5 Easy Ways To Include Health-Boosting Adaptogens In Your Diet

They can improve health and boost energy.

July 13, 2017
boiling a chicken

Adaptogens are a unique class of herbs and roots that decrease the effects of hormones and other compounds that are released into the body in times of stress, such as kinase, nitric oxide, and cortisol. Since the effects of these compounds can improve health, lessen fatigue, and generally improve wellbeing, it’s no wonder that people are clamoring to introduce adaptogens into their diets.

(Slash your cholesterol, burn stubborn belly fat, solve your insomnia, and more—naturally—with Rodale's Eat For Extraordinary Health And Healing.)

Most experts agree that there are just over a dozen true adaptogens, including ashwagandha (a member of the nightshade family), astragalus (the root of a perennial plant), cordyceps (a fungi), eleuthero (also known as Siberian ginseng), jiaogulan (a medicinal vine), maca (the root of a Peruvian plant), panax ginseng or panax quinquefolius (“true” ginseng), reishi mushrooms, rhaponticum (a perennial thistle-like flower), rhodiola (the root of Rhodiola rosea plant, used by the Vikings), schisandra (the berry of a Chinese vine), sea buckthorn (a shrub), and tulsi (also known as “Holy basil”). They also agree that, in order to be effective, they should be taken daily.

Related: 6 Things You Need To Know Before Taking An Adaptogen

“The nature of an adaptogen is that it strengthens the body over time,” explains Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, an internationally recognized expert in natural and herbal medicine, who recommends taking an adaptogen daily or nearly daily for six to eight weeks to see true results.

Here are 5 easy ways to make adaptogens a part of your diet.

(Like what you're reading? Sign up for our newsletter to get health insights, clever kitchen tricks, gardening secrets, and more—delivered straight to your inbox.)

eating essential oil
Eric Audras/getty
How to take adaptagen extracts

Perhaps the most straightforward way to use adaptogens is to consume them in either extract or tincture form, both of which are readily available in natural food stores or online.

Extracts are concentrated herbs suspended in a solvent like water, vinegar, or glycerin; tinctures are a type of extract made with alcohol as the solvent. Tonic Tinctures is a great brand that opts for non-GMO or certified organic ingredients whenever possible, and Maine Medicinals offers a few organic adaptogenic formulas as well.

Some people even opt to make their own extracts with fresh, whole herbs, roots, and mushrooms, thus ensuring unadulterated, high-quality products. Michael J. Balick, Ph. D., Vice President for Botanical Science at the New York Botanical Garden, notes that instructions for doing so can be found in his book, Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal. This is an especially good option for adaptogens like pricey ginseng that have a history of being adulterated: ginseng has historically been sold – unknowingly to purchasers – mixed with other compounds such as caffeine, and adulterated ginseng has even contributed to the myth that the herb causes high blood pressure, according to Dr. Low Dog.

Once you’ve sourced your tincture or extract, you can either take adaptogens one at a time or in a combination of your choosing. Kilham recommends making “herbal cocktails” by mixing together a total of about a heaping tablespoon of different tinctures and adding a bit of water. If you can’t quite stomach a straight shot of adaptogens, you can also mix your “cocktail” into your morning juice or smoothie.

making tea
Granger Wootz/getty
How to make adaptagen tea

If you’re looking for something a bit less intense than a pure adaptogen shot, an adaptogenic tea might be the right choice. This is also one of the most traditional ways to consume adaptogens, Kilham notes: traditional Chinese medicine, which uses a lot of adaptogenic herbs, is sometimes even referred to as “teapot medicine.”

Related: 9 Soothing Teas To Calm Nerves

“When you warm foods over low heat, you gently leach out the energetic and therapeutic properties of the foods, preserving the nutritional value of the food and making it easier for your body to utilize the nutrients,” explains Rachel Drori of Daily Harvest, a superfood smoothie company.

Low Dog recommends tulsi, also known as holy basil, as a great candidate for tea consumption, with its naturally unique flavor reminiscent of mint, licorice, and clove.

“It has a special affinity for the respiratory tract, and it’s also very good for anxiousness,” she notes. “If I have somebody who tends to be kind of nervous and they get colds frequently during the winter, I have them drink a couple of cups of holy basil tea every day.”

You can easily brew your own adaptogenic teas with whole herbs or roots, or you can try a brand like Organic India which offers a tulsi tea, or look for Numi Organic Tea, which features blends like Gratitude, containing ashwagandha, tulsi, and licorice, or Purpose, with yerba mate, cacao, and maca. Numi is committed to fair-trade, certified organic ingredients, and subjects its suppliers to random, annual inspections to ensure that they meet the company’s quality requirements.

boiling a chicken
How to cook with adaptagens

If you’re feeling creative, you can even cook with adaptogens. These herbs and roots are commonly used in many Chinese recipes for soups and stews, like ginseng chicken or schisandra berry duck stew.

Of course, some adaptogens are easier to cook with than others, particularly given their unique flavors. While Drori says that many adaptogens “taste like bark when consumed on their own,” others, like schisandra, the berry of a climbing vine, have a “really quirky, unique flavor,” according to Kilham: its Chinese name means “five-flavor berry” because it combines the flavors of salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and pungent.

One great way to add adaptogens to your cooking is to toss one (or several) into your favorite basic soup or stew recipe.

Related: 9 Creative Ways To Cook With Protein Powder

 “Gently simmer the herbs for an hour or more (with or without the rest of the ingredients),” suggests Tiffany Cruikshank, L.A.c., MAOM, RYT, founder of Yoga Medicine and author of Meditate Your Weight.

Cruikshank also loves adding adaptogens to rice, quinoa, or other grains as they cook. (Here are the 5 best whole grains to meal prep and tasty ways to eat them). For this technique, adaptogenic mushrooms or roots like astragalus and cordyceps are the best options, lending a mild, slightly sweet flavor to the grains.

“I cook a lot with astragalus,” agrees Dr. Low Dog, who puts a long sliver of the root in her rice as it steams. “Astragalus is very much a food herb.”

As astragalus is also particularly good at boosting the immune system, it’s great to use in winter when there are more colds and coughs going around. Weil agrees, noting that his immunity boosting soup recipe combines astragalus with shiitake mushrooms, ginger (which has its own surprising health benefits), and garlic.

Related: 4 Healing Soups To Boost Your Immune System

Maca, a root with a sweet, butterscotch-like flavor, meanwhile, is found even more often in foods than in supplements, used in cakes, muffins, pies, and more. (It’s also one of the 11 best smoothie ingredients to boost your health)

“As the adaptogenic class goes, it's probably the most versatile food, because it has so much starch,” explains Kilham. “It's best eaten as a food. Doing maca as a supplement is a second-best way to go.”

If you’re looking for specific recipe ideas, consider checking out Agatha Noveille’s book of recipes: Adaptogens: 75+ Herbal Recipes and Elixirs to Improve Your Skin, Mood, Energy, Focus, and More. Her recipes range from chia puddings to an adaptogen-infused sunflower seed butter.

Raphye Alexius/getty
Ready-made products that contain adaptogens

If you don’t have the time to make your own recipes (or you’d rather trust the experts), there are some great ready-made adaptogenic products on the market. Daily Harvest, a healthy soup subscription service (yes, you heard me right) makes several adaptogen-rich soups, including reishi mushroom with miso, zucchini with black garlic and rhodiola, and carrot with coconut and ginseng.

You could also opt for adaptogenic shots and tonics, like the ones from Torii Labs that founders Lulu Luchaire and Giles Hayward say are a “great morning natural coffee alternative.” Ingredients are sourced organically whenever possible, and herbs are often gathered in the wild, a choice that Torii makes, according to Hayward, because “plants that can survive in natural environments, absent of farming, will yield the strongest, cleanest, and most potent herbs available.”

Lifehouse Tonics also has several blended tonics on the market that taste like anything but health food, with flavors like Greenhouse Chip, which is evocative of a mint chocolate chip milkshake, and Shroom Shake, flavored with nuts and cinnamon.

“We strive to only get our ingredients from sustainable minded and organically conscious vendors when possible,” explains co-founder Jack Latner. “Especially for the more exotic ingredients we use, it’s important for us to have a personal relationship with our suppliers so we know how, when, where our specialized ingredients are being produced and can provide that information for our customers.” 

Adaptogen supplements

No matter which way you choose to take adaptogens, experts agree: the most important thing to do is make it a habit. So if these techniques all seem like too much work, the best thing to do is simply take an adaptogen supplement. (Before hitting the supplement aisle, read up on these 10 rules to know before you start taking any new supplement.)

Kilham has developed a line of such supplements for Purity Products, including both blends designed for specific issues like fatigue and focus and individual supplements like maca and ginseng. Weil, meanwhile, recommends Host Defense brand for mushroom products and Nature’s Way extracts, which are standardized to ensure that you’re always getting the same amount of adaptogen with every dose and every bottle.