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Adaptogens are plants, herbs and mushrooms that have long been used in the world of alternative medicine to combat stress and fatigue. So are they worth incorporating as supplements to boost fitness performance?  Wellness writer Lisa Bowman investigates.

Despite them only recently coming onto the western wellness radar, adaptogens have been around for centuries– often used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. As natural substances thought to help the body adapt to physical, biological and/or chemical stressors, it’s no wonder that there are now thousands of supplements containing adaptogens on the market claiming to reduce fatigue, alleviate anxiety and boost libido. After all, who isn’t tired and stressed these days? 

A quick google for adaptogens will bring up hundreds of articles boasting the same benefits, but the truth is somewhat more murky. Claims are based on anecdotal evidence rather than legitimate scientific studies. 

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For those of us interested in herbal fitness supplements, we have to tread carefully and do our own research – taking anecdotal evidence with a pinch of salt and remembering that what may work for one person may not work for us. There’s certainly no harm in trying out adaptogens for fitness as they have a range of overall health benefits – just don’t expect miracles.  

What are adaptogens and what health benefits can they offer?

“My experience with adaptogens is generally very positive,” says Dr Jess Braid, founder of Adio Health. “I personally take them regularly and have seen that my endurance and recovery from strenuous exercise (regular karate and horse riding) is much better than when I was younger. My sister sees the same improvement after tennis and gym work.”

When it comes to her clinical work, Dr Braid tells Stylist that she often suggests adaptogens like eleuthrococcus (Siberian ginseng) and astragalus to patients who are preparing for endurance events like triathlons or marathons to help their body recover from post-event fatigue, and prevent them getting ill after (a commonly reported phenomenon). “With my patients building muscle and doing lots of gym work, I’ve seen good results using ashwagandha over several months.” 

With that in mind, here are the most studied or turned-to adaptogens within the fitness space and what benefits they may offer to your strength, endurance or speed.

6 adaptogens that may make you stronger


Ashwagandha is a shrub commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine (one of the world’s oldest alternative medicine systems, originating in India over 3,000 years ago). Studies have shown that ashwagandha has the potential to relieve stress, enhance cardiorespiratory endurance and increase muscle mass and strength when used alongside resistance training.

Ashwagandha is commonly taken as a capsule or powder, often ingested at night to aid restful sleep. The powder is quite bitter, so I personally prefer it mixed with warm coconut milk and a small amount of coconut syrup before bed, and companies like Indigo Herbs sell great organic ashwagandha powders. 

It’s a lot easier to just pop a capsule though, as much as I love the idea of winding down with a cup of hot milk. Check out Holland & Barrett’s ashwagandha capsules if that’s more your vibe. 


Ginseng is the collective name of a variety of plants, and it’s a herbal supplement that’s been used for centuries in Chinese medicine. Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng) is the most commonly used and is thought to boost energy, lower blood sugar and improve focus.

Studies have shown that panax ginseng can also reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammatory responses, though sample sizes are often small.

If you want to try supplementing with ginseng, Love Life Supplements’ panax ginseng capsules are an easy way of doing so. 

Ashwaghanda has long been used to soothe stress and aid sleep.


Rhodiola rosea is a herb, and its roots are thought to relieve anxiety, depression and fatigue. Studies have shown rhodiola can enhance physical performance and alleviate mental fatigue, though further research is needed as scholars have questioned the methods used in many of these trials. One 2017 study showed promising results for rhodiola’s use as an aid for people with symptoms of prolonged fatigue, with positive feedback reported after just one week of use.

“Rhodiola works as an adaptogen, helping to reduce fatigue and exhaustion from prolonged stressful situations,” explains Joe Welstead, CEO of Motion Nutrition. “Effectively, it can help you bounce back after intense mental or physical strain and is recommended during particularly stressful times.”

Rhodiola is taken as a capsule, tablet or tincture, and best taken in the morning, as it can be stimulating. Nature’s Best does high strength tablets, or Baldwins rhodiola root tincture may be more up your street if you struggle with swallowing tablets. 


Maca root hails from Peru and has been used traditionally for centuries to increase libido and boost energy levels. Yellow maca is commonly ingested as a supplement in dried powder form, and has a kind of butterscotch flavour that tastes delicious in banana smoothies (in my humble opinion). As my go-to jet lag aid, I wondered if it could also help my eternal quest for more energy when working out.

Unfortunately, despite many articles hailing its medicinal properties, there’s very little legitimate scientific evidence to support maca’s fitness benefits in humans. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned from researching this article, it’s to personally check the studies that articles often cite – they often have small sample sizes or the subjects are rats.) 

Northumbria University did a pilot study on the effects of maca on endurance performance and sexual desire in trained cyclists back in 2009. Their findings showed promising results in both areas, but the sample size was small (eight), and the trial took place over 14 days; adaptogens usually need longer than that to work their (potential) magic. Unfortunately, further fitness research in humans is lacking, though one study did show that maca acted as an energiser in healthy men.

Clinical trials have also shown that maca can improve energy, mood and libido, while decreasing anxiety, but again, these trials are usually in rats. One study showed improved swimming endurance in rats, but again, this hasn’t been tested in humans.

There are tons of websites claiming maca increases testosterone, but studies actually indicate that it doesn’t. So, while maca has potential to act as an energiser and libido enhancer (with plenty of anecdotal evidence claiming it works wonders), it may be best not to pin all your PB hopes on it, though it has plenty of other, scientifically-backed health benefits including being packed with vitamin C, copper and iron as well as antioxidant-rich polyphenols.


Not just an essential of Indian/Sri Lankan cuisine, turmeric root is thought to reduce inflammation, thereby reducing muscle soreness after exercise.

A recent review on curcumin (the main compound in turmeric and the reason it’s yellow) showed promising results with supplementing curcumin for sport, including decreased pain and muscle damage, superior recovery and muscle performance, and better psychological and physiological response during training.

Turmeric can be incorporated into your cooking (who doesn’t love a curry?), though dosage is harder to gauge this way. Curcumin has low water solubility, so is best taken with fat to give it something to bind to, aiding gut absorption. Wild Nutrition’s full spectrum turmeric capsules make this easier as they contain essential oils (plus, the jars are refillable – an environmental bonus). 

Or, you could make a turmeric latte with dried turmeric powder/grated turmeric root, and milk. Studies have also shown that turmeric and black pepper are a dream duo – when combined with curcumin, black pepper’s active component piperine can increase bioavailability by 2,000%. So be sure to crack a little black pepper into your latte.

Turmeric is one of the more studied adaptogens, with evidence to suggest it can help with DOMS, recovery and psychological response during training.


Turns out that mushrooms are indeed magic: there are a number of them containing adaptogenic properties, including reishi, cordyceps and lion’s mane.

Reishi mushroom is thought to boost the immune system, reduce fatigue and improve heart health, while it’s been claimed that cordyceps can aid exercise performance, fight inflammation (perfect for recovery!) and improve cardiovascular health. It’s alleged that lion’s mane can increase energy, accelerate fat metabolism and reduce inflammation. 

There isn’t a huge amount of scientific studies on the effects on mushrooms on exercise performance, though a 2010 paper showed improved performance in healthy elderly subjects when supplemented with 333mg of cordyceps. However, the sample size was small with only 20 subjects. Another study showed that corydyceps improved blood flow and there are several studies linking lion’s mane to a decrease in physical fatigue, but these are in mice.

I’ve been taking Hifas de Terra Mico Rei reishi mushroom capsules every morning with my coffee, and while it could just be psychosomatic, I do feel like they give me a boost on my runs. I’m usually limited by how far I can run on an empty stomach in the morning but have found my performance has been boosted since taking them. 

It’s pretty common to take your mushrooms in a dried, powdered form in coffee – Naturya Mushroom Superblend contains reishi, maitake and shiitake, while London Nootropics Grind blend mixes coffee with lion’s mane and rhodiola. It’s worth saying that if you buy a blend rather than a pre-mixed coffee, it can alter the taste of your morning cup of Joe, so you can also sprinkle on top of savoury meals.

Go for adaptogen blends rather than single ingredient supplements

When shopping for adaptogen supplements, you’ll find plenty of blends mixed with ‘superfoods’ on the shelves, but are these beneficial?

“Most adaptogens are traditional herbs and are used within blends of herbs as well as occasionally on their own,” explains Dr Braid. “Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs are often combined with up to 12 other herbs in a formula and we find this can make them gentler (having less side effects) and also more effective (as the other herbs can support the action of the main herb).

“This means that many adaptogens can work well with other herbs and superfoods (which are usually just herbs we like to eat!) but quality and understanding should be used when making these blends, for example, maca can be quite stimulating for some people and put with a strong herb like ginseng can in my experience make someone feel ‘wired’.  

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“Blending with some of the medicinal mushrooms like reishi, cordyceps or chaga can be a great choice as they also support our immune system and can be calming and supportive too. There is little research on the blending of adaptogens with superfoods but a long history of the use of these herbs can guide us.”

Some people actually recommend using blends to figure out what works best for you and your body.

“To give yourself the best chance of a positive outcome, it’s preferable to use a carefully formulated blend of adaptogenic ingredients in supplement form, rather than a shot in the dark with a high dose of one single ingredient,” Welstead says.

“Given your unique set of circumstances, a high dose of a single ingredient may have an opposite effect to what you are looking for. However, if you did choose to supplement with a single ingredient, take care to start with a small dose and increase incrementally to find your therapeutic dose.” 

Adaptogen blends can come in tablet, powder or tincture form, and often, it’s better to take a blend than as a single supplement.

Motion Nutrition’s Power Up capsules contain the adaptogens panax ginseng and lion’s mane mushroom, as well as a whole host of other energising plants, while Earth’s Secret Calm capsules contain a mix of ashwagandha, holy basil extract, rhodiola rosea, L-theanine and black pepper, claiming to combat daily stress and improve focus. 

You can even mix your adaptogens with CBD: CBDfx CBD gummies with turmeric and spirulina are an easy way to take adaptogenic turmeric with your daily dose of cannabinoid.  

How to take adaptogens safely

Thankfully, adaptogens are pretty safe to use – as long as you take the usual precautions. “Herbs contain phytochemical (active compounds) that could potentially interact with a medication,” advises Dr Braid. “You should always speak to your GP if you are taking herbs, or see a registered medical herbalist who can advise you further.”

There’s very little research on recommended daily dose of adaptogens, but luckily, there’s minimal chance of taking too much.

“Provided that you use adaptogens under the guidance of a health professional such as a nutritional therapist, or within the recommended use guidelines prescribed by ethically minded brands, an overdose is extremely unlikely,” says Welstead.

It’s thought that most adaptogens take a while to get to work, so they’re generally not something that will change your life overnight. Braid continues: “Many clinical trials of adaptogens are done over three-to-12 weeks suggesting that we see the best impact over a longer period of time.

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“Traditional use also suggests that this group of nourishing herbs can take time to bring a patient to their full strength. Once this natural balance is achieved, it may seem like the adaptogens no longer work, but because they’re not drugs, rather than resistance it’s likely you’ve reached their peak action and they’ve completed their function.”

She advises working with a herbalist to constantly assess your body and find the adaptogen that’s best for your ever-changing body at that current time. 

For more nutrition tips, check out the rest of the Strong Women Training Club library.

Images: Getty

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