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Elevate your immune system with adaptogens

Reading time: 15 minutes

A group of powerful plants and fantastic fungi known as adaptogens can help your body fend off colds, flu and all manner of bugs this winter. Functional food entrepreneur Tero Isokauppila and herbalist Danielle Ryan Broida reveal all

Adaptogens are the most nutrient-dense, time-tested, ancient natural medicines from around the world. They’re incredibly safe and non­toxic, and these days they’re available and accessible almost anywhere you shop.

This group of medicinal plants and functional mushrooms helps you adapt to all kinds of stressors and situations. To qualify as a true adaptogen, a substance must meet the following three criteria:

  1. They must be nontoxic. They have mini­mal side effects. There is no “toxic load,” meaning taking too much will lead to negative consequences. Instead, there is a “ceiling dose,” so once you take up to a certain amount, the benefits will plateau, as your body cannot utilize more. Many plants have wonderful health applications (like Bryonia alba, or wild hops), so they might be considered a superfood, but their toxic load excludes them from the adaptogenic category.
  2. They must be nonspecific. Unlike most other medicines, they build adaptive energy in your body rather than exert a spe­cific effect, like stimulation or relaxation. This mechanism occurs through a range of phytonutrients that affect multiple systems in the body to encourage balance.
  3. They must have a normalizing effect. They adapt their actions depending on a person’s unique needs to bring the body into a normalized or balanced state, affecting the immune, endocrine, nervous, cardiovascular and digestive systems.

By definition, adaptogens cannot be boxed into a specific singular benefit; they affect all systems of your body. But different systems are affected more strongly than others by certain substances. Some adaptogens are particularly good for longevity, for example, while others are best for enhancing energy and focus or for bringing beauty benefits.

At this time of year, adaptogens that help to balance and strengthen the immune system are especially useful. Several are potent immunomodulators, which means they can stimulate or suppress immune activity as needed.

Here are our top five adaptogens for supporting you through cold and flu season and defending you against modern-day stressors, viruses and even cancer.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

  • Nicknames: Russian root, taiga root, Wucha, Siberian ginseng (although it’s not a real ginseng)
  • Medicinal parts: root (the stem and bark have also been used in tradi­tional medicine systems)
  • Home: northern mountains of China and Russia
  • Key components: eleutherosides, triterpenoid saponins, coumarins, polysaccharides, flavonoid compounds, caffeic acid, isofraxidin, glycosides
  • Has synergistic effects with: chaga, Schisandra, Rhodiola and echinacea

Eleuthero was the first plant coined an adaptogen, although it was used for 2,000 years before it received that label. First written about in Traditional Chinese Medicine’s oldest pharmacopeia, eleuthero was known for its spicy and stimulating properties and particularly for helping with joint pain.

Russian researchers can be thanked for bringing eleuthero to the West. They studied its effects in over 2,000 people over several decades and found it significantly increased resistance to stress­ors, including workload.1 It also improved stamina, recovery, oxygen intake and performance in athletes.

How it helps with immunity

One of eleuthero’s most traditional uses is as an immune ally to prevent colds and flus. The main compounds interacting with our body’s immune system are eleutherosides, which activate in­nate immunity—your body’s first line of immune defense—making you less prone to getting sick in the first place and better able to fend off illness when it strikes.

A double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that a group given eleuthero had a “drastic increase” in immunocompetent cells (those able to develop an immune response) and improved T lymphocytes, important white blood cells that protect against pathogens. They also saw improved cytotoxic T cells, a type of lymphocyte that protects against toxicity, as well as natural killer cells, lymphocytes that play a major role in fighting virally infected cells.2

Other studies looked at a product containing eleuthero in combination with andrographis, an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine for its immune benefits. When both were taken within 72 hours of the first symptoms of a cold, the severity and length of the cold were reduced.3

Preparation and sourcing

Make sure to buy products made from true Eleutherococcus senticosus. Many products labeled eleuthero or Siberian ginseng are not the real senticosus species. A good quick test is to see if the key constituents, eleutherosides, are mentioned on the label.

Suggested dosage

Take 1–3 g per day (about 1/2 teaspoon) in powder form or 50–100 drops up to three times per day in a tincture. Start small and continually assess how your body is responding.

After about a week at a low dose, you can slowly increase it as your body needs, then adjust accordingly.

TOP TIP: Alternate a few weeks of eleuthero use with two weeks of non-use to let your body reset.

Other ways to benefit from eleuthero

  • For endurance: If you’re an athlete, take in the recovery period of training. It can also be used before a big trip when jet lag is likely.
  • For getting going: Use instead of coffee or caffeinated beverages in the morning or midday to lift your energy.

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

  • Nicknames: King of mushrooms, clinker polypore, cancer fungus
  • Medicinal parts: Sterile conk growing outside the birch tree
  • Home: Siberia, Scandinavia and Northeast America
  • Key components: Antioxidants, triterpenoids, superoxide dismutase, melanin, polysaccharides
  • Has synergistic effects with: Eleuthero, coffee, rose hips, cinnamon, elderberry

Chaga has enjoyed diverse uses over time. In Siberia, Khanty healers used it for digestive issues. In China, it’s burned as moxibustion (an ancient practice of burning herbs over acupressure points to treat ailments).

Siberian women bathe in chaga tea as a cleansing ritual while menstruating. It’s also been traditionally used for blood purifica­tion, pain relief, cancer treatment and immune support.

Its remarkable antioxidant pro­file, immune benefits and ease of use make it a no-brainer for daily consumption.

How it helps with immunity

Chaga is well known for its antitumor and anticancer activity. In mice, a chaga extract reduced the size of cancerous tumors by 60 percent, although these results might not apply to humans.4

Chaga is also antiviral, fighting off diseases caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).5 Its antiviral activ­ity has even been studied for potential effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2, but more research is needed.6

The methods of action by which chaga supports the immune system are varied. Some research shows it induces cancer cell apoptosis (cell death). Other research points to its abundant anti­oxidants, which help combat the negative side effects of disease. Additionally, its polysaccharides modulate the immune system.7

Like many whole substances found in nature, chaga contains a multi­tude of compounds that work together to exert its protective effects on the immune system.8 Its trifecta of immune com­pounds (beta glucans, antioxidants and triterpenes) make it a great choice to use alongside conventional immune support.

Preparation and sourcing

The most important thing to look for is wild-harvested chaga. Real chaga must be harvested out in nature, where it primarily grows on birch trees. Some of its key compounds, like betulinic acid, come from birch bark. Look for sustainably harvested chaga, too.

Suggested dosage

When using a wild-harvested chaga that has been dual extracted, start with 500–1,500 mg per day. Benefits begin to plateau around 3,000 mg per day, so use that as the maximum daily allotment. Always start with small doses and increase slowly based on your body’s feedback.

TOP TIP: Avoid lab-grown chaga “mushroom” mycelium, which lacks most of the active benefits that real chaga gets from the trees.

Other ways to benefit from chaga

  • For longevity: Drink as a caffeine-free coffee alternative with a splash of plant milk and cinnamon daily for overall well-being.
  • For beauty: Add a scoop of powdered extract to your travel mug to protect your skin (from the inside out) from sun damage on your next tropical vacation.

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)

  • Nicknames: River mushroom, cloud mushroom, mother of Krestin
  • Medicinal parts: Mushroom fruiting body
  • Home: A true nomad, turkey tail lives in woodlands around the world
  • Key components: Polysaccharide K (PSK), polysaccharide P (PSP), ergosterol, vitamin D
  • Has synergistic effects with: reishi, chaga, shiitake, maitake, rose hips, warm­ing spices like cinnamon and ginger

In the wild, this astounding mushroom resembles the flared tail of a turkey. It’s been used medicinally for 3,000 years in China, Asia and Europe and among indig­enous tribes of the Americas.

Laplanders of Finland used it as an aphrodisiac. In Mexico, it was used to treat impetigo and ringworm. The Chinese used it to increase circulation and treat fevers, Malaysians used it to treat dysentery, and Aborigines of Australia sucked on the mushroom to treat mouth sores. Externally, it’s been used for skin conditions like eczema.

Turkey tail is one of the most researched of all functional mushrooms. It’s also a prime example of how many pharma­ceuticals are derived from nature.

In 1965, a chemical engineer working for Kureha Corporation in Japan had a neighbor with gastric cancer so advanced, no clinic or hospital would treat him. After a few months of daily turkey tail, he was completely cured.

The engineer convinced his company to study the mushroom, and they identified two potent water-soluble anti-cancer polysaccharides. One was Polysaccharide K—with the K for “Kureha.”9 PSK became the first mushroom-derived cancer drug approved by the Japanese government.

How it helps with immunity

Turkey tail is a potent immunomodulator. While PSK is now deemed an anti-cancer drug, the whole-mushroom extract is used in conjunction with conventional cancer therapies. The extract reboots a depleted immune system, though we like to think of turkey tail as boot camp for the immune system no matter its stage of fitness.

A meta-analysis (pooled analysis) that looked at 13 gold-standard studies of turkey tail and cancer patients found that turkey tail as an adjunct therapy significantly increases sur­vival rates. It was especially effective in breast, gastric and colorectal cancers.10

Another meta-analysis covering 8,000 patients from eight randomized trials showed that after cancer­ous tissue was removed, PSK became particularly useful. Here, the combination of PSK and chemotherapy significantly improved survival rates.11

Turkey tail’s polysaccharides have also been shown to reduce general symptoms of sickness. Extracts have been found to increase macrophages, specialist cells involved in the detection and destruction of bacteria and other harmful organisms, “7.2-fold compared with the control group.”12

Preparation and sourcing

As with all functional mushrooms, it’s best to use the fruiting body grown from the wood it natively grows on. When it comes to turkey tail, this can mean wild-harvested or log-grown mush­rooms. Also, extraction is critical to ensure the compounds in the mushrooms are bioavailable (see ‘Mushroom extraction 101’).

Since PSP and PSK are both polysaccharides and since sugars are hydrophobic, or water-soluble (think about how easily sugar mixes with water), the best way to extract these beneficial com­pounds is via decoction.

To make your own decoction from wild turkey tail, try decocting in a crockpot (six to eight hours is ideal). Use one part turkey tail fruiting body to 10 parts water.

Alternatively, turkey tail can be found in an ethanol or alcohol extract. Look for “dual extraction” for maximum benefits.

Suggested dosage

A typical dose is 500–1,500 mg per day. In cancer patients, the dosage may be as high as 6 g per day during treatment. If taking PSP and PSP as isolated extracts, take dosages of 1–2 g each as a preventive measure. With a serious healing protocol, use up to 6 g per day, remembering to take breaks (for example, two weeks on and two weeks off).

TOP TIP: Use turkey tail in a blend of other functional mushroom extracts to support the immune system in vulnerable times.

Other ways to benefit from turkey tail

  • For gut health: Add to coffee, black tea or chai for a gut-supportive, prebiotic-rich beverage.
  • For longevity: Add the powdered extract to smoothies for overall well-being.

Goji (Lycium barbarum/chinense)

  • Nicknames: Miracle berry, wolfberry, matrimony vine, red diamond
  • Medicinal parts: The fruit, specifically the berries
  • Home: Originally Tibet, but now primarily China and Mongolia
  • Key components: Antioxidants including carotenoids, flavonoids, zeaxanthin and lutein; sesquiterpenes; polysaccharides; 18 amino acids (a whole protein); vitamins B1, B2, B6, A and C; 22 minerals, including zinc, iron, copper, calcium, potassium, selenium, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, germanium and manganese
  • Has synergistic effects with: Cacao, maca, Gynostemma, mulberry, licorice, cashews, mint

Small but mighty, goji has been a symbol of both youth and longevity for thousands of years. It’s now renowned as a superfood sold at health food stores and found on menus at high-end restaurants.

Ounce for ounce, goji has 500 times more vitamin C than oranges. Modern research confirms that it helps with anti-aging, immu­nity, eyesight, kidney health and liver health.13

How it helps with immunity

Goji has long been touted for its immune benefits, likely due to the Lycium berry polysaccharides (LBPs) it contains. In a ran­domized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, participants who ingested 120 mL of goji juice per day showed a signif­icant increase in key immune markers (like lymphocytes and immunoglobulin G), while the placebo group showed no changes in immune measures. They also had less fatigue, better sleep and improved short-term memory with­out negative side effects or adverse reactions.14

Preparation and sourcing

Goji is often treated with chemicals like sulfur dioxide, a toxic gas that irritates skin, lungs and mucous membranes. Look for minimally processed goji that has not been ex­posed to high heat to ensure the maximum amount of nutrients is left intact.

As with many other adaptogens, it’s also important that goji has not been radiated in customs when entering the West. If you have high-quality, organic and minimally processed goji, its utility is vast.

Some brands claim to offer “fresh goji,” but it’s more likely that moisture was added to dried goji before packing. If you get a good source, dried is just fine.

Suggested dosage

Boil them in soups or tea or add them into trail mix or raw chocolate and enjoy daily.

TOP TIP: Goji berries tend to absorb heavy metals from the soil. Buy organic for lower contamination. Soaking also helps to remove heavy metals.

Other ways to benefit from goji

  • For beauty: Steep as a tea and drink daily to support skin health and a youthful glow.
  • For libido: Take a handful of dried berries as a snack before getting it on.

Acerola (Malpighia emarginata)

  • Nicknames: Garden cherry, Indian cherry, Surinam cherry, Puerto Rico cherry
  • Medicinal parts: Fruit
  • Home: Originally from the Yucatan of Southeast Mexico but now found in most tropical regions worldwide
  • Key components: Bioflavonoids; carotenoids like lutein, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin; anthocyanins; minerals including magnesium, potassium, copper, zinc and iron; A, C and B vitamins, namely B5
  • Has synergistic effects with: Cacao, pomegranate, blueberries, tremella and mint

Acerola is a small, brightly colored fruit that has been consumed as both food and medicine for centuries. It’s commonly used to support immune and skin health, vision, digestion and recovery.

Because it contains 50–100 times more vitamin C than oranges or lemons, acerola has been used to prevent vita­min C deficiency and scurvy. Just three small acerola fruits meet the daily vitamin C requirements of an adult.

Acerola is also rich in key antioxidants, and its phytochemicals work synergistically. Since it’s a food, your body can absorb and utilize its vitamins, antioxidants and minerals better than synthetic forms.

How it helps with immunity

With 1.5–4.5 g of vitamin C per 100 g,15 acerola is one of the richest natural sources of vitamin C. The vitamin encourages the production of white blood cells, a key part of our body’s defense against infections and viruses. This makes acerola an important superfruit to have on hand during cold and flu season, both to prevent illness and to relieve symptoms.

Because of its tannins, acerola has a particular affinity for respiratory diseas­es. When these tannins contact the gastrointestinal mucosa, they form a layer that protects the skin from sore throats, reflux and gastritis. Its phenolic compounds are also antibacterial, giving it an additional angle to target infections.

Acerola is useful for allergies, too. In addition to stimulating the production of white blood cells, it can help modify the immune response to the allergen.

Preparation and sourcing

Acerola can be eaten whole, raw, or cooked, just like other varieties of cherries. Even its tiny seeds and peel are edible and offer many health benefits. The fresh fruits can also be frozen and consumed throughout the year.

If you don’t have access to fresh acerola cherries, don’t worry. It’s commonly sold as juice, powder, capsules or tinctures. Most commonly it’s freeze-dried, ground, then packaged as a bulk pow­der or in capsules. Sometimes vitamin C powder itself is made from acerola.

We recommend choosing a powder over a capsule as you can taste for potency, plus the benefits are better delivered to your system when you can taste the flavor.

Suggested dosage

If you have access to the fresh or frozen fruit, three berries per day is a sufficient dose. If using it as a powder, start with 1 teaspoon or 3.5 g per day. In specific situations, such as recovery from surgery or sudden illness, you can increase the dose up to 10 g per day.

TOP TIP: Sprinkle acerola powder into oatmeal, plant-based yogurt or a smoothie for daily immune support, or take at the first sign of sniffles to help ward off illness.

Other ways to benefit from acerola

  • For recovery: Cook the cherries into a porridge (with a sprinkle of cinnamon) for a warming, nutrient-rich breakfast when recovering from an illness.
  • For beauty: Add powder into a tea or eat a handful of fresh cherries daily for skin and anti-aging benefits.

Morning smoothie

Try this delicious plant-based smoothie in the mornings as a way to start enjoying the immune-supporting prop­erties of multiple adaptogens. It’s also great for your skin.

Ingredients

12 oz cold chaga decoction (or make 8 oz hot chaga tea and add ice)

1 cup frozen berries (like wild blueberries)

1 serving vanilla plant protein

1 tsp acerola powder

1 tsp turmeric powder

Sprinkle of black pepper

Sprinkle of sea salt

Method

Mix all ingredients well in a high-speed blender until smooth and creamy.

Enjoy!

Mushroom extraction 101

There are two main ways to extract a mushroom: via hot water (called a decoction) or alcohol (a tincture). Since some compounds in the mushroom are water soluble and others are alcohol soluble, the type of extraction determines the benefits of the final product.

If you want all the beneficial compounds, you need a double or dual extraction, in which the mushroom has been decocted and tinctured. This is the gold standard. Dual extraction ensures that all beneficial compounds from the fungi are unlocked and available for your body to utilize.

Warning: many mushroom products on the market are not extracted at all. Avoid them! At minimum, get a prod­uct that is hot-water extracted.

The 10 commandments of using adaptogens

  1. Listen to your body. Bioindividuality is important when it comes to adaptogens; they can affect your body in unique or unexpected ways. Continue or discontinue use based on your own experience and needs.
  2. Use adaptogens as supplemental tools, extra support beyond your basic needs—never as a replacement for a healthy diet, exercise, good sleep and general well-being practices.
  3. Start small. Begin at the lowest end of the dosing recommendation and slowly increase the dose in small increments week by week.
  4. Take adaptogens 30 minutes before food for best results.
  5. Always purchase adaptogens that are certified organic.
  6. Choose functional mushroom supplements that meet the following criteria:
  • Mushroom fruiting body (aka real mushroom)
  • Grown on wood or wild-harvested (Exception: Cordyceps, the only adaptogenic mushroom that naturally grows on insects, not wood. For humanitarian and sustainability reasons, lab-grown Cordyceps is recommended and often the highest quality you can find.)
  • Extracted properly (dual-extract is the gold standard)
  • Third-party lab tested
  1. Choose adaptogens from their native countries (e.g., ashwagandha from India and reishi from China).
  2. Stay away from capsules if possible. Poor-quality or rancid ingredients can easily hide inside capsules.
  3. Taste your adaptogens: powders, food-like formulas, tinctures or the bulk ingredient itself (especially goji and cacao). The flavor triggers a cascade of bodily reactions that enhance its functional benefits. If you purchase capsules, open one up, pour it on your hand and taste it. A high-quality product is dark in color, strong and bitter tasting.
  4. Keep an open mind. New research is constantly being conducted, discoveries are always being made and adaptogens will continue to surprise you when used at different times in your life. Stay curious and have fun with them!

Adapted from Healing Adaptogens: The Definitive Guide to Using Super Herbs and Mushrooms for Your Body’s Restoration, Defense, and Performance by Tero Isokauppila and Danielle Ryan Broida (Hay House, 2023)

RESOURCES

How to choose a high-quality product

Here are five key factors Tero and Danielle recommend checking to make sure you are getting a high-quality adaptogen product.

  1. Form. Make sure the Latin name and the form of the product (e.g., leaf, root, fruiting body, etc.) are listed on the packaging. When it comes to functional mushrooms (chaga, reishi, cordyceps, lion’s mane and turkey tail), avoid products that say “mushroom mycelium,” “mycelial biomass,” “mushroom powder,” “full-spectrum” or “primordia.” Instead, choose products that use the fruiting bodies of fungi, or the real mushrooms themselves.
  2. Dose. Make sure you know the amount you’ll be getting per serving. If taking a single dose of one adaptogen, ensure there is at least 200 mg per serving. If taking a formula with two to five ingredients, look for 200–400 mg of each adaptogen for a total of at least 500 mg of adaptogens per serving. Watch out for anything that has more than 10 ingredients or less than 100 mg per ingredient.
  3. Bioavailability. Your body needs to be able to absorb the product, so choose freshly harvested plants and properly extracted mushroom products (double or dual extraction is the gold standard; see ‘Mushroom extraction 101’, above). In stores, look for a product’s lot code to check how recently it was produced. Also try to choose extracts that contain all active compounds rather than isolated compounds, and look for products that mention synergistic formulation (for example, adding black pepper to turmeric, which increases the absorption of curcumin, turmeric’s active compound).
  4. Purity. Look for products free of heavy metals, pesticides, mycotoxins and irradiation. Also choose raw and unprocessed products whenever possible. A good place to start is to search for certified organic products—there’s a higher chance the company cares about quality. If you can find a product that’s both organic and third-party lab tested, you’re likely onto a winner.
  5. Sustainability. Check the company’s website to see if it mentions the product’s country of origin and information about farming and harvesting practices. If there’s no information about either, that could be a red flag.

What and where to buy

Adaptogen products are widely available to buy online as well as in health food stores and, increasingly, in conventional supermarkets or grocery stores.

Some of Tero and Danielle’s favorite companies (mostly US-based) for adaptogenic herbs are Gaia Herbs, Herb Pharm, Quan­tum Nutrition Labs, Organic India and WishGarden. For functional mushroom products, the authors suggest Real Mushrooms and Mushroom Revival as well as Tero’s own brand, Four Sigmatic. Some UK-based brands worth checking out are Wunder Workshop and Adaptogenic Apothecary.

Where to buy in the US: gaiaherbs.com, herb-pharm.com, qnlabs.com, organicindia.com, wishgardenherbs.com, realmushrooms.com, mushroomrevival.com, foursigmatic.com

Where to buy in the UK: organicindia.co.uk, wunderworkshop.com, adaptogenicapothecary.com, iherb.com (Gaia Herbs, Herb Pharm, WishGarden, Real Mushrooms and Four Sigmatic products are all available here), planetorganic.com (offers Four Sigmatic products and a range of other adaptogen products)

 

 

 

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