Jun. 16. 2016
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped® and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

What are adaptogens and how do they work?

Since using I’ve been using medicinal mushrooms more in recipes and sharing more about adaptogens, I’ve had a lot of questions come in through your emails and comments about these ingredients. Welcome to the Guide to Adaptogens that will tell you everything you need to know about them from how to use these supplements, what to look for, my personal favorites, and recipes to try with adaptogens. But first, we need to clear something up…

Adapt…to what?


Adaptogens, whether medicinal mushrooms, herbs, spices, or tinctures, have been used for centuries in some folklore and in Eastern medicine. Western medicine is a bit slow to use adaptogens for treating symptoms or helping prevent illness, which means there is less evidence-based research on these functional foods than other ingredients I’ve delved into on Nutrition Stripped.

What we do know about some of these adaptogens is that they’re able to reduce stress on the body, but the exact mechanisms of how they do so still need to be researched (1). You can think of adaptogens as being little soldiers that help our body combat stress and help bring our body back to a stable baseline point of health and wellbeing.

Adaptogens can also act like a regulator of your energy and stress levels. For example, if you’re experiencing high stress, they can help “calm” it down by normalizing your body without overstimulating. They also help support our adrenal function and central nervous system. Medicinal mushrooms, in particular, are great at helping our bodies utilize oxygen efficiently (2) (3).


Remember when we hashed out the whole “inflammation” thing? Adaptogens help combat daily inflammation when added to our diets through powders or supplement forms. Beyond that, specific adaptogens have their own health benefits or more targeted “goals”. I will say, because there are a lack of studies in this genre of functional foods, use them with discretion and always pay attention to how your body feels after eating them – that’s all that matters at the end of the day.

From personal experience, I have noticeable differences in physical stress on my body when taking ashwagandha during high-stress times. Again personal experience, but don’t bank on these “curing” a disease or treating something overnight or dramatically.


You can use adaptogens in teas, tinctures, in supplement form, or in powder form with food. For example, medicinal mushrooms are a class of adaptogens that I love using in chocolate smoothies because of the malty and earthy flavor. They taste delicious and have adaptogen’s health benefits of fighting inflammation.


Dosages for adaptogens depend on your individual health, frequency of use, and if you’re taking medications. If you take prescription medication, be careful as many adaptogens pose herb-medicine interactions so always consult with your doctor prior. Also if you’re pregnant, be very careful and speak with your doctor before taking adaptogens. Above all, work closely with your physician or your dietitian nutritionist to get a specific amount and to see if using these are right for your health – that’s what I’m here for!



  • Turmeric
  • Medicinal mushrooms such as chaga, reishi, and king oyster
  • Asian Ginseng (4).
  • Rhodiola has been used to help control cortisol levels and normalize them to healthy levels and improve mental/emotional wellbeing with increase brain function (5)
  • Holy Basil (Tulsi) has been used as a libido enhancer but also a liver protectant and antioxidant (6).
  • Pine pollen
  • Schisandra
  • Schisandra may help with physical performance, reducing anxiety and reducing cortisol when elevated (7).
  • Ashwagandha (8) has been used to increase energy, balance blood sugars, increase stamina, and strengthen the immune system similar to Asian Ginseng.


Ashwagandha, Holy Basil tea, Cordyceps powder, Reishi powder, cocoa + medicinal mushroom mix, and in general Gaia herbs for supplement form.

Feelin’ it?

So, what do you think? Do you already use any adaptogens and have you noticed a difference in how you feel? Are you thinking of adding some to your diet or still have questions? Let me know what you think in the comments section?

(1): https://examine.com/supplements/adaptogen/
(2): Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals. 2010;3(1):188-224. doi:10.3390/ph3010188.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/
(3): Panossian A, Wikman G. Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. Curr Clin Pharmacol. 2009 Sep;4(3):198-219. Epub 2009 Sep 1. Review. PubMed PMID: 19500070.
(4): https://examine.com/supplements/ashwagandha/
(5): https://examine.com/supplements/rhodiola-rosea/
(6): https://examine.com/supplements/holy-basil/
(7): https://examine.com/supplements/schisandra-chinensis/
(8): https://authoritynutrition.com/12-proven-ashwagandha-benefits/