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What are adaptogenic foods and how do they work?

What are adaptogenic foods and how do they work?

10 December 2020

Adaptogens have been a health and wellness buzz word in the past few years, but many of the plants that we see as adaptogens actually have a long history as tonics in traditional medicines. With mental health a growing area of concern, many people are keen to investigate how to incorporate adaptogens into their modern diets to help them cope with stress. 

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are plants, usually herbs or mushrooms, that help our bodies to cope with stress and avoid a debilitating meltdown. They support multiple systems in our bodies to help them function for longer through stressful situations and temper the exhaustion that we might feel after we’ve been under stress.

Do they have a long history?

Despite their role in herbal medicine prior to the twentieth century, formal research into the benefits of adaptogens only began during the second world war, when nations were under pressure to find something that gave their fighters an edge over their enemies. The Soviet Union, in particular, was looking to develop a “superhero pill” to support the endurance of its pilots and submariners. A lot of the early research around how these plants support our bodies’ various systems was done in Cold War Russia. However, modern researchers are less interested in their military benefits and more interested in how adaptogens can support mental health and wellbeing in a stressful modern world.stress free macadamia eater

How do they work?

The theory behind stress is called general adaptation syndrome (described here), which describes a three-stage response of alarm, resistance and exhaustion. Adaptogens support us to stay in that second stage, when we are powering on and coping, for longer. They also help to even out the exhaustion phase so that it isn’t as acute. Basically they help to keep us on an even keel for longer.

Stress tends to impact many systems in our bodies. It can make us tired, but also stop us sleeping or interfere with our sleep cycles. It can affect appetite, cognitive function, hormones and the functioning of our gut. And since all those systems tend to also impact each other, stress can take a holistic toll on our health. Adaptogens can act to regulate this impact. Many people liken this to the way a thermostat on your heater can regulate the temperature of your whole room.

What adaptogens should I look out for?

Not all adaptogens are the same and some can be dangerous for pregnant women or with prolonged use, so it’s essential to seek advice before using them as part of your wellness routine. Naturopaths or natural medicine practitioners can guide you to an adaptogen that is right for your particular circumstances. 

Some common adaptogens include:

  • American Ginseng: distinct from its Korean counterpart, this herb is thought to boost memory, reaction time and the immune system. Many supplements feature this herb however it can also be found in products such as Tasmanian honey and spice mixes
  • Goji Berries: these mildly sweet berries have long been used to support longevity in traditional Chinese medicine. They can be sprinkled over muesli in the morning or incorporated in afternoon pick me ups.
  • Licorice root: tea made from licorice root is widely available from health food stores. However, use with caution as it is possible to overdose on this adaptogenic herb.
  • Holy Basil: as opposed to the culinary basil you might use to make pesto, Holy Basil has a long history in Indian medicine. Different parts of the plant have different uses and benefits.
  • Turmeric: this brain and mood boosting food also happens to be useful and delicious! Try adding the fresh grated root to curries, stews and soups. 

Just lately there has been a rise in ‘ready to use’ adaptogen food products such as Social Alchemy’s Adaptogenic Hot Chocolate mix. The smart crew at Cape Byron Distillery recently collaborated with them to create this adaptogenic spiked hot chocolate.

Spiked Adaptogenic Hot Chocolate


30ml Mac. (macadamia and wattleseed liqueur)

15ml spiced rum

2 x dashes of orange bitters

4 x teaspoons of Social Alchemy Hot Chocolate Powder

150ml macadamia milk 🥛 


Warm milk on stove.

Mix in adaptogenic chocolate powder to dissolve.

Add all other ingredients & stir.

Pour into mug and enjoy.

Can I use them all time?

Advocates of adaptogens usually suggest that you use them to support your mental health through tough times rather than using them constantly. Many adaptogens have side effects and interactions with other medications so seek advice before adding them to your routine.

How do you incorporate adaptogens into your routine to help you cope with stress?


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