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What are Adaptogens and How do They Work?

Adaptogens Explained & 4 of the Best Food Sources

8 minute read

They’re synonymous with health and wellness and promise us a wealth of benefits – but what exactly are adaptogens and are they all they’re made out to be? In short – yes! But let us explain everything you need to know about adaptogens, so that you can decide for yourself.


What Are Adaptogens? 🤔

Far from being the latest foodie fad or passing trend, adaptogens are naturally occurring compounds which have been utilised for thousands of years for their health-optimising benefits.

More recently, we have gained a better understanding of where they can be found and the amazing benefits they have for human health; giving rise to their growing popularity.

The history of adaptogens begins with World War II, with the demand to increase stamina, endurance and performance of soldiers, pilots, sailors and civilians during the war.

The term ‘adaptogens’ was first coined by Russian scientist Nikolay Lazarev in 1957, who discovered that certain foods and herbs had properties which produced a state of ‘nonspecific resistance.’

His research explored how these properties could help to restore physiological stabilisation and promote optimal homeostasis; essentially helping the body to function optimally regardless of environmental stressors.

What Do Adaptogens Do? ⚖️

Their science-y sounding name actually makes perfect sense in context – adaptogens help our body to adapt. When we are exposed to external stressors, adaptogens help to recalibrate the body and get it back to its baseline functioning. Think of adaptogens as your ‘bounce back’ button, helping you to become resilient to your environment and overcome daily challenges to your health and wellbeing.

This may sound like a novel concept, after all most health foods and supplements promise to bring us a variety of benefits – not just to get us back to square one. However, by helping us to bounce back to our normal functionality and regain equilibrium, adaptogens can prevent harm to health before it manifests.

That’s exactly why adaptogens have been used as a functional daily tonic for thousands of years, they have the power to keep us healthy and resilient every day – not just now and again, when we are sick or when we’re on a health kick.

Adaptogens and Stress 🌱

One of the most well known health benefits of adaptogens is their ability to help us to overcome daily challenges that disrupt the physiological balance in our body. One of the main culprits of this is stress.

The stress response is an innate mechanism we have all acquired from the evolutionary need for fight or flight. That is, when something is perceived as a threat (huge lion running your way…) you will likely have to fight it or run away for survival, so an instant surge of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol is released to give you the ability to do so.

This process worked fine in ancestral times but more recently when real threats to survival are rare, micro-stresses (traffic jams, looming deadlines, lack of sleep) repeatedly over-activate the stress response and create chronic stress.

So, we get the same physiological responses as when fleeing a lion – increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, raised energy supply – with no real threat but equally damaging results to our health.

Overtime, chronic stress can have a multitude of negative effects on our health including insomnia, a weakened immune system, poor mental health and gastrointestinal and cardiovascular problems.

Adaptogens work to clear the stress response as it happens, processing hormones instead of leaving them in circulation and restoring physiological equilibrium before stress can accumulate and begin to harm our health.

How do Adaptogens Work? 🧠

Sounds great right? Banish stress, restore homeostasis and build resilience – but how exactly? Adaptogens work to normalise physiology throughout the body; raising what is low and lowering what is high. They don’t target specific body parts or organs but instead work their magic almost everywhere.

They do this by interrupting the body’s natural response to stress (known as general adaptation syndrome, or GAS). This usually happens in three stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion.

The first stage (alarm) is the one we can’t control, it’s our initial fight or flight response to stress. But the next stage (resistance) is where adaptogens come in. This is the stage in which the body begins to normalise and repair itself after accepting the initial shock of a stressor. Adaptogens help to prolong the resistance part of the stress response and so prevent the final stage (exhaustion) which results from chronic stress.

Here are just some of the ways adaptogens function to build our resistance and resilience to physical, emotional and environmental stress:


  • Control blood sugars
  • Regulate heart rate and blood pressure
  • Enhance immune function & response
  • Modulate the release of stress hormones
  • Optimise organ function
  • Calm the fight or flight response
  • Reduce inflammation


    The benefits of adaptogens for stress doesn’t just apply to those of us who feel stressed in the traditional sense either. Our bodies are exposed to other environmental stressors everyday – from chemicals in cleaning products to pollutants in the air and water, and even inflammatory stress created by eating certain foods.

    So, even if you don’t see yourself as suffering from conventional stress, adaptogens can still help to optimise your body's baseline functioning.


    Which Foods Are Adaptogens? 🍄

    In the grand scheme of things, very few foods have been found to have adaptogenic properties, which makes them even more special!

    Here are 4 of the best natural sources of powerful health-optimising adaptogens.


    1 . Functional Mushrooms

    Many of the amazing benefits of functional mushrooms come from their apoptogenic properties. It is thought that there are hundreds of adaptogenic mushrooms in the world, but only Shitake is available to buy fresh in the UK.

    So, many functional mushrooms are enjoyed as extracts to make their benefits more widely available.

    Here are 2 of our favourite adaptogenic mushrooms:

    • Reishi – Helps the body to relax, unwind and prepare for sleep by reducing stress and anxiety whilst inducing calm
    • Lion’s Mane – Supports brain health to build mental resilience to stress and has been shown to boost cognitive function, focus and mental performance.


      2. Ashwagandha

      Also known as Indian Ginseng, Ashwagandha is one of the adaptogenic herbs which help to minimise the harmful effects of stress on the body. It works by boosting brain function, lowering blood sugar and cortisol levels and fighting the symptoms of anxiety.

      Ashwagandha acts directly on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, modulating the release of stress hormones. It is commonly used in Ayurvedic/herbal medicine and works well to balance endocrine health.

      Other examples of adaptogenic herbs includes rhodiola, tulsi teas, holy basil, siberian ginseng, panax ginseng and licorice. 


      3. Maca Root

      Also known as Peruvian Ginseng, Maca root works with the adrenal glands to maintain balanced hormone levels and also helps to enhance our natural detoxification process, minimising damage from environmental stressors.


      4. Acai

      Acai has powerful anti-inflammatory properties which support heart and brain health, as well as regulating blood lipid levels.

      Acai berries are also one of the most antioxidant-rich foods on the planet, helping to defend the body from physical and environmental toxins and stressors.


      In summary, adaptogens work throughout the body to restore physiological function and minimise damage form physical, environmental and emotional stressors. This has some amazing benefits including enhancing calm, focus, mental clarity and energy – as well as minimising the harmful physical effects of stress on the body.


      Rheal Adaptogenic Superfood Blends 🌱

      Adaptogens are one of the most powerful nutrients to help protect us from daily stresses and keep our body functioning at its best. They’re the perfect addition to your healthy lifestyle to take a proactive approach to your overall health and wellbeing.

      We have handpicked some of the world's best adaptogens and combined them with nutritious superfoods you can enjoy everyday to get the many amazing benefits of adaptogens, as well as other health-optimising nutrients.


      Here's which adaptogens you can find in our blends:



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