Site logo


achieve a higher state
of cognitive functioning

Adaptogens | Biohack the Body and Brain
19 December 2023 | James Kearslake
Table of Contents
Fun Fact

Adaptogens were first classified in the 1940’s by the Soviet scientist Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, who had been tasked with studying military psychotropic stimulants for the Soviet army. His studies led to him identifying plants which offered similar enhancements to cognitive functioning without the adverse side effects that come with psychotropic stimulants.

What are Adaptogens

It still surprises me how few people know about adaptogens.

Put simply, adaptogens are plants which are extremely powerful at reducing stress within the human body without causing adverse or psychedelic side effects.

They do this by modulating the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is responsible for orchestrating the body’s stress response and adaptation mechanisms. More below on how adaptogens work

Adaptogens can be the answer for so many of us who experience stress, anxiety, and overwhelm in the modern day, yet so few people consume them.

Particularly for those wanting to achieve a state of Peak Performance, adaptogens need to be a staple in your daily supplement stack.

They were formally categorised in the 1940’s by and went onto study alternative options for enhanced cognitive function without the damaging side effects of psychotropic stimulants.

In the 1950’s and 60s the research was expanded by the Russian pharmacologist, Dr. Israel I. Brekhman, where much of his research papers on adaptogens are available within the Brekhman Research Library.

Adaptogens have also been used for centuries in Ayurverdic and Traditional Chinese medicine.

Particularly beneficial for reducing the volume of cortisol in the body, promoting cognitive clarity, and enhancing cognitive functioning, it’s odd for me that we are 74 years into research and adaptogens are not incorporated into people’s lifestyle choices.

Benefits of Adaptogens

The benefits of adaptogens also extend beyond hormone regulation.

Studies have shown that adaptogens can protect our cellular network, maintain its health, and regenerate cells within the neural network, improve synaptic activity, intercellular communication, and neurotransmitter uptake efficiency.

Or, as an alternative way of saying that, adaptogens improve the speed and efficiency at which you brain operates, learns, memorises, and executes.

Benefits include:

Balances Hormones and Stress Hormone Regulation

It is adaptogen’s ability to modulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which helps maintain homeostasis, or hormonal balance, including regulation of the stress hormone cortisol. More below on how adaptogens work

2. Enhances Cellular Energy Production

By modulating the body’s hormone levels and maintaining cortisol at baseline levels, the reduction in stress enhances the body’s resilience to stress and priming it for optimal energy production and maintenance.

3. Supports Neurotransmitter Uptake

Studies also show some adaptogens support the uptake of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Healthy levels of serotonin and efficient uptake of the neurotransmitter are key to maintaining a positive mood and feelings of joy. Norepinephrine helps maintain attention and focus, which, when combined with healthy levels of serotonin and dopamine, primes our brain for operating from a place of peak performance.

4. Modulates Immune System

Adaptogens have also been shown to enhance macrophages (a type of white blood cell), natural killer (NK) cells, and cytotoxic T cells which are all components of the immune system, working today to defend the body against disease and infection. 

At the same time, adaptogens are protecting other cells from the oxidative stress that is produced as a by-product by the immune system, while also maintaining energy production to keep up the energy-intensive process of the immune response.

5. Improves Cellular Communication

 Adaptogens are also known for maintaining brain health and improve cognition, memory, and learning. In particular, some adaptogens can improve the cellular communication network through their overall benefits for the brain.

In 2009, a study showed that ashwagandha was able to recover both neuritic atrophy and synaptic loss

The study goes on to say that we demonstrated that the remarkable enhancement of axonal and dendritic regeneration and synaptic reconstruction was induced by WL-A in the damaged mouse brain as well as in the damaged cultured neurons. 

By improving cellular communication, we are able to improve the speed and accuracy at which our mind operates, uplifting productivity and moving us into peak performance.

How Adaptogens Work

The plants bring the body back to a state of homeostasis, or hormonal balance, which is critical for our body’s optimal functioning, and cognitive and physical performance.

It is the organic compounds within adaptogens that interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is a complex system of glands, hormones, and receptors in the human body. The HPA axis is key to the body maintaining the body’s state of homeostasis, energy metabolism, and regulating our stress response.

More below on adaptogens balancing hormones

Adaptogens Balancing Hormones

Adaptogens help the HPA axis maintain balance of our hormone levels, meaning that if there’s too much of one hormone the adaptogen will help to lower it, and, to the contrary, if there isn’t enough of a hormone, the adaptogen helps it replenish.

And yes men, you have hormones too, contrary to the widely considered and derogatory view that ‘she’s feeling hormonal’ means they relate solely to a woman’s menstrual cycle.

The human body has over 50 hormones and regulate many key biological processes in the body including metabolism and reproduction.

Within this list of hormones is cortisol, the stress hormone which the body produced every morning from waking, as well as being the hormone which floods the body during a fight or flight response.

Although cortisol plays a key role in our daily functioning, when the body has too much accumulated cortisol from not expending the surplus during a fight or flight response, it causes severe damage to the brain and body including impaired cognitive functioning and physical performance, chronic inflammation, and changes in our mood and sleep.

Adaptogens are extremely powerful tools for reducing cortisol levels in the body, bringing it back to a baseline level that prevents the damaging effects of cortisol accumulation.

It isn’t just cortisol that causes damage to the body when its hormone levels are out of balance. Hormonal imbalances are commonly the cause of severe fatigue, reduced mood, digestive issues, heart rate changes, problems with vision and oversensitivity to light, decreased sex drive, and increase in thirst and urination.

The imbalances also affect us externally, including rapid weight gain, muscle weakness and muscular fatigue, joint pain and weakness, and skin and hair changes causing fine, brittle hair, dry skin, or a puffy, rounded face.

Therefore, with our hormones playing a role in so many of the body’s primary functions and having damaging consequences when not balanced, it’s important we aim for a state of homeostasis to maintain optimal cognitive and physical functioning.

Given there are no home kits to test and track our hormones, there is no definitive way for us to know they’re out of balance or are simply suffering other conditions.

Adaptogens, therefore, offer us an ability to naturally maintain the internal equilibrium of our hormone levels, with ease.

They’re incredible supplements that we all have available to us, and I truly believe every person should be including adaptogens within their daily lifestyle, irrespective of their other lifestyle choices.

Classification of an Adaptogen

With the work Lazarev and Brekham did, it was agreed that for a plant or herb to be classified as an adaptogen it had to meet three criteria:

  1. produce a nonspecific response, i.e. increase the power of resistance against multiple (physical, chemical or biological) stressors;
  2. have a normalizing influence, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor;
  3. be innocuous and not influence normal body functions more than required.

In 2023, an official classification has not been set by any country’s regulatory body, so generally the adaptogen classification agreed with Lazarev and Brekham remains the standard for classifying adaptogenic plants and herbs.

However, adaptogens are now widely classified as either Primary Adaptogens, Secondary Adaptogens, or Herbal Adaptogen Companions, following the research and development of the sub-categories by Donnie Yance, a master herbalist and nutritionist, who published the findings in his book Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism: Elite Herbs and Natural Compounds for Mastering Stress, Aging, and Chronic Disease.

More below on Primary and Secondary Adaptogens

Primary Adaptogens VS Secondary Adaptogens

Primary Adaptogens

As outlined in Yance’s book, a primary adaptogen are those herbs and plants that meet the classical definition as outlined by Brekhman:

  • Adaptogens are safe with no significant side effects or contraindications
  • Adaptogens have a general, nonspecific action to improve resistance to stress
  • Adaptogens have a balancing, normalizing effect on body functions, regardless of the origin of disruption or the direction of the homeostatic disturbance

In his book, Yance expands on the functions of Primary Adaptogens with:

The activity of primary adaptogens is focused on metabolic regulation  through  their  proven effects on  the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis during stress-adaptation responses. They have an ability to maintain or restore homeostasis and allostasis and encourage anabolic restoration. Primary adaptogens enable better response and recovery because they help to smooth out the highs and lows of the neuroendocrine stress response by regulating and normalizing the hormones involved. Primary adaptogens strengthen all systems, promote optimal response and hasten recovery of function, and help to regulate energy use by enhancing cellular energy transfer. Adaptogens enable us to make more efficient use of oxygen, glucose, lipids, and proteins.

Common primary adaptogens are rhodiola rosea, ashwagandha, and Siberian Ginseng.

Secondary Adaptogens

Within Yance’s model, secondary adaptogens are those that ‘meet most, but not all, of the criteria of primary adaptogens’.

The book goes on to say:

Although secondary adaptogens demonstrate some normalizing activity, especially of the immune, nervous, and hormonal systems, they may not directly support the HPA axis.

The protective effects of secondary adaptogens come with regular use when combined with primary adaptogens. Secondary adaptogens share the following attributes:

  • Their normalizing activity focuses on the immune, nervous, or endocrine systems.
  • Their activity may not directly support the HPA axis.
  • While they may meet some, or most, of the qualifications of primary adaptogens, they have yet to be studied extensively.
  • Many of these plants are rich in fatty acids, sterols, and phenolic compounds.
  • Many of these plants enhance anabolic metabolism

Common secondary adaptogens are turmeric, maca root, and horny goat weed.

Herbal Adaptogen Companions

Herbal adaptogen companions are plants and herbs which offer many similar benefits to adaptogens, but do not meet the original criteria set by Brekhman to be classified as an adaptogen.

Yance outlines them in the book as:

I call them adaptogen companions, because their actions enhance or synergize the effects of primary and secondary adaptogens. An herb such as green tea falls under this classification. I also include specific nutritional agents in this classification.

This elite group of herbs and nutritional compounds is used in a supporting role to potentiate primary herbs, harmonize formulations, and, most often, to add high nutritive value. When combined with primary and secondary adaptogens they will significantly increase life span and quality of life.

Common adaptogen companions include curcumin.

Choosing Primary or Secondary Adaptogens

It’s generally recommended that one takes a primary adaptogen to support stress reduction and overall wellbeing, and secondary adaptogens to target a particular deficit or challenge you may be having.

I agree with this, although I recommend individuals cycle round various adaptogens during the year to reap the many benefits that varying adaptogens have to offer. This will also prevent you growing a tolerance to each adaptogen.

To give you an example, after trialling many adaptogens, I have come to determine that rhodiola rosea, Siberian ginseng, maca root, and cordyceps are the three adaptogens that work best for me. Cordyceps recently relegated turmeric within the list.

Given my many years’ experience with adaptogens, I can confidently mix up my stack so that I use a primary adaptogen to target specific functions like it is a secondary adaptogen. As such, you see from my current stack below that cordyceps is a primary adaptogen, but I am using it as a secondary adaptogen to target stamina and endurance.

Other adaptogens which I cycle through are Siberian ginseng (also one of my favourites), ashwagandha, turmeric, reishi mushroom, and shilajit liquid.

You will see how using a similar framework, you can use a variety of adaptogens to sustain feelings of wellbeing, enhance cognitive function, physical performance, and sexual energy. By circulating round varying adaptogens throughout the year, you prevent growing a tolerance, and reap the benefits of changing the different levels of energy and productivity you get from each adaptogen.

My current adaptogen stack is:

Rhodiola Rosea – Primary adaptogen –for feelings of joy, resilience to stress, and cognitive clarity, focus, and attention. I will take it for around three months, daily.

Maca RootSecondary adaptogen –to enhance my sex life, increase the frequency, strength, and sensitivity of my erection, and increase my stamina in the bedroom. Now let me be clear, I have no issues with any of those things, but you don’t need to be experiencing a lessened libido or erectile dysfunction to take maca root. Maca is like taking an already great experience, and then making it infinitely better. So don’t turn your nose up at it; I personally recommend everyone tries maca to spice things up for themselves. Taken 3 – 4 times per week, for around six weeks, it will bring you a new energy to your bedroom activities that will leave you and you partner(s) hungry for more.

CordycepsPrimary adaptogen – to increase my stamina and endurance on track and the gym floor. Since taking cordyceps my running has increased exponentially, effortlessly transitioning me from 50 minute to 80 minute runs, and all done with ease. It’s been a transformative process, and one which has put cordyceps in my new top five adaptogens. Taken daily, for a period of two months on, one month on. Rinse and repeat.

Determine which Adaptogens to Take

Determining which adaptogens are right for you isn’t something you can identify right away – there is no app or smart watch to tell you what you need.

Furthermore, what you determine is the adaptogen you need today will change in a few months’ time as your life evolves.

Sometimes we need the increase in our endurance from cordyceps as we enter marathon training, or seek the cognitive clarity and sense of wellbeing that comes from rhodiola rosea.

The best way to identify which adaptogens work for you is continually trying them – try as many as you can, listen carefully to how your body responds, and take note how each adaptogen benefits you.

As you being to identify which respond best for you, you can then deploy the appropriate adaptogen as you approach changes in your life like a new work or training objective, experience an increase in stress, or need an uplift in your mental health.

However, if like me you prefer to get to an objective much quicker and you’re not keen on trialling different adaptogens, we can provide a consultation with you on what your current goals are, blockers and obstacles, and we will recommend an adaptogen stack for you.

We will provide you with full reasoning on why each adaptogen has been recommended for you, when to take it, and the benefits you should receive from it.

Consultations are £50, to book with us email

Choosing Primary or Secondary Adaptogens

Alternatively, if you are someone who enjoys the trial and error that comes with exploring new supplements, below is the list of adaptogens we recommend you start with.

Read as much as you can on each adaptogen using the content we produce, and from there determine those adaptogens which you think might be beneficial for you right now.

  • Rhodiola rosea – for general feelings of wellbeing, joy, and cognitive clarity
  • Siberian Ginseng – for cognitive sharpness, clarity, and animalistic flow
  • Ashwagandha – for a more subtle improvement to wellbeing, and regeneration of cellular communication and synaptic processing
  • Cordyceps – for an increase in stamina and endurance
  • Reishi Mushroom – to bring the central nervous system right down to a state of peace and calm
  • Maca Root – to enhance sexual energy, enhance the feelings and sensitivity in the bedroom, and to significantly increase the strength and size of yours or your partner’s erection
  • Shatavari Root – for an optimal immune response
  • Turmeric – for its powerful antioxidant properties

Final Thoughts

Adaptogens have been a key component to my life for over ten years – so much of my mental clarity, high performance, and peak productivity has been driven by what I consume, and the way I move my body.

Nutrition is critical to lasting health and happiness, but it is adaptogens that will take your mental focus and clarity to a state of peak performance.

And when you’ve experienced that elevated state of cognitive functioning that you can achieve from adaptogens, there is no going back.

You open the mind up to a new way of thinking, new streams of thought, and creativity you didn’t know existed within you.

Adaptogens open the mind to the best version of you, while also reducing stress, bringing the body to a state of hormonal balance, and improving physical performance in the gym, track and field, and even the bedroom.

They really are nature’s gift to us, and yet still so few people value the true benefits that adaptogens can offer our bodies and mind.

If you want help building an adaptogen stack that activates your individual state of peak performance, email us at and we will schedule a consultation to develop your tailored stack.

Consultations £50

Who is James Kearslake?

Having been biohacking my mind and body long before it became fashionable, I’ve always lived by the benefits of nature’s resources to improve cognitive and physiological performance. Using my years of experience, products, and wellness practices, I’m now helping others elevate their cognitive performance to help build the life they want. I save you the time I’ve spent learning, so you can focus your time on building.

Proudly AI Supported

I proudly use AI to support development of my articles. As a heavily dyslexic person, writing can be a time consuming process with words often jumbled up and sentences the wrong way round. AI has become my crutch; allowing me to share the immense interest in my mind, while making content creation quicker and more accurate. AI is my benefit.

Did you find this useful?
If so, please do share it with others who may also benefit from it.

Affiliate Policy

We only ever recommend products we know offer value to our readers and that we use ourselves.

When recommending these products, we often include affiliate links so that we earn a small commission on sales made, at no expense to you as the reader.

Affiliate commissions are similar to an advertising fee which retailers pay to website owners, and is often the only way website owners can earn money through the content they create. Therefore, we hope you can support us by using our affiliate links if you decide to purchase products after reading our content, as it helps keep the website operating.

Thank you for always sticking by us, and don’t forget to join our newsletter to get ground-breaking content direct in your inbox.

Join thousands of Humans
achieving peak performance

For Body & Mind

we share interesting content,
that develops body and mind.

We are Humans

where are all humans are equal

We are Humans logo

join the community here: