Adaptogens 101

Written by Joe Cohen, BS | Last updated:
Jonathan Ritter
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology) | Written by Joe Cohen, BS | Last updated:
Hypothyroidism and Brain Fog

Why Adaptogens Are Great (& Why They Sometimes Don’t Work)

The following section is based on personal experiences of Joe and the SelfHacked Science Team. We at SelfHacked love adaptogens. They can help when life gets too stressful and anxiety-provoking. Still, several people have told us that they tried ashwagandha and other adaptogenic herbs and didn’t feel anything.

To get the most out of adaptogens, you have to find the right ones and understand how they work with your body. It takes trial and error. Some of us have tried 4-5 different ones and their combinations until something worked, and it was challenging to pinpoint why.

If you tried a bunch of supplements for reducing stress and none worked, it’ll feel frustrating and you might want to give up. We’ve been there. And here we’ll explain why this can happen, and what you should do before you decide if ashwagandha is worth the hype.

Hormesis is a big part of it. If you’ve never heard of hormesis, you’re missing out on a huge aspect of health enhancement.

Adaptogens are powerful antistress weapons, but you must learn how to use them properly. It can be challenging to figure out the optimal combination and dosage.


You may be taking too many adaptogens at high doses. This could be increasing your stress, instead of lowering it. This is hormesis gone wrong. Hormesis is when you introduce small stress to your body to prep it for much larger stressors. It’s basically building your stress reserves in a healthy way.

Hormesis makes you stronger; it might even make people live longer. What nobody talks about is that most adaptogens work by hormesis. That might be why ashwagandha is said to make people strong [1].

Here’s the catch: more is not better with adaptogens. Ashwagandha has a ton of benefits – if you don’t overdo it. In one cell-based study, all its benefits went away after a very high dose. That’s the essence of hormesis: too little doesn’t work, a bit more is good, and too much has the opposite effect [2].

Adaptogens like ashwagandha work by hormesis: introducing a bit of stress to make your body more resistant. Low doses usually give the best results.

Immune Effects

All adaptogens can work no matter what your immune profile is. But ashwagandha can over-stimulate the Th1 response in some people. Ashwagandha is an immune balancer, but it mildly increases the Th1 response. So it’s a bit more suited for Th2-dominant people [3].

Additionally, ashwagandha is a nightshade. Some people who don’t do well with nightshades, like Joe, reported inflammatory reactions from high ashwagandha doses. If you’re one of them, you want to be especially careful with the dosage and stay on the lower end.


Here’s what to do when starting ashwagandha:

  • Buy a standardized supplement (with a specified amount of active compounds). More expensive products aren’t necessarily better, just be sure to buy from a reputable manufacturer.
  • Be patient – ashwagandha won’t work overnight.
  • Experiment with the dosage. It’s best to start on the lower end and gradually increase it if you don’t experience side effects – but don’t up it to megadoses.
  • Stimulate your vagus nerve and reduce stress in your life. You can override the benefits of ashwagandha if you feel your life is way out of hand.

If you’ve taken ashwagandha for 2-3 weeks at a reasonable dosage and still don’t feel anything, then it might not be for you. Try a different supplement for:

Joe tried out ashwagandha and it didn’t suit him as well as rhodiola and eleuthero at one point. But it did wonders for some of us, especially for milder forms of anxiety in times of high stress.

To get the best results from ashwagandha, start with low doses and work your way up, take a high-quality standardized supplement, and aim to de-stress.

About the Author

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen, BS

As a kid, Joe suffered from inflammation, brain fog, fatigue, digestive problems, mood and other issues that were poorly understood in both conventional and alternative medicine. Frustrated by the lack of good information and tools, Joe decided to embark on a journey of self-experimentation and self-learning to improve his health--something that has since become known as “biohacking”. With thousands of experiments and pubmed articles under his belt, Joe founded SelfHacked, the resource that was missing when he needed it. SelfHacked now gets millions of monthly readers. Joe is a thriving entrepreneur, author and speaker. He is the CEO and founder of SelfDecode. His mission is to help people gain access to the most up-to-date, unbiased, and science-based ways to optimize their health.

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