Adaptogens and Their Role in Medicinal Mushrooms

Jillian Jastrzembski

The term “adaptogen” was first coined in the 1940s, accompanying the idea that certain herbal substances could improve performance in already healthy people. Adaptogens are herbal substances that help your body adapt to stress and restore a state of balance. Sounds a bit like a fantasy, doesn’t it?

As we know from fairy tales, the best place to forage for a fantastical substance is deep in the forest. Exotic mushrooms like reishi, chaga, and cordyceps certainly look the part. This group of mushrooms (called medicinal mushrooms) is reported to have diverse pharmacological properties. They are anti-inflammatory, anti-depressive, immunomodulating, antiviral and antibacterial, neuroprotective and osteoprotective.  

Both adaptogens and medicinal mushrooms have the folklore to back up their magical qualities – they’ve been used for centuries in traditional medicines. But where exactly is the overlap? Do medicinal mushrooms count as adaptogens? How do they work in the body?

What are Adaptogens?

It might seem like an ambiguous term, but actually “adaptogen” originally had a very specific definition. Here are the criteria that were laid out for an herb to be considered an adaptogen:

Non-specific: Adaptogens should be effective against all types of stress, be it physical, chemical, biological, or even emotional. Stress can come in so many forms. A looming deadline. A passive aggressive email from your colleague. Lack of sleep. Sometimes we self-impose acute stress for health benefits, like fasting and exercise. Sometimes stress comes in the form of illness or environmental pollution. Adaptogenic herbs can theoretically provide support for all of these conditions.

Maintain homeostasis: An adaptogen should help the body to maintain homeostasis in the face of external or internal stressors. Homeostasis is the state of relatively stable equilibrium that the body strives to maintain through an elaborate symphony of physiological mechanisms. The role of the adaptogen is to support the body in this goal. That’s what we mean when we say that adaptogens help to restore the body to balance.

Non-harming: Ideally, an adaptogen does not harm or interfere with the regular functioning of the body. This comes back to the idea that adaptogens are substances that can optimize performance and well-being in healthy people. This makes adaptogens very different from pharmaceuticals and even many supplements, because in theory, they should have no side-effects. Pharmaceuticals are contraindicated in people who don’t need them. That is, you wouldn’t take a blood pressure medication if you didn’t have high blood pressure. Adaptogens could theoretically be taken by anyone.

Another example is coffee. Coffee has some qualities in common with adaptogens, because it is taken universally by healthy people to support performance and boost mood. But because coffee can interfere with the sleep-wake cycle, it is disqualified.

The same can be said for cannabis. Cannabis is one of the most popular substances for reducing stress and anxiety, but because it interferes with cognitive function and other normal physiological processes in the body, it cannot be said to be an adaptogen.

How Do Adaptogens Interact With Your Body?

It’s important to note that adaptogens are generally defined by what they do rather than how they do it. In other words, adaptogen is a functional term, not a biochemical one.

That said, as research uncovers mechanistic commonalities among adaptogens, biochemistry is increasingly becoming part of the accepted definition.

Researchers have found that adaptogens primarily work by affecting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis for short. The HPA axis is a feedback loop of neurological and endocrine pathways. These pathways exist to maintain homeostasis during times of stress.

Some adaptogens (coined “secondary adaptogens”), do not interact directly with the HPA axis. However, they indirectly affect it by otherwise modulating immune, endocrine, and/or nervous system function.

There’s also a class called “adaptogen companions.” While these substances don’t technically fulfill all the requirements of adaptogens, they may interact synergistically with true adaptogens to enhance their effects.



Examples of Adaptogens

These are some of the herbs most commonly associated with adaptogenic activities:

·       Ashwagandha

·       Maca

·       Ginseng

·       Schisandra berry

·       Reishi

·       Cordyceps

Are Mushroom Gummies Considered Adaptogens?

Reishi and cordyceps, the last two on the list, are two examples of medicinal mushrooms. Other medicinal mushrooms you might have heard of include Turkey Tail, Chaga, and Lion’s Mane.

Medicinal mushrooms, sometimes called functional mushrooms, do not have psychotropic properties like psilocybin shrooms or amanita muscaria. They do, however, have other valuable pharmacological properties. Some of these properties include:

·       Antiallergic

·       Antibacterial

·       Antiviral

·       Anti-inflammatory

·       Anti-oxidative

·       Immunomodulating

·       Anti-depressive

·       Neuroprotective

·       Osteoprotective

These properties could definitely qualify as adaptogenic. However, depending on how strictly you define adaptogen, we probably don’t know enough yet about most medicinal mushrooms to officially classify them as adaptogens. Research is still in early stages for most of these mushrooms.

In the meantime, medicinal mushrooms are definitely marketed and used like adaptogens. Blends of medicinal shrooms are made into drink mixes, added to coffees or teas, or made into gummies and mushroom chocolates.

Mushroom gummies are mixed with blends of hemp extracts, including THC and/or CBD and other cannabinoids. People can consume these as a therapy that incorporates benefits of cannabinoids in addition to the health-promoting properties of functional mushrooms.


Reishi is known best by its Japanese name, but it is also called Ling Zhi in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is one of the most famous adaptogenic substances, and has even been called “the fungus of immortality.” Traditionally in Chinese herbalism, it has been used to calm anxiety and treat insomnia. Like many adaptogenic herbs, it has “tonifying” properties, as it is said to nourish the body and restore balance.


Cordyceps is another adaptogenic mushroom that has been used for more than 1500 years in Traditional Chinese Medicine, also known by its pinyin name Dong Cong Xia Cao. This herb is one of the most coveted and precious (read: expensive) yang tonics. It is said to restore the essence, meaning it can treat symptoms of aging or extreme stress. True, high-quality cordyceps is prohibitively expensive, but affordable, lower-quality versions can still be effective.

Are Adaptogens Safe?

This comes back to the idea that adaptogens are non-harming because they do not interfere with the body’s natural processes. Based on this, adaptogens should be universally safe and have hardly any contraindications. In general, this is probably true.

However, remember that we have mostly defined adaptogens functionally, meaning that we don’t always have a complete picture of the biochemical mechanisms at play. Moreover, we don’t always have a complete functional picture of these substances either, which makes it more difficult to be absolutely certain that they are safe for long-term use. There is also dose to consider. Remember that the dose makes the poison. These herbs are unregulated and widely promoted, meaning that they could be at risk for over-consumption. If you are on other medications, pharmaceuticals, or supplements, interactive effects between substances is an important consideration.

If you have any additional questions about adaptogens, medicinal mushrooms, or any of our products, please don’t hesitate to contact us for a free consultation.

Adaptogens and Their Role in Medicinal Mushrooms
Explore adaptogens & medicinal mushrooms: origins, benefits, & safety. Learn about popular examples & their potential in wellness products in this blog.
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Adaptogens and Their Role in Medicinal Mushrooms
April 16, 2024