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Mushrooms are adaptogens

May 25, 2022
Dr. Dorothee Bös et al.

Clinical experience shows that medicinal mushrooms have very complex and versatile effects. In the area of the nervous system, for example, they have not only a stimulating, but to the same extent a calming effect.

Practice shows quite clearly that mushrooms have a regulating effect on our body systems and are thus counted among the adaptogens. More and more scientific studies confirm this fascinating mode of action. It has been found, for example, that the same mushroom can stimulate an immune system that is too weak on the one hand, but can also compensate for an immune system that is too active – as is the case with allergies and autoimmune diseases.

The definition of adaptogens

Russian scientist Dr. Nikolai Lazarev defined an adaptogen as early as 1947 as follows: “A substance that enables the body to resist various physical, chemical, and biological stressors via the development of non-specific resistance. This allows the organism to adapt to circumstances in which it is particularly exposed to stress.”

Israel I. Brekhman and Dr. I. V. Dardymov described 1968 adaptogens in more detail:

  1. Adaptogens are non-toxic and have very few side effects. They are harmless to the body.
  2. Adaptogens cause a non-specific response of the organism to stress; the body is given the power to resist or adapt. A reserve of adaptogenic power is created that can be used in acute stress situations. In contrast to stimulants, the vital energy of the cells is not reduced.
  3. Adaptogens develop a normalizing effect on the body. And this is independent of the direction in which the deviation from the physiological norm has taken place. They promote cell intelligence, strengthen in hypofunction and dampen in hyperfunction.

Adaptogens act on the body’s regulatory systems such as hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HHN system), sympathoadrenergic system (sympathetic nervous system and adrenal medulla), and immune system. Secondary effects include the liver, cardiovascular system, pancreas and kidneys.

Substances with adaptogenic effect

Adaptogens mainly include fungi or plants that have adapted to extreme environmental conditions. For example, cold, extreme altitude, lack of oxygen, strong sunlight or drought. But it also includes, for example, roots, which contain the concentrated energy and nutrient density of years of growth and maturity. If you look at the places where cordyceps is found, for example, it becomes clear why it has such a strong adaptogenic effect. Photograph from a white bowl with cordyceps mushroomsIt grows at high altitudes in the Himalayas with little oxygen, under extreme temperatures and strong sunlight. However, the other medicinal mushrooms also contain typical adaptogen ingredients such as polysaccharides and triterpenes.

Ingredients with adaptogenic properties

Ingredients with adaptogenic properties include:
  1. Polyphenols (flavonoids)
  2. Terpenes: Large group of secondary plant compounds that enable plants to grow in their environment. Subgroups of these are triterpenes and saponins. Triterpenes and saponins have similar effects to glucocorticoids. They are anti-inflammatory, liver-protective and immune system-regulating and have a strengthening effect on the adrenal glands.
  3. Polysaccharides (special ß-glycans): Plants that contain many polysaccharides regulate the immune system, strengthen vital energy, and are qi tonics (energizers). Non-active ingredients also influence the action of the plant or fungus by improving absorption, reducing toxicity, or preventing side effects.

The body reactions to stress

Stress is not exclusively tied to difficult or unpleasant events, but can also occur under positive circumstances. The decisive factor is the way our body reacts to changes in the environment and a resulting disturbance of the so-called homeostasis. This means the principle, which applies to all living beings, of maintaining or restoring the achieved (flow) equilibrium in the face of changing living conditions. For example, in the body budget. In addition, in a figurative sense, the tendency of the organism to balance out psychological tensions in a self-regulating manner.

Only chronic stress has an impact on our body and mind. These effects may persist even after the stress-inducing moment has ended. The type, strength and impact of stressors vary greatly from individual to individual. Possible stressors include viruses, bacteria, chemical substances, noise, extreme climate, allergens, radiation, electromagnetic waves, surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, trauma, severe illness, poisoning, or strong emotions.

The hypothalamus is our central control unit and responsible for homeostasis. It has two ways of responding to stress: via the nervous pathway or the endocrine pathway. Both lead to the release of stress hormones. These trigger the body’s stress response. After a stressful event, the hypothalamus is immediately activated.

Stress response via two physiological pathways

The stress response occurs through two different pathways:

  1. HHN system (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal cortex): This is the endocrine pathway. In the hypothalamus, the release of CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) is stimulated. This triggers the release of ACTH (adreno-corticotropic hormone) in the pituitary gland, which in turn stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce glucocorticoids and cortisol in particular. This process serves to mobilize energy.
  2. SAS (Sympathoadrenal System): This is the nervous pathway also called “Fight-or-Flight Response”. In this process, the hypothalamus additionally stimulates the adrenal medulla via the sympathetic nervous system to produce catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline).

The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are the interface between the nervous and endocrine systems.


Cortisol is the stress hormone used to mobilize energy. The body needs energy to escape or fight. That is, it needs energy to respond to the stressful event. Cortisol causes the release of amino acids from muscle proteins. These amino acids are used in the liver to synthesize glucose (gluconeogenesis). Glucose consumption in other tissues is reduced and the muscles use fatty acids to provide the brain with sufficient glucose. Cortisol regulates blood pressure, cardiovascular functions and the immune system.

Too much cortisol leads to, among other things, a suppressed immune system, anxiety, insomnia, hypertension, insulin resistance, obesity, osteoporosis, sex hormone imbalance, or polycystic ovaries. Too little cortisol, in turn, can lead to depression, insomnia, fibromyalgia, low blood pressure, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), infertility, male impotence, or premenstrual syndrome (PMS).


Adrenaline prepares the body for physical exertion. It stimulates the heart, increases blood pressure, constricts small vessels, increases blood flow to muscles and brain, and releases storage sugar from the liver.


Norepinephrine increases blood pressure, maintains blood circulation and transmits nerve impulses in the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic). Thus, the body is enabled to fight or flee, that is, to respond to changing environmental conditions or stress.

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone)

DHEA is produced by the adrenal cortex and is an antagonist of cortisol. It prevents the binding of cortisol. Cortisol and DHEA are good markers of HPA axis activity.

Stress phases

Under stress, the body uses more energy and exhaustion can occur. In addition, more free radicals are produced. These destroy mitochondria and thus the energy balance of the cells.

A distinction is made between an alarm phase, a resistance phase and an exhaustion phase. In the first minutes or hours after the stress stimulus, the alarm phase sets in: The SAS and HHN systems are activated to provide energy to the body for increased performance readiness. Overactivation occurs. This is followed by the resistance phase, in which the body adapts to the ongoing stress stimulus. Counter-regulation of the parasympathetic nervous system brings down the overactivation, but it still remains above the healthy norm. Psychosomatic diseases such as asthma, hypertension and ulcers often occur in this phase. In the exhaustion phase, the body no longer has enough adaptive energy and fatigue and imbalances occur in various body systems. Common consequences are also increased susceptibility to infections, depression, anxiety or premature aging. Ultimately, all organ systems may be affected, as they are all under the control of the neuroendocrine system.

On the effect of adaptogens

The regulation of an unbalanced system occurs via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HHN system) and via the sympathoadrenergic system (sympathetic nervous system and adrenal medulla).

Adaptogens support the complete neuroendocrine system. In particular, they strengthen the adrenal cortex. Thus, they counteract negative effects of stress; the release of stress hormones is regulated. They allow our bodies to respond adaptively to changing environmental conditions and minimize the damage possible from a prolonged stress response. The HHN system is stabilized. Thus, the exhaustion phase is delayed or avoided altogether.

Adaptogens help maintain homeostasis in chronic stressful situations and preserve adaptive forces. This includes physiological biorhythms (circadian rhythms), normal body temperature, and cortisol production. Adaptogens act prophylactically by increasing the body’s nonspecific resistance to various stressors.

Adaptogens also possess an anabolic effect. They protect energy reserves and thus have a toning effect. This is important for athletes and in general in old age. They also have a strong antioxidant effect, which can slow down the biological aging process.

Adaptogens act at the cellular level, stimulating mitochondria to produce energy (ATP). ATP is important for physical power and strength.

Likewise, they also improve liver function. The liver provides glucose for energy production, and it also secretes toxins. In addition, adaptogens regulate the immune system.

The interactions between emotions, the nervous system and the immune system are being researched in the field of psychoneuroimmunology. Adaptogens affect both the body and the mind via regulation of the neuroendocrine system. The HPA axis is influenced and thus the whole body system is regulated.

The health benefits of adaptogens such as Reishi and Cordyceps.

  • For adrenal insufficiency due to chronic stress.
  • Anti-aging by stopping physiological aging processes / factors: stress, free radicals, excess cortisol, DHEA deficiency and inflammatory processes are counteracted.
  • Against anxiety and depression, as they improve mood, reduce stress and tone the nerves.
  • In arthritis, they have anti-inflammatory and immune system regulating effects.
  • In competitive sports: shortened regeneration phases, better endurance, improved pulse rate, support of respiration and circulation.
  • Improvement of memory performance, because high cortisol levels lead to the death of nerve cells; regulation of neurotransmitter levels.
  • Strengthening the respiratory system.
  • For cancer: Antioxidant, against stress, regulation of the immune system and reduction of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
  • Cardiovascular strengthening and protecting: regulating blood pressure and cholesterol, against arrhythmias, strengthening heart muscle.
  • Favorable for disturbed digestion, because stress hormones delay digestion and affect the intestinal flora.
  • In case of exhaustion: More energy is consumed under stress.
  • Immune system regulating: small amounts of cortisol stimulate the immune response, large amounts suppress the immune system.
  • Liver protective / strengthening.
  • For mental and emotional health: brighten mood, calm the mind.
  • Regulation of sex hormones: testosterone, progesterone, estrogens interact with the HPA axis.
  • For sleep disorders: Circadian cortisol release is disrupted by stress; cortisol helps synchronize activities, eating and sleeping patterns.
  • Against overweight: Stress often stimulates overeating and high cortisol levels lead to fat storage, especially on the abdomen.


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Scientific studies / sources

  • Winston, D., Maimes, S.: “Adaptogens – Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief”; Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont, 2007.
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