If you’re looking for an edge to take your workouts up a notch, adaptogens may be just the thing—especially if you’d prefer to stick to something more holistic (as opposed to neon-colored pre-workout powder).
“Adaptogens are herbal substances used in Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines that have been found to help the body adapt to stress,” says Kylie Morse. These stressors can be physical, environmental, or even mental. Adaptogenic herbs have been used confidently by traditional medicine practitioners for thousands of years for various conditions.
“Adaptogens are praised for their impact on chronic stress, and more recently, the benefits they provide for physical performance,” says sports nutritionist Erin James. But the advantages of adaptogens don’t end there. “They can help in various ways including mentally, known for promoting a positive mindset and mental state, and physical, enhancing both strength and endurance,” adds James.
While adaptogens may boost your ability to adapt to stress and improve function, overall diet and lifestyle remain the top priority. “If you don’t have a solid foundation in nutrition, adaptogens will not work for you. As they always say, “You can’t out-work a bad diet.” well, adaptogenic herbs cannot either,” says Morse.
There’s plenty of studies on adaptogenic herbs and their possible benefits, but more research is necessary. “Adaptogens are not recognized as a reliable therapeutic agent in Western (allopathic) medicine. It is also important to note that the FDA does not regulate adaptogenic herbal supplements, so choosing quality supplements from reputable and reliable brands is key,” notes Morse.
Read on to learn more about the 10 best adaptogens for exercise and how to use them to your advantage.
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“Ginseng is widely used and understood to help improve energy and reduce fatigue, which could help you power through those workouts and enhance your gym performance,” says Morse. There are several types of ginseng, but Panax Ginseng is the most commonly used version for increasing energy. It’s thought that ginseng boosts your cells’ ability to produce energy, helping you power through that HIIT workout.
This warming spicy root has long been praised for its pain-reducing effects. There’s evidence that it can help reduce all types of pain, including the hurts-so-good kind you feel after a challenging workout. “The anti-inflammatory effects of ginger have been shown to potentially attenuate delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which can help get you back into the gym, and feel less sore, faster,” notes Morse. Try it as a tea in some hot water with a touch of honey.
This adaptogen is most commonly known to help manage stress and anxiety. “Still, because exercise is a physical stressor on the body, ashwagandha may balance higher cortisol levels post-workout and aid recovery,” says Morse. And this plant from the nightshade family may even help you get higher quality sleep, further leading to increased recovery. Better recovery means a better workout next session and less chance of feeling like you could just skip it.
“Limited research shows that this adaptogenic herb may be promising for improving overall physical performance and reducing mental fatigue,” says Morse. Although more research is needed, Rhodiola Rosea could reduce reaction time and help you stay sharp through your more challenging workouts.
Maca is known for being the magical substance that kept Incas marching up mountains and into war, even without enough food. An energizer packed with fiber, fatty acids, calcium, iron, and vitamin C, maca root is a nutritious workout booster without the jitters that a cup of coffee or caffeine supplement might cause. “Maca root has been shown to have similar effects on energy and focus that caffeine might, making it a contender for an effective pre-workout supplement. It has also been shown to have potentially positive benefits on mental focus, libido, and mood,” says Morse.
“Dong Quai (also known as female ginseng) has been known to help reduce PMS symptoms and menopause, which can come in handy on those days where your period makes it difficult to get to the gym and remain consistent with your workout routine,” says Morse. More research is needed to really say Dong Quai can help you get through a workout during your period, but it might be worth a shot.
“Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi, may positively affect endurance and has also been known to promote clarity and calmness,” says Morse. Research shows that holy basil may also protect your heart and is anti-inflammatory, making it ideal for exercise recovery.
This mushroom has promising research suggesting that it can increase your body’s ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is fuel for your cells—the stuff that powers you through that speed interval in Spin class. “This is extremely helpful during those high intensity workouts and long runs,” says Morse. Research shows cordyceps increases blood flow, helps your body use oxygen more efficiently, and stimulates you to push past your limits.
Cordyceps has gained recent popularity as a workout supplement, with record-breaking Chinese athletes attributing their success to this mushroom. It’s now common in many workout boosting formulas. “You also see cordyceps commonly paired with ashwagandha, rhodiola, or astragalus in pre-workout formulas on the market,” says Morse.
“Many people don’t realize turmeric is also an adaptogen and high in antioxidants. It is typical in the diets of many people with (and without) autoimmune issues, including me,” says James.
Turmeric is a popular flavor booster for your favorite curries, soups, and even teas. In Asian cultures, turmeric is also a healing food, known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, making it perfect for combatting post-workout soreness. “Turmeric has been found to help manage inflammation in the body, which may help recover and lessen the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS),” says Morse.
Reishi mushroom’s potential benefits can aid in muscle recovery and body composition change by helping you outside your workouts. “This adaptogen has been known for its ability to improve sleep and support a healthy immune system—both vital for a healthy, strong body!” says Morse. Reishi mushroom is thought to be especially beneficial for endurance athletes, offering protective effects against overtraining and physical stress.
Adaptogens are a natural way to provide a potential boost to your workouts. If you feel like you need a little lift to get through your next HIIT session or hope to boost recovery to hit the gym again tomorrow, these plants are worth a try. However, be cautious when trying anything new—even our plant friends.
"Just as anything you consider taking to support a medical or health condition, I advise everyone to check with their doctor before adding anything into their routine, especially if you are pregnant or have an autoimmune issue,” says James.
James advises sticking to common culinary herbs if you’re worried about side effects. “Adding something as common as ginger doesn’t typically raise concern, but for the herbs you aren’t familiar with, consult with a medical professional first. It’s always better to be safe!” Turmeric and ginger smoothie, anyone?