The Beginner’s Guide To Adaptogens For Stress Relief And Adrenal Support

Heather Dessinger

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Adaptogens that help the body adapt to stress and support sleep

The mysterious ancient pyramids of . . .Khafra and Menkaure probably don’t affect your daily life, but there are a set of pyramids that most definitely do. They’re called the adrenals, and they’re pyramid-shaped glands that sit just above the kidneys. These little powerhouses secrete hormones that make us resilient during times of stress and/or busyness, which is super important for those of us who . . . um . . . breathe.

Whether it’s a sleepless night, illness, surgery, stress at work, meltdowns at the store with a toddler, financial pressure, or just a go-go-go season of life, we all go through times that require a lot of our adrenals. Ideally, are able to rest between these experiences so that they can recover – similar to the way muscles do after a workout. In real life, that doesn’t always happen.

As I shared in this post on Dr. James Wilson’s at-home test for assessing adrenal fatigue, my default approach to life is to DO ALL THE THINGS. Sometimes that leads to amazing experiences, and sometimes it gets me in trouble.

Last year, I started noticing that I wasn’t bouncing back from stressful experiences like I used to. I knew my adrenals needed some TLC, so I experimented with a lot of suggestions and eventually shared my top fifteen tips for helping the adrenals thrive.

In this post, I’m going to expand on tip #4 – using adaptogens. We’re going to talk about what they do along with safety considerations for pregnant/breastfeeding moms.

What are adaptogens?

Unlike caffeine, which is a stimulant that encourages a specific response within the body, adaptogenic herbs help the body adapt to stress by nudging it toward balance. To put it a different way, if caffeine is like a map from point A (sleepy) to point B (alert), adaptogens are more like a GPS system that figures out where you are and helps you get where you need to go (balanced).

Now, you may be thinking,”Eh, balance. Are we talking about that woo stuff that will happen to me after I learn how to shine my collarbones and relax my spleen?”

I’ll admit that’s pretty much how I felt when I first looked into them, but after reviewing the research I was blown away by how they’re different from other herbs. Here’s the best way I can describe how I experience them: Sometimes life feels like trying to hold on to a firehose that’s going full blast – it’s intense to say the least. Adaptogens have a grounding effect, almost like adding weights to my body while I hold the hose so that I have more stability and control.

Adaptogens For Stress, Sleep, and Mood Support

Adaptogenic Herbs For Adrenal Health

If you’re new to adaptogens, here are some tips I picked from various herbal books that you may find helpful:

1. Most adaptogens can be used as single herbs, many herbalists prefer to blend them together to create a synergistic effect. While some herbs cancel each other out when taken together (for example, a stimulating one with a sleep promoting one), I believe all the ones listed below are considered compatible with each other. One herb – licorice – is safest when used in small amounts and blended with other herbs.

2. Although some herbs, such as eleuthero, can be used safely for extended periods of time, many herbalists recommend rotating the adaptogens used every couple of months. Fortunately, most herbs are very affordable, and there are quite a few to choose from.

3. Some herbs may interact with medications, so please check with your doctor before consuming a new herb if you are taking medicine. (You can also check the Botanical Safety Handbook for information on potential contraindications – it’s an incredibly helpful guide.)

Adaptogens During Pregnancy & Breastfeeding

Some adaptogens have long history of use by pregnant and breastfeeding women in traditional cultures. For example, maca is a staple in the diet of pregnant and nursing Peruvian women, where it is believed to support fertility along with the health of mothers and their babies. (source 1, source 2, source 3)

However, it’s important to clarify that having “no identified concerns for use during pregnancy and lactation” does not imply that an herb has been studied and shown to be safe.

Regarding the general use of herbs – not just adaptogens –  midwives I have spoken with usually recommend avoidance in the first trimester unless:

  1. The herb is needed to support the woman through a particular issue, like nausea.
  2. The herb has a record of safety during pregnancy when used appropriately and the woman is taking it under the supervision of a qualified professional.

Please seek the input of a qualified healthcare practitioner before introducing any new herb.

Safety Class 1A Adaptogens

According to the Botanical Safety Handbook: 2nd Edition, Safety Class 1A adaptogens can be described as:

“Herbs that can be safely consumed when used appropriately.

  • History of safe traditional use
  • No case reports of significant adverse events with high probability of causality
  • No significant adverse events in clinical trials
  • No identified concerns for use during pregnancy or lactation
  • No innately toxic constituents
  • Toxicity associated with excessive use is not a basis for exclusion from this class
  • Minor or self-limiting side effects are not bases for exclusion from this class”

Here are some of the Class 1A adaptogens thought to be most beneficial for adrenal support:

Safety Class 1B Adaptogens

Astragalus Root – This adaptogen has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It supports immune function, energy levels, and hormone balance. New research suggests it may also have anti-aging properties. Safety Class 1B herbs are the same as Class 1A, except that they have properties which may alter how medications affect the body. Interactions have not been proven, but they are biologically plausible. For example, astragalus is not recommended for individuals who are taking immune suppressing drugs because it may counteract them.

Safety Class 1C Adaptogens

Schisandra Berry – Called the “five flavors fruit,” this berry has been traditionally used by Siberian hunters to support energy and stamina. Newer research also suggests that it’s helpful for optimizing immune function. Safety Class 1C herbs are the same as Class 1A, except that they have properties that are known to alter how medications affect the body. In the case of schisandra, WebMD says that schisandra may speed up how quickly some medications are process by the liver.

Safety Class 2B/2D Adaptogens

  • Ashwagandha – Considered beneficial for sleep and adapting to stress – that’s my kind of herb! However, it is not recommended for pregnancy due to conflicting reports about whether it may act as an abortifacient. With regard to breastfeeding, ashwagandha has long been used in the Ayurvedic tradition to support lactation. (Source: Botanical Safety Handbook: 2nd Edition) Read all about ashwagandha here.
  • Licorice root -Considered a harmonizer, or an herb that brings the properties of other herbs together in a formula. It is not recommended during pregnancy, and there are other guidelines regarding its use that need to be considered. Learn more about licorice here.

Unclassified Adaptogens

Unfortunately, no reliable information is available about the safety of rhodiola rosea for pregnant/breastfeeding moms, so avoidance is recommended.

Other Lifestyle Tips

For more information about supporting the adrenals, don’t forget to check out this post.

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Adaptogens For Adrenal Support

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Heather is a holistic health educator, herbalist, DIYer, Lyme and mold warrior. Since founding in 2009, Heather has been taking complicated health research and making it easy to understand. She shares tested natural recipes and herbal remedies with millions of naturally minded mamas around the world. 

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35 thoughts on “The Beginner’s Guide To Adaptogens For Stress Relief And Adrenal Support”

  1. I have taken Ashwaganda, eleuthero and shisandra berry for a couple of years and it makes a huge difference for me. I have done the 24 hour adrenal test and my results showed adrenal fatigue. If I don’t take these herbs for a couple of days I feel exhausted. I am thinking that I would benefit from some of the other herbs mentioned as well. Thank you for mentioning which ones are safe for pregnancy and breastfeeding. I am currently 8 months pregnant.

    • Hi Tosha, have you been taking Ashwaganda during your pregnancy? I’m getting slightly conflicting information regarding whether Ashwaganda is safe during pregnancy…. I take it for my Thyroid disease and am trying to decide if I should stop once I get preggo….

  2. Thank you so much for this article! I stopped taking all of my beloved adaptogens before I became pregnant because I found so much conflicting research about them. I really noticed the first trimester this pregnancy! I’m glad I can start reintroducing some of the safer herbs.
    As always, you are a fountain of knowledge and forever appreciated!

  3. Thank you so much for your time and effort in compiling this list! As always, you have the answers I need one step ahead of my asking the questions! Figuring out which herbs are safe for Pregnancy and Nursing has always been a challenge for me with all the conflicting information out there. I will definitely start using my Ashwaganda and Gensing now that I know 🙂

  4. GREAT article! I’m taking a combo called Endurance Booster by Extremergy. 2 days after starting my hormones became level. Meaning… no more hot flashes.. I was getting 4-5 every day and 4-5 every night! Gone. I’ve been taking it for about 2.5 months now. I sleep WAY better and when I wake up I do not feel that NEED for coffee – although I still enjoy that morning ritual.

  5. I have severe adrenal fatigue and chronic illnesses. My doctor says I’m at ‘the top end of severe’ and there’s nothing more they can do for me.
    I’m reading Dr Wilson book now and I have to say that I found it quite upsetting when I looked back over my life of back to back stressor.
    I’m having to work my way through supplements one at a time. Reishi caused severe migraines and I had to stop it. I can take rhodiola OK though. Cordyceps is next on my list. It’s a slow process doing it this way but hopefully it will be worth it.
    Thanks so much for this helpful post. You have confirmed what I’ve researched as well. Cath xx

  6. Hello, I am wondering what your books would say about astragalus for pre-conception or once pregnancy has been obtained? I love your blog, thank you for all that you do!!!
    xo V

  7. So have you experienced depersonalization due to your adrenal fatigue? I had a terrible panic attack back in December and I’ve been dealing with it since then and it’s pretty hard, scary and stressful to feel that way everyday, so I wonder if any of you have experienced this and felt any relief or complete normality with the adaptogens? Thanks in advance and blessing to all

      • Hello, I know this thread is from along time ago but I’m going to chance it anyways. If you see this can you tell me what brand of Gaba that you use? I know alot of them don’t cross the BB Barrier. Thank you very much if you happen to read this…

    • Hi Yessenia, do you feel better now ? I experienced the same thing long ago (panick attack & anxiety everyday during months), now I’m fine but that time was terrible. I think it can be linked to different things. Choice to make in life, burn out, or changes in your routine… (medicines, stopping pill, hormonal issues…). Hope you’re good now !

  8. As good as some of these things are….what is truly needed is a diet rich in GOOD fats. That is what supports weak adrenals. I am currently under the care a practioner who understands Nutritional Balancing . Weston A. Price foundation and a proper understanding of food will bring you back. I am recovering from severe adrenal fatigue, depression, anxiety ……..

  9. I love adaptogens! I’ve been taking ashwagandha for the past several months and have seen huge improvements in my mood (less stressed, more positive and calm). And then I started to notice the long term benefits of much better sleep. Along with this, my workouts have been amazing and I’m able to maintain my energy throughout 🙂

  10. Hi, what herb can you suggest for a mother of 1 who have stop seeing her mensuration for 6yrs and wants to have more children. Any herb that can make her menses to be restored.

  11. I have Crohn’s disease and am taking immune suppressing drugs, but my fatigue is so debilitating at times. Does anyone know which of the herbs could help? Thanks everyone ?

  12. I’m always searching for ways to help myself and this article is brilliant, certainly food for thought and I shall be studying these herbs more. Thankyou for your information .

  13. I’ve recently found liquid blends of these from herb pharm by Dr. Aviva Romm. There are three blends, all of which are wonderful and have helped me a great deal, and takes the guesswork out of how much to take. Best part, you can take all three or just 1 or 2, whatever you feel you need most!

  14. Hi,

    I had a bad case of Adrenal Fatigue, it’s taken me 2 years to restore. I would say I am about 95% better. However it can come back from time to time but not as bad. Would you say there would be a certain dosage of adaptegenic herbs to take on a daily bases to maintain and support my adrenals. Or are these only good for recovery?

  15. Currently pregnant in my second trimester, and just double checking, you said maca is safe? your friend Katie of wellness mama and other sites have said the opposite. Also wondering of you have any information of chaga, lions mane, turkey tail, and turmeric during pregnancy/lactation. thank you, Heather. I really enjoy ad appreciate your blog and natural insight.

    • Hi Abby, according to The Botanical Safety Handbook maca is a safety class 1A herb – the safest rating possible. This category is described as:

      “Herbs that can be safely consumed when used appropriately.

      History of safe traditional use
      No case reports of significant adverse events with high probability of causality
      No significant adverse events in clinical trials
      No identified concerns for use during pregnancy or lactation
      No innately toxic constituents
      Toxicity associated with excessive use is not a basis for exclusion from this class
      Minor or self-limiting side effects are not bases for exclusion from this class”

      You can read more about maca and pregnancy/breastfeeding in this post:

    • Hi there I’m a nursing mom to my 19 month old and trying to take adaptogens to help with stress and other things, is it safe for me ?

    • Some of the suggestions in this post may be helpful but definitely talk to your healthcare provider about what he/she might suggest modifying for breastfeeding, especially when it comes to supporting detoxification.

  16. Hi,
    I’ve been reading everywhere great results on taking ashwagandha and I tried it out with a bottle of 120 and I didn’t feel any different. I’m confused.

  17. hello,

    And how about the safe and right dosage if you combine some adaptogens?
    I would like to combine these in powder formula


    Can I take the daily dosage each of them safe?
    Or Is there a limit for the combined mix?

    For example lets says that the safe daily dosage is 500mg.
    If you combine all the 6 different adaptogens… can you take 6 times 500 mg?

    Or is the daily dosage limited for the combined mix?


    • Andrea, although it’s possible to give general dosage guidelines, what’s appropriate in terms of blends will vary based on an individuals age, weight, any medications that are being taken, and issues that are being addressed. I recommend reaching out to a certified herbalist for guidance on creating your blend.

  18. Sign me up for your newsletter and send me the ebook Kitchen Apothecary: 25+ Natural Remedies Using Ingredients From Your Pantry ! Thanks, Carol