8 Foods High in Adaptogens and Why They Matter

Curious about adaptogens? You're not the only one.

<p>Aniko Hobel/Getty Images</p>

Aniko Hobel/Getty Images

Though adaptogens have been embraced for thousands of years, these compounds have recently resurfaced as a hot health trend. As a result, adaptogen-rich foods have soared in popularity, with products like mushroom coffee and tea taking the market by storm. But what exactly are adaptogens, and is there legitimate evidence to back up their touted benefits? Where can you find them outside of certain mushroom varieties? Learn all this and more in this adaptogen tell-all.

What are Adaptogens and How Do They Benefit The Body?

Adaptogens are a group of plant-based compounds, though there are also some synthetic varieties. “Foods rich in these compounds have been used widely throughout history, especially in Chinese Traditional Medicine and Ayurveda, starting around 3000 B.C.E. However, the term ‘adaptogen' didn't enter our lexicon until around the 1940s,” says Megan Hilbert, MS, RDN, Lead Dietitian and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Top Nutrition Coaching.

Their primary function is to help the body manage stress more effectively through moderating its response to cortisol (the common stress hormone) and calming the nervous system. “Other main benefits of adaptogens include combatting fatigue, enhancing mental clarity and performance, and even reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression,” says Hilbert. An August 2021 review published in Nutrients also cites that these compounds can help reduce inflammation, boost the immune system response, and improve physical performance.

There are over 70 naturally-occurring adaptogens known today. Foods high in these compounds are often referred to as “functional foods,” as they offer health benefits outside of the nutrients they contain. And while adaptogens have been utilized since ancient times, their recent surge in popularity started around the early 2010s.

Related: 14 Healthiest Breakfast Foods to Jump-Start Your Day, According to Dietitians

8 Foods High in Adaptogens


Though functional mushrooms are often the poster children for adaptogens, there are plenty of other foods rich in these compounds. Let’s dive into some of the best adaptogen sources (including some functional mushroom varieties) so you can start reaping their benefits.

Turmeric

It’s no secret that turmeric is a powerful superfood, largely due to the curcumin it contains (a buzzworthy bioactive compound in its own right). While curcumin is widely recognized for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, many may not realize that it’s also a potent adaptogen! Research shows that curcumin can help lower cortisol levels to reduce bodily stress. This benefit has a smattering of positive side effects, including reduced incidence or severity of anxiety and depression

When cooking with turmeric, a little goes a long way. Its subtly sweet, peppery flavor and brilliant golden orange color adds intrigue to stews, curries, pastas, tray bakes, baked goods, smoothies, and even homemade lattes. Pro tip: Be sure to include a source of fat in your turmeric dishes to best reap its full benefits, as curcumin is fat-soluble.

Lion’s Mane Mushrooms

When it comes to functional mushrooms, adaptogen-rich lion’s mane are often one of the most talked-about varieties. “Lion’s mane mushroom has historically been used to target brain health in particular,” Hilbert explains. This is partly related to the neurotrophic factors, or protein biomolecules, it contains. Neurotrophic factors encourage growth and differentiation of neurons (or nerve cells) that transmit information in the brain, helping to reduce brain inflammation, support mental clarity and focus, treat mood disorders, and prevent neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s. These fungi have even been linked to improved gut, heart, sleep, and metabolic health.

Ironically, lion’s mane mushrooms are eerily reminiscent of a brain in appearance – but don’t let that deter you from experimenting with them in the kitchen. Their meaty texture and neutral flavor makes them an ideal vegan alternative for tacos, pastas, sliders, salads, and soups.

Maca Root

If you’re tapped into the latest health trends then you may be familiar with maca root…despite its rich history as a diet staple in the Andean region of Peru. This cruciferous vegetable is a super effective adaptogen, offering neuroprotective benefits to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Maca root also serves as an antioxidant, boosting the immune response and reducing inflammation throughout the body.

While you’re unlikely to stumble upon maca root in the produce section of your local grocery store, it can be found in powdered form either online or at certain supermarkets. Maca has a nutty, slightly sweet taste, perfect for adding to baked goods, oatmeal, smoothies, chia pudding, lattes, waffles, and pancakes.

Reishi Mushrooms

Reishi is another mushroom that has recently received a lot of media attention for its adaptogenic properties. “This mushroom has been used for centuries to support the immune system, as well as to reduce restlessness and low mood through its support of the adrenal glands, which are responsible for secreting cortisol,” Hilbert explains. Additionally, a 2021 review found these mushrooms to be associated with improved brain, metabolic, liver, heart, and immune health—helping to ward off cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Reishi is most commonly found in powdered or extracted form for purchase, and it can easily be mixed into coffee, tea, or smoothies. Though, you can also sneak reishi into sauces, stews, and even baked goods.

Related: 9 Vitamins That Promote Better Sleep—and How to Get Them

Goji Berries

As one of the more recognizable foods in this round-up, goji berries also exhibit adaptogenic properties. Because of this, they can help boost performance, energy levels, and mood while also supporting healthy sleep. These antioxidant-rich superfoods also offer heart, metabolic, and immune health benefits.

Goji berries can be found at many grocery stores nationwide, usually dried. Their sweet, tart flavor makes them the ideal standalone snack, as well as a smoothie bowl, trail mix, baked good, and oatmeal addition.

Shiitake Mushrooms

This hearty, umami-rich mushroom is already sitting in many kitchens across the country. But aside from being a delicious ingredient in soups, pastas, stir fries, and roasted side dishes, shiitake mushrooms offer a whole host of health benefits as an adaptogenic food. “Shiitakes contain eritadenine, a compound known to reduce cholesterol in the blood, as well as beta-glucan, a type of fiber that reduces inflammation and improves gut health,” says Hilbert. These nutrients also help to boost overall immune health.

If you can’t find fresh shiitakes at your local market, they’re often available dried. These easily rehydrate in hot water to then be added to recipes, or to make a flavorful, warming broth—the original mushroom tea, if you will.

Holy Basil

Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is considered to be one of the most powerful adaptogens you can find. This herb helps protect the body from chemical stress associated with environmental pollution and heavy metal exposure, as well as physical stress from strenuous exercise or fatigue. Tulsi has also been identified as an effective treatment option for chronic illnesses, like metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Holy basil is definitely more challenging to track down compared to other basil varieties, but is widely available online in either dried, tincture, or supplement form – or bagged as tea. Tulsi tea is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to reap the benefits of this herb.

Licorice Root

And lastly, we have licorice root as our final adaptogen-rich food. In addition to its adaptogenic properties, licorice is loaded with bioactive plant compounds that help reduce oxidative stress throughout the body. These also work to boost immunity, support the respiratory system, ward off viruses, and reduce inflammation. Plus, licorice root is ultra soothing for the gastrointestinal system, alleviating gastric ulcers and promoting a healthy gut microbiome.

Licorice root is not to be mistaken for the nostalgic candy, as this pungent herb packs quite a punch. Find it in the tea or dietary supplement aisle at the grocery store.

Related: 8 Sneaky Signs You’re Walking Around With Poor Gut Health

The Bottom Line

While some may deem adaptogens “woo-woo,” the impressive amount of peer-reviewed evidence backing their benefits proves otherwise. In a world full of stressors, adaptogens are a minimally-invasive way to cope—and the health foods market has fully caught word, offering a variety of adaptogen-rich foods and products.

So, whether you pick up some goji berries on your next grocery run, mix up your morning routine with a trendy mushroom coffee, or brew up some tulsi tea, there are so many nourishing ways to reap the benefits of adaptogens.

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