In the world of health, there always seems to be something new just around the corner that everyone wants to try. While some of these trends are a flash in the pan, others have credibility and staying power—and it appears that adaptogens may fall under that category.
You’ve perhaps heard “adaptogens” as a buzzword, but what are they exactly? How do you use them? And can they help you sleep? Read on for insights from a doctor who’s an expert in natural treatments.
What are adaptogens?
Adaptogens are typically herbs or mushrooms that support the body by nourishing and strengthening its systems and mind, explains Stacy Mobley, licensed naturopathic doctor with a master’s degree in public health.
Some examples of mushrooms and adaptogenic herbs include ashwagandha, known to reduce stress and anxiety; rhodiola rosea, which can help alleviate mental and physical fatigue; cordyceps, a mushroom that reduces stress by increasing stamina; and schisandra berry, a type of berry juice that increases stamina, mental performance, and boosts endurance.
Mobley believes adaptogens have become popular recently because people are looking for answers to alleviate the increase in burnout, exhaustion, and fatigue they’re experiencing today.
Like many alternative forms of treatment, more research is needed—but Mobley says there have been a couple of promising studies.
For example, one 2010 study says adaptogens can foster “an anti-fatigue effect” and increase tolerance to mental exhaustion. A 2018 study calls adaptogens “elite herbal medicine” that plays “an important role in human health and helping the human body resist various stress factors,” adding that currently, their use in traditional medicine is “in the preliminary stage.”
What are the sleep and health benefits of adaptogens?
Many natural practitioners recommend adaptogens to their patients. Mobley lists the following potential benefits:
- Higher resilience to stressors
- Reduced inflammation
- Better heart health
- Better mental health (anxiety, depression, etc.)
- Reduced pain
- Healthy digestion (decreased chances of IBS, Chron’s flares, etc.)
- Immune support
- Increased mental clarity
- More energy
- Decreased autoimmune flares
- Better quality sleep
“Adaptogens absolutely help with sleep,” says Mobley—and it all stems from stress reduction.
Chronic or long-term stress lowers your immune system’s response—and it can affect sleep, explains Mobley. Here’s what’s going on: When your nervous system is within homeostasis, your body can function properly—but when it’s overly active, your body will choose to decrease any bodily function that it doesn’t feel is necessary to run from the “tiger” or “bear” that isn’t truly present.
“The body does not distinguish between a physical threat and a more mental or emotional threat,” says Mobley. “When your body is calm and not in a state of long-term stress, it can relax enough to sleep properly.”
The theory behind adaptogens is that they help your body, as their name implies, adapt to stress.
What are the best adaptogenic herbs for sleep?
First of all, keep in mind it’s best to work with an experienced naturopathic doctor or herbalist to select the best adaptogen for your particular health or sleep challenge. You should always speak with your primary care physician as well before adding any new supplement to your daily regimen.
Generally, adaptogenic herbs can be taken via capsules, teas, or tinctures (substances dissolved in water or alcohol). Most adaptogenic mushrooms, meanwhile, can be eaten as an ingredient in food. However, Mobley notes that to receive the potency needed to support the body through a stressful time, it’s best to take reishi mushrooms in tincture form from a quality source.
Mobley shares her top adaptogens to achieve quality sleep:
- Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that’s “excellent for sleeping,” she says, adding that it especially helps a person enter REM sleep. It can be taken through capsules, powders, or tinctures. “The dosage will vary by brand, so follow the instructions on the purchased bottle,” suggests Mobley.
- Rhodiola rosea is a “great long-term herb to support mental fatigue, in addition to physical fatigue,” says Mobley. Liquid capsules are best for this one, and the dosage will vary by brand, she adds.
- Lemon balm is a calming herb that helps with insomnia and anxiety. Mobley recommends lemon balm teas or tinctures.
- Cordyceps is a mushroom that decreases stress and boosts stamina. Mobley advises ingesting it as a dried powder or tincture, with dosages varying by brand. (Learn about maca root and its sleep benefits.)
Related: The best nootropics for sleep
There are times when adaptogens can have adverse side effects, which is why it’s so important to speak with your doctor before trying one. You’ll need to ensure there are no side effects with any health conditions you may have or any medications you’re taking.
For instance, Mobley says that while licorice root is “an amazing herbal adaptogen,” it’s not ideal for those with high blood pressure since it can increase blood pressure.
If you’d like to start taking adaptogens, they work best when used consistently. “As with most herbs, the best effects are experienced when it builds in the person’s system,” says Mobley.
And like any healthy habit, adaptogens work even better when paired with other beneficial practices. Mobley concludes by saying that one should “adjust their eating habits, add or increase the use of stress relievers, and create healthy boundaries to support the adaptogen’s effects.”
To help you unwind before bed, we’ve put together this list of the most relaxing nighttime activities.