What are adaptogens and how are mushrooms adaptogenic?

By Joanna Maja Niemczycka

What are adaptogens and how are mushrooms adaptogenic?

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are a class of natural substances traditionally used in herbal medicine to help the body adapt to different stressors. Modern adaptogens are non-toxic substances that increase resistance to stress and promote homeostasis. They are believed to work by modulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which plays a crucial role in the body's response to stress (1).

Adaptogens were introduced by the Russian scientist Nikolai V. Lazarev in the 1940s. However, it was not until the 1960s that the term "adaptogen" was coined by Soviet pharmacologist Israel I. Brekhman and his colleague I.V. Dardymov. They defined adaptogens as "substances that increase the state of nonspecific resistance to stress, a physiological state that enables the organism to counteract adverse stressors and normalize body functions" (2).

Since then, adaptogens have gained popularity in Western countries, and numerous studies have been conducted to investigate their potential health benefits. While adaptogens are traditionally used in herbal medicine, they have also been studied in modern pharmacology for their potential to improve cognitive function, boost immunity, reduce inflammation, and promote overall health and well-being.

It is helpful to know that there are three types of adaptogenic groups:

  1. Primary adaptogens: These are the most potent adaptogens that have a broad range of effects on the body and modulate the stress response. These adaptogens work on the nervous system and help the body cope with emotional and psychological stress. They have a calming effect and can improve mood, mental clarity, and cognitive function. Examples of neural adaptogens include Ashwagandha, Bacopa monnieri, and Holy Basil. 

  2. Secondary adaptogens: These adaptogens are less potent than primary adaptogens and have more specific effects on the body. They may be helpful for certain conditions or situations, but may not have as broad an impact as primary adaptogens. For example these adaptogens work on the immune system and help the body cope with immunological stress. They can boost the immune system and help the body resist infections, inflammations, and autoimmune diseases. Examples of immunomodulatory adaptogens include Reishi mushroom or Cordyceps mushroom. Further research is needed to determine if Lion's Mane, Reishi and Cordyceps are seconary or primary adaptogens.

  3. Tertiary adaptogens: These are the weakest adaptogens and may only have a subtle effect on the body. They are often used in combination with other adaptogens to enhance their effects.


Adaptogens and the Central Nervous System: How Do They Help the Body Cope with Stress ?

Stress is a common part of everyday life, but prolonged or chronic stress can have negative effects on the central nervous system (CNS), including the brain and spinal cord. Adaptogens are natural substances that help the body better cope with stress and have specific effects on the CNS.

When the body is under stress, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated, which leads to the release of cortisol and other stress hormones. Over time, this can lead to chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, and damage to the CNS (3).

Research suggests that adaptogens may reduce stress' negative effects on the CNS. For example, a study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that certain adaptogens, including ashwagandha and guduchi, helped regulate the HPA axis and reduce cortisol levels in rats (4).

Another study, published in the journal Chinese Medicine, compared the bioactivity of various adaptogens used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. The researchers found that adaptogens had a wide range of effects on the CNS, including improving cognitive function, reducing anxiety and depression, and protecting against neurodegeneration (5).

Some specific adaptogens studied for their effects on the CNS include:

  • Ashwagandha: This herb is traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat stress and anxiety. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that ashwagandha supplementation reduced stress and anxiety levels in adults with chronic stress history (6).

  • Rhodiola rosea: This adaptogen has been used in traditional Chinese and Scandinavian medicine for centuries to treat fatigue, depression, and anxiety. A study published in the journal Phytomedicine found that rhodiola supplementation improved cognitive function and reduced mental fatigue in healthy adults (7).

  • Eleuthero: Also known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is used in traditional Chinese medicine to improve physical and mental performance. A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that eleuthero supplementation improved cognitive function and reduced fatigue in healthy adults (8).

  • Holy basil: This adaptogen is traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat stress and anxiety. A study published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine found that holy basil supplementation reduced stress levels in adults with generalized anxiety disorder (9).

  • Reishi: This mushroom modulates the HPA axis by reducing corticosterone levels in stressed rats (10). 

  • Cordyceps: It has been shown to improve HPA axis dysfunction in chronically stressed rats by reducing corticosterone levels and restoring the expression of genes related to HPA axis regulation (11).

In conclusion, functional mushrooms have been shown to have potential adaptogenic effects on the HPA axis, which is responsible for the body's stress response. These adaptogenic effects can modulate the body's response to stress and improve overall health and wellbeing. Specific functional mushrooms such as reishi and cordyceps have been studied for their possible adaptogenic effects, with promising results. However, more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms of action and potential benefits of functional mushrooms on the HPA axis. Overall, incorporating functional mushrooms into a healthy diet and lifestyle may offer a natural way to support stress management and overall health.

If this topic interests you, you can see our post on stress response in the body before and after taking adaptogens on our Instagram:



  1. Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals, 3(1), 188-224. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph3010188
  2. Brekhman, I. I., & Dardymov, I. V. (1969). New substances of plant origin which increase nonspecific resistance. Annual Review of Pharmacology, 9(1), 419-430. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.pa.09.040169.002223
  3. Liao, L. Y., He, Y. F., Li, L., Meng, H., Dong, Y. Y., Yi, F., ... & Deng, H. B. (2016). A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chinese Medicine, 11(1), 21. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13020-016-0108-y
  4. Rege, N. N., Thatte, U. M., & Dahanukar, S. A. (1999). Adaptogenic properties of six rasayana herbs used in Ayurvedic medicine. Phytotherapy Research, 13(4), 275-291. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-1573(199906)13:4<275::AID-PTR474>3.0.CO;2-C
  5. Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2008). Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress—protective activity. Pharmaceuticals, 1(1), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph1010001
  6. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). 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. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 18(12), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2011.0367
  7. Shevtsov, V. A., Zholus, B. I., Shervarly, V. I., Vol'skij, V. B., Korovin, Y. P., Khristich, M. P., ... & Wikman, G. (2003). A randomized trial of two different doses of a SHR-5 Rhodiola rosea extract versus placebo and control of capacity for mental work. Phytomedicine, 10(2-3), 95-105. https://doi.org/10.1078/094471103321659780
  8. Asano, K., Takahashi, T., Miyashita, M., & Matsuzaka, A. (1986). Effects of Eleutherococcus senticosus extract on human physical working capacity. In Pharmacology and the Future of Man (pp. 535-541). Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4613-1847-1_68
  9. Bhattacharyya, D., Sur, T. K., Jana, U., Debnath, P. K., & Pandey, B. L. (2008). Efficacy of Holy Basil in generalized anxiety disorder: A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 10(4), 251-259. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0975-9476(08)00038-6
  10. Lai, P.K., and Roy, J. (2004). Antimicrobial and chemopreventive properties of Ganoderma lucidum polysaccharides peptide. Nutrition and Cancer 49(2), 131-141. doi: 10.1207/s15327914nc4902_2
  11. Park, S.K., Ha, J.S., Lee, Y.J., Moon, K.M., and Chung, I.H. (2012). Cordyceps militaris alleviates non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in ob/ob mice. Nutrients 4(8), 1148-1158. doi: 10.3390/nu4081148