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Dear Dietitian - What are adaptogens, and do they work?

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PICT Leanne McCrate Dear Dietitian
Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD

Dear Dietitian,

I’ve heard of herbs called adaptogens that supposedly help with stress. I know we all have stress. I have three kids in college, and the financial burden has been difficult. Do these adaptogens really work?


Dear John,

When we encounter stress, our bodies undergo a series of physical and emotional responses. If a situation is dangerous, we have a “fight-or-flight” response, so-called because it is an automatic survival mechanism. Unfortunately, our bodies can overreact to other types of stress. Prolonged stress harms your health, as it may contribute to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and addiction. Long periods of stress can even affect our immune systems.

Adaptogens are a group of herbs that support the body’s ability to adapt to varying physical and emotional stressors. Adaptogens are considered to be regulators and supporters of the stress response system. In doing so, they help modify and regulate hormone production and flow. 

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Panax ginseng, Rhodiola, and Ashwagandha are examples of adaptogens. Panax ginseng labels claim to promote energy, stamina, and endurance while supporting cognitive function and memory. However, study results are conflicting. In a study of 112 healthy adults, 400 mg of Panax ginseng daily for eight weeks resulted in better simple reactions and abstract thinking but no change in concentration or memory. A randomized, controlled study of 384 postmenopausal women found that consuming Panax ginseng for 16 weeks brought significant improvement in symptoms of depression and general well-being (1).

Ashwagandha is a small evergreen shrub that grows in India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. Its name comes from the Sanskrit language, meaning “the smell of a horse,” which implies the herb may give one the vigor and strength of a stallion. In a well-designed study of 64 adults, Ashwagandha effectively reduced stress and anxiety and improved general well-being (2).

Rhodiola is used in traditional medicine in Eastern Europe and Asia as a stimulant to improve performance and reduce fatigue and depression. In a high-quality research study of 60 participants, those who received Rhodiola exhibited increased mental performance, particularly in concentration (3).

While the above adaptogens are considered safe, some people should avoid them. Included in this group are: those who take insulin or blood thinners; people who take antidepressants; those who drink alcohol beyond moderation; and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Always talk to your doctor before beginning a supplement regimen.

Until next time, be healthy!

Dear Dietitian


  1. Kiefer D, Pantuso T. Panax Ginseng. Am Fam Physician 2003 Oct 15;68(8):1539-1542.
  2. Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty, S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwaganda root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jul-Sep;34(3):255-262. doi 10.4103/0253-7176.106022
  3. Olsson EM, von Schéele B, Panossian AG. A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Planta Med. 2009;75(2):105-112. doi:10.1055/s-0028-1088346
Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, is an award-winning dietitian based in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mission is to educate consumers on sound, scientifically-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her today at Dear Dietitian does not endorse any products, health programs, or diet plans.