How many adaptogens exist—is the number finite and fixed, how are they classified?
It is hard to say—there is much less research currently than there should be. There are about eight herbs that are well-researched adaptogens, another ten that are probable adaptogens, and twelve others that are possible adaptogens (too little research to be conclusive). More research would certainly find that many other plants around the world fit the definition of an adaptogen, but have just not been discovered yet. At the same time, there are dozens of herbs that people claim are adaptogens that are not.
Do you think adaptogens are safe for self-diagnosis, or do you need a professional? What about mixing them?
It depends on several factors. As mentioned, adaptogens are nontoxic in normal therapeutic doses. But one size does not fit all. Some adaptogens are stimulating (red ginseng, white Asian ginseng, rhodiola), some are calming (schisandra, ashwagandha, reishi, cordyceps). Some are moistening (American ginseng, codonopsis, shatavari); some are drying (rhodiola, schisandra). If you have dry skin or a dry cough, for instance, the drying adaptogens would be inappropriate for you. Similarly, if you are easily overstimulated, the stimulating adaptogens may cause insomnia or anxiety. Some adaptogens are best for younger, healthy people (eleuthero, rhodiola, holy basil), while others are more appropriate for older, more depleted people (American and Asian ginsengs, cordyceps, shilajit).
The idea is to learn about adaptogens and figure out which one—or which combination—fits you. I wrote my book to help people understand how to use these herbs and the unique “personality” of each.
Note: Adaptogens are not replacements for a healthy lifestyle. Adequate and good quality sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, stress reduction techniques, and healthy lifestyle choices are foundational. Taking adaptogens can help you function better if you have short-term situations when you are not getting enough sleep, or your diet is not what is should be. Using them long-term and continuing to live an unhealthy life just delays the inevitable crash.
How can you be sure you’re getting good quality herbs?
I would suggest sticking with high quality herb companies, where the principals are actually herbalists—who follow the FDA’s GMPs (good manufacturing practices)—herbs are their business (rather than nutritional supplements), and they have organically grown or consciously wildcrafted herbs.
David Winston is an herbalist and ethnobotanist with forty-seven years of training in Chinese, Native American, and Western herbal traditions. He has been in clinical practice for forty years and is an herbal consultant to physicians, herbalists, and researchers throughout the U.S. and Canada. He is the president of Herbalist & Alchemist, Inc., a manufacturer of herbal products, and the author and co-author of several books, including Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.