Adaptogens and hormone health. What they are & how do they work?

Adaptogens and hormone health. What they are & how do they work?

And most importantly: Are they right for you?

Schisandra. Reishi. Rhodiola. Do any of these words make sense to you?

If they do, then congratulations: you’re down with the hottest health trend of 2018. Adaptogens!

But if you’re scratching your head, going…”adapto-what? Who is Reishi?” then, keep reading.

Adaptogens are all the rage right now, so we’re going to study how they affect hormone health – and if they’re really worth your money. Is there research to back up the health claims? Is it all hype? Let’s look at the science as it pertains to your endocrine (hormone) system, and then you can decide for yourself.


Simply put, adaptogens are special types of plants and mushrooms that regulate and balance the body’s response to stress. But let’s unpack exactly what we mean by “stress,” since it has such a negative connotation. We love this definition from Natural Products Insider:

“Though stress is often perceived as relating to mental and emotional well-being, stress can occur any time the body or mind is pushed beyond its “normal” measures, or any time the body or its processes are imbalanced. Athletes create physical stress when engaging in activities such as running, sprinting, weight training, etc. Physical and mental stress can result when sickness, such as a cold or flu, occurs. Bacteria can interfere with the skin or oral tissue, causing stress to the tissues. Improperly functioning adrenal glands can affect excretion of cortisol, pushing several processes within the body beyond normal function—another example of stress.”

So as you can see, we’re talking about a more expansive definition of stress here. Not just the my-boss-sucks, someone-cut-me-off-in-traffic kind, but the kind of stress your body feels after a hard workout, your mind has just experienced a digital overload (which is probably all of us, all of the time), or even after recovering from a cold.

In short: stress = being pushed.

Enter adaptogens: herbs that not only calm and soothe, but (in theory) help build a better stress response system over time, so that your cortisol levels don’t stay elevated.


Yes! This is where the hormone health component comes in.

As Dawn Jackson Blatner (Food & Nutrition Expert at Huffington Post) writes,  “Chronic stress elevates cortisol levels and other harmful stress compounds which can sabotage performance, disrupt focus, increase anxiety, decrease immunity and zap energy. Adaptogens work to regulate and balance stress to help overall well-being.”

So – you don’t want chronically elevated cortisol levels. But, what’s going on with your other hormones when cortisol comes into the picture?

We’ve written before on this blog about adrenal fatigue, but it’s worth revisiting here. When cortisol is released, it’s typically accompanied by adrenaline as well as DHEA. And these three have very specific jobs. As we wrote:

“Adrenaline makes your heart pound and pumps blood to your large muscle groups, cortisol gives you a quick jolt of energy, and DHEA helps you recover from these moments of stress. Think of DHEA  as the post-op nurse, coming in to supply you with care and calm after surgery.”

But adrenaline is like a bank account: it has a limit. And if you overdraw from it, consequences occur, the biggest being exhaustion. When your adrenal glands are too taxed, the most immediate sign is crazy fatigue, often followed by worsening menopause or perimenopause symptoms. As we also wrote:

“At the biochemical and cellular levels, alterations are taking place to help compensate for the decrease in adrenal hormones. Your body is trying to make up for under-functioning adrenal glands, but it’s doing so at a cost, and taking the rest of your hormonal system down with it. Adding insult to injury: your sex drive is gone! While sex can (and should) be a great stress reliever, isn’t it so frustrating when that, too, is seemingly robbed? Again: blame adrenal fatigue. DHEA and testosterone work in tandem to supply you with a healthy sex drive, but when those are suppressed, so is your desire.”

So stress creates a whole hormonal cascade, beginning with your cortisol and adrenaline function. When those two go into overdrive, your DHEA and testosterone get suppressed. Oh, and: insulin levels get out of whack in the face of chronic stress, which typically results in weight gain.

So when it comes to chronic stress – and again, not just the obvious bad kind, but the bigger, “pushed” kind – a whole host of hormonal problems can emerge.

Now, let’s see if adaptogens can step in and save the day.


The good news is that science is now showing that, yes, the claims around adaptogens are legit. Adaptogens could possibly offer some much-needed support to your hormone health, particularly when it comes to cortisol levels.

The bad news is that they can’t compensate for a poor lifestyle. The research is also showing that adaptogens aren’t a magic pill that can replace the basic foundations of health: sufficient sleep, a nutrient-filled diet, strong social relationships, regular exercise, and stress moderation tactics like meditation or basic relaxation.

So, that being said – let’s look at some of the most popular adaptogens, and identify what they can do.


One of the most popular adaptogens currently, ashwagandha is a mushroom whose effects on cortisol, stress tolerance and internal stress responses have been the subject of much current research. A 2012 double-blinded, randomized controlled trial of 64 subjects found that “Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.” Another study – this one from 2018 – found that ashwagandha successfully regulated thyroid levels in “subclinical thyroid patients.

You can find ashwagandha in capsule form, powder form, and liquid form, and as with all supplements, check for quality sourcing.


A berry that’s been used in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) for millenia, schisandra is just now starting to find its way into the US market. And as Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, writes, “It’s most well-known for boosting liver function and helping with adrenal functions to help prevent adrenal fatigue, but schisandra benefits go even further.”

A 2007 study in Sweden looked at the stress-protective effects of schisandra, as well as rhodiola and ginseng. Researchers determined that over a seven-day period, when rats were given frequent supplementation of these herbs, they experienced near-steady levels of cortisol despite increased amounts of stress. That’s partially because schisandra soothes the adrenal glands, and turns down the overproduction of stress hormones like cortisol.

You can find schisandra in pill or capsule form, but you can also ingest powdered or dried fruit extract (up to three grams daily).


Got fatigue? Rhodiola could be the herb for you. It’s been found to decrease cortisol response, boost energy and mood, and increase focus for people suffering with chronic fatigue.

A 2009 study of males and females aged between 20 and 55 years determined that “repeated administration of R. ROSEA extract SHR-5 [Rhodiola] exerts an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate, and decreases cortisol response to awakening stress in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome.”

Conclusion? We are just now starting to build up a western-style body of empirical evidence that confirms what other, more ancient cultures have observed for years: that certain herbs, roots, and mushrooms have protective functions that help humans’ response to stress. They aren’t a magic bullet, but if incorporated into an overall, health-supportive lifestyle, they could be the boost you need to build a more robust, less reactive stress response system. And that spells more vibrancy, more energy, better sleep and better looks.

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