Adaptogens:

Holy Basil, Shatavari

Possible Adaptogens:

Maca, Reishi medicinal mushroom, Codonopsis

a pair of hands holding shiny reishi mushrooms on the right. on the left is a close up of the edge of reishi mushroom. reishi is orange, brown and tan coloured bands


Ling zhi, reishi's Chinese name, translates as "spirit plant," and this mushroom has a long history of use in Chinese medicine. Traditionally it is used to nourish the Chinese heart, which stores shen. The term shen usually is translated as "spirit," though that term is frequently misunderstood by non-Chinese speakers. Shen is a person's mind/consciousness and his/her emotional balance. Disturbances of shen cause anxiety, insomnia, bad dreams, fatigue, weakness, moodiness, confusion, irritability, poor memory and others. Reishi may be used for individuals with these conditions, along with other adaptogenic or sedative herbs.

Research on the chemistry, pharmacology and therapeutic benefits of the reishi mushroom have shown that it's an immunomodulator capable of strengthening the immune system (enhancing monocyte, macrophage, and T-lymphocyte activity) and down-regulating excessive immune responses and allergies. Research suggests that Reishi's adaptogenic effects are mild and cumulative - that it may improve adrenal function and relieve stress. However, as with most natural remedies, more research is required.

Check out our Reishi tincture here!

More research needed

While there exists a wealth of literature indicating the promise of adaptogens as natural remedies for increasing the body’s resilience, more research is needed to elucidate the exact molecular mechanisms of action and the key active compounds in these complex herbs and fungi. 

Understanding our natural stress response and the compounds produced by nature that increase our adaptation to imbalance could lead to a deeper appreciation for these natural remedies, the human body, and the relationship that exists between our cellular function, our organ systems, and the compounds produced by the natural world that support us.

Word bank

innate, something we are born with.
homeostasis,  our body's state of internal balance. We are said to be in homeostasis when all of our physiological systems are in a dynamic equilibrium with each other that leads to optimal functioning. 
HPA axis, the organs that are part of the nervous system and the endocrine system that regulate the hormonal stress response in the body.
hypothalamus, a part of the brain that assess physical or mental stressors and controls the stress response.
pituitary gland, an endocrine structure in the brain that secretes signalling hormones to the adrenals in response to stimulation by the hypothalamus.
adrenal glands, endocrine glands that sit above the kidneys and produce both cortisol and adrenaline in response to the signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
cortisol, our body's main stress hormone - it regulates metabolism, inflammation, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, sleep/wake cycle, and energy
adrenal fatigue, when chronic stress results in depletion of adrenal function