If you have ever wondered how adaptogen herbs really work, you have come to the right place! 

In this article, we will review exactly what adaptogens are, how adaptogens work, and what makes these incredible herbs so unique.

Studies show that adaptogenic herbs work through the body’s master control systems, including the HPA Axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis), the Sympatho Adrenal system, aka “fight or flight”, and on a “cellular level” by supporting protein structure.

But first, before we dig into the details of how adaptogens really work, let’s define what makes an adaptogen an adaptogen, and review a list of the “true” adaptogens.

Three criteria separate an adaptogen herb from other herbs

Reviewing the criteria that define an adaptogen is vital to understand how adaptogen herbs really work.   

For an herb to be labeled as an adaptogen, the herb must:

  1. Be nontoxic at a clinical dosage.
  2. Increase the resistance of the hormonal and immune systems to all kinds of stressors through a nonspecific physiological response
  3. Normalize body function no matter how external stressors have altered them. 

With this definition, there are only nine true adaptogens: 

  1. Asian Ginseng 
  2. American Ginseng 
  3. Ashwagandha 
  4. Eleuthero
  5. Schisandra
  6. Rhodiola
  7. Rhaponticum
  8. Shilajit
  9. Cordyceps

With this definition, let’s now look at how these herbs work through the control systems and on the cellular level.

How adaptogens really work through the body’s master control systems

Because some herbs not considered true adaptogens might meet the above criteria, we have learned that what makes a plant an actual adaptogen is that it must work through one or both of the body’s master control systems; 1) The HPA Axis, and 2) The Sympatho Adrenal system (SAS).

The two master control systems are:

  1. The HPA Axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis) is a complex system of neuroendocrine pathways and feedback loops that maintain and support balance (homeostasis) in response to chronic stress. 

The HPA axis is the interface between the endocrine, nervous, immune, digestive, reproductive, and cardio systems.  

  1. The SAS (Sympatho Adrenal system, aka fight or flight) is a complex system that connects the sympathetic nervous system to the adrenal medulla. In simple terms, it is our fight-or-flight response

When a stressor occurs, the triggered response floods our system with adrenalin and releases the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medulla. This response increases blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate and suppresses digestion. This releasing of hormones and redistribution of blood allows the mind and body to respond and survive. 

Adaptogens affect these two master systems, but they also “go to work” at the cellular level in a very exciting way.

Researchers learned in the early 2000s through research in living subjects (in vivo) that adaptogens also work on a “cellular level.” It seems that adaptogens may support the important work (up-regulation) of “molecular chaperones”: 

Molecular chaperones are any protein that interacts with, stabilizes, or helps another protein to maintain its structure. Heat shock proteins are known for their role in protein maturation, re-folding, and degradation. They are upregulated in the presence of stressful stimuli. 

The body is signaled that stress is coming, so to prepare, it increases the production of these remarkable compounds, which inhibit addiction, reduce pain, prevent misfolding of proteins, and increase neuroplasticity, just to name a few. 

Additionally, adaptogens play a critical role in supporting a healthy stress response. More specifically, adaptogens affect how stress increases the production of the stress hormones like cortisol. 

Let’s review this a little deeper and look at some recent studies.

These Studies Show How Adaptogens Really Work to Reduce Stress, Increase Energy, and Reverse Fatigue

stress cortisol and adaptogens

Research shows that adaptogens may also: 

  1. Support healthy cortisol levels and
  2. May prevent dysfunction in the mitochondria as a result of elevated cortisol production.  

In a fascinating study, researchers discovered that people who took adaptogens realized significantly improved scores on all stress assessments as compared to a control group. (1) Additionally, the researchers found that the group that took adaptogens showed a reduction in cortisol levels. (1)

In another study, researchers with the Indian journal of psychological medicine found that adaptogens help to control the effects of stress-related emotional eating.  This means that adaptogens may support a healthy body weight due to chronic stress, as compared to the placebo group. (2)

In addition, it is widely known that elevated cortisol levels produce negative effects on mitochondrial function. Because of the mitochondria's important role in virtually every cell in the body, mitochondria dysfunction is linked to extremely harmful ailments such as chronic fatigue, debilitating sleep problems such as sleep apnea, and more. (3) 

Since the research is widely accepted that adaptogens can have a profound impact on reducing or balancing cortisol levels, adaptogens may have a profound and positive effect on mitochondria health.

Finally, a study looking at the effects of adaptogens on stress-related fatigue concluded that repeated use of adaptogens may produce an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance, improves the ability to concentrate, and decreases cortisol response in patients with fatigue syndrome. (4) 

These are more reasons why adaptogens can be so incredibly helpful in supporting mitochondrial dysfunction by reducing stress, improving sleep, and reversing fatigue.

In fact, adaptogens are the most well-researched, well-respected, time-tested, and proven category of herbs around the world to support and optimize longevity and well-being through the support of nonspecific physiological responses. 

And when used appropriately, adaptogen supplements can be the modern-day savior and allow us to live happier and healthier lives. With all we know, there is still much that we are learning about these robust plants.   


  1. A prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). Indian journal of psychological medicine, 34(3), 255.
  2. Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment With Ashwagandha Root Extract: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial.  Choudhary, D., Bhattacharyya, S., & Joshi, K. (2017). Journal of evidence-based complementary & alternative based medicine, 22(1), 96-106.  
  3. Sleep Disorders in Mitochondrial Disease. Valerio Brunetti, Giacomo Della Marca, Serenella Servidei, and Guido Primiano (2021). Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov 
  4. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardized extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola Rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Erik M Olsson, Bo von Scheele, Alexander G Panossian. Plant med (2009) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19016404/

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