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Adaptogens: The Secret Weapon for Athletes


If there was something that I thought every athlete should add to their arsenal, it would be mushroom and herbal adaptogens. Put aside creatine, BCAA supplementation, glutamine and any other ergogenic aid. These only address the physical demand (with debatable results), while neglecting the psychological and emotional needs of an athlete, and the biological and chemical stressors that deplete strength and endurance.

What many people don’t think about when it comes to power, speed and endurance, is that there is more to it than the physical output. Talent will only take you so far without drive, and the strength of your body is only as strong as the strength of your mind, emotions and immune system. What really makes people stand out in sports is a superior work ethic and drive, consistent performance, health, focus and composure under stressful conditions. Just like you can’t teach someone will, physical ergogenic aids will not produce all of the other attributes that make a champion. But what if there was something that could increase your drive, stabilize your emotions and increase physical output? There is, and they are in the elite group called adaptogens.

What are Adaptogens? 

Adaptogens increase the body’s resistance to physical (heat, cold and exertion), chemical (toxins and heavy metals) and biological (bacteria and viruses) stressors. What makes them special is that they help modulate the body’s stress response so that it does not overreact to extreme physical, mental, emotional or chemical stress which depletes cells of vital energy. When hormones like cortisol are secreted in excess, they can do quite a bit of damage on your body leading to total exhaustion.

Adaptogens help resist and adapt to the stress, restoring balance in the cardiovascular, immune and neuroendocrine system while causing minimal (if any) physiological disturbance, side effects or toxicity. Maintaining high testosterone levels are crucial for muscle mass, recovery, confidence and determination, while high physical and mental stress can squander the hormone and the results from it. Adaptogens can help protect testosterone by helping the body adapt to stressful conditions.

Adaptogens have been a subject of Soviet research for quite some time, and studies revealed that they increased swimming times in the Porsolt test, AKA forced swimming test. This would evolve into rigorous studies that researched how they helped the body adapt to all unfavorable conditions from Olympic competition, combat, space travel and everyday stress. The ability of the adaptogens to help boost energy while burning energy allows you to stay at the top of your game until the end.

How Adaptogens Work

The mechanisms behind this action include increasing levels of ATP (energy) and creatine phosphate (power). They contain powerful antioxidants and protect the mitochondria cell membranes and DNA while increasing cardiovascular function and oxygen efficiency. Adaptogens also increase the manufacture of proteins and other substances for the repair of damages. This combination makes adaptogens the ideal accessory to an optimal diet for power, speed and endurance.

Adaptogens tend to work best as a synergistic combination and work differently than a stimulant like caffeine. What you notice may appear subtle because your body will be functioning at its optimal level. In other words, it will appear that it’s coming from you, not a supplement. It’s when you stop taking it that you notice a difference. It shows up as mental toughness and stamina, emotional stability, and an inherent drive to want to work out, compete and push yourself. One of the best indicators of your body’s adaptation process is the want and need to mentally and physically work your body. If you are dreading going to the gym or practice, or you mentally want to check out, then adaptogens will help you break out of this cycle.

The Top Adaptogens 

*All mushrooms should be hot water extracts or hot-water/ethanol extracts like those found in studies.

#1 Cordyceps Militaris Peak Performance by Real Mushrooms or Cordyceps Sinesis Cs-4 400mg


Ages: Considered safe for teenagers and up


Cordyceps is an extremely unique medicinal mushroom that grows wild on various insects and arthropods in the high mountains of China, Nepal, and Tibet. This type is known as Cordyceps Sinesis. The spores of the fungi find a host in a population that has grown too large, and restore balance by taking over the host and growing a new mushroom. Marks have been found on fossilized leaves, suggesting the role of this fungus-host takeover has evolved for more than 48 million years.

Cordyceps Militaris is a fruiting body form of cordyceps. Both types of cordyceps contain contain adenosine, cordycepic acid, cordycepin and other related compounds. These compounds help with modulating nitric oxide and inflammation, adrenal fatigue, adrenal depletion and resistance to physical, mental and emotional stress. It is through this mechanism that can increase energy levels, stamina and endurance. Cordyceps also contain the well-studied beta glucans, which support immune function.

People have used cordyceps to help acclimate to high altitudes by increasing oxygen capacity. This ability carries over into athletic performance, increasing stamina and endurance through better oxygen transportation. Since athletes who perform endurance training undergo oxidative stress and potentially suffer from over-training syndrome, cordyceps should be the first choice of adaptation. The response and results for both males and females in any age bracket has made this the #1 choice for adaptogens.

See the numerous studies here:


Reishi Super Strength by Mushroom Science


Reishi and Cordyceps both have a reputation for longevity and immunity (see cold and flu article), with reishi being known as the “mushroom of immortality.” Who wouldn’t want to take that? In particular, both of these have been found to combat inflammation in the form of superoxide (what causes expedited aging, and excessive oxidative stress is an important mediator of a decline in steroid hormone production), prevent hypoxia and high altitude sickness by increasing oxygenation.

Cordyceps main targets are the lungs, adrenals/kidneys and reproductive organs, while reishi targets the lungs and heart, demonstrating cardiotonic, anti-allergy and anti-bronchitis effects in studies.

The Cordyceps and Reishi Cyclist Study

A double-blind clinical study had 7 male cyclists ages 30-40 divided into 2 well trained/5 at risk of overtraining groups, take placebo supplements for the first month and then active supplements of cordyceps and reishi for the following 3 months.

During the trial, the athletes performed daily workouts and took part in 2 “Gran Fondo” cycling races. The placebo race had a distance of 110 km, a change in elevation of 1651 m, a duration of about 3 hours and 40 minutes, and an average speed of 36 km/h. The mushroom race had a distance of 85 km, a change in elevation of 1850 m, a duration of about 4 hours, and an average speed of 33 km/h. The latter course is particularly hard due to the slopes and technical difficulties.

Every day, during the placebo phase, athletes took 5 capsules: 1 with breakfast, 2 with lunch and 2 with dinner. Every day, during the fungal supplementation phase, athletes took 3 capsules: 1 capsule of cordyceps with breakfast, 1 capsule of cordyceps and 1 capsule of reishi with lunch, and 1 capsule of cordyceps and 1 capsule of reishi with dinner. This was a total of 1335mg of Cordyceps and 1170mg of Reishi daily.

The Results

For the well-trained group, the before race basal level of salivary testosterone increased after the fungal supplementation phase that lasted 3 months. The after race testosterone level after fungal supplementation increased even more compared to the after race level in the placebo condition.

In the placebo group the testosterone/cortisol ratio decreased by an average of −69.3%, suggesting that the athlete was at risk of overtraining, while after fungal supplementation it decreased by an average of −8.7%, so the athlete was no longer at risk of overtraining.

The after race testosterone level after fungal supplementation increased 3.4-fold compared to the after race level in the placebo condition. Four out of the 5 athletes who were shown to be at risk of overtraining in the placebo condition overcame these symptoms after fungal supplementation.

See the chart here.

#2 Ashwagandha Root or Ashwagandha Tincture

Ages: 18 and up

Ashwagandha is a root used traditional in Ayurvedic medicine for over 2,500 years. Studies have shown that it reduces stress, memory enhancement, antioxidant activity and enhanced immune function.

One study showed faster swimming time in rats, longer duration of muscle contractility in the heart muscle of frogs and increased glycogen storage capacity in the liver.

A second study showed that ashwagandha promoted significant immunological effects within 96 hours of consuming the root extract twice daily.

A third study found that ashwagandha increased velocity, power, VO2 max, lower limb muscular strength and neuromuscular coordination.

A fourth study used elite Indian cyclists for 8 weeks. One group received 500mg of the root extract 2x a day, while the other group received a placebo. There was significant improvement in the experimental group in all parameters, namely, VO2 max and time for exhaustion on treadmill.

Finally, a fifth double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that ashwagandha root extract supplementation (300mg 2x a day) was associated with significant increases in muscle mass (bigger arms and chest) lower muscle damage and greater strength.

Ashwagandha appears to be an excellent adaptogen for both endurance and strength athletes, as well as those under tremendous physical, mental or emotional stress. Ashwagandha can also help normalize thyroid function by converting T4 to T3. Avoid during pregnancy.

#3 Wild Eleuthero Root Tincture or Athlete’s Power Tonic

Ages: 18 and up

Also known as Siberian Ginseng, eleuthero is a small, woody shrub native to the mountain forests of Northeastern Asia. It has been used for centuries in China and Russia to prevent colds and flu, increase energy, vitality and longevity. It has been shown in both in vitro and animal models to increase endurance, muscle strength, increase memory and learning, anti-fatigue, increase immunity, and anti-depressant effects.

One study found in 8 weeks of 800mg, VO2 peak of the subjects elevated 12%, endurance time improved 23%, the highest heart rate increased 4%, and metabolism was altered which spared glycogen storage. The study concluded that “this was the first well-conducted study that shows that 8-week ES supplementation enhances endurance capacity, elevates cardiovascular functions and alters the metabolism for sparing glycogen in recreationally trained males.”

The adaptogenic properties of ginseng are believed to be due to its effects on hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, resulting in elevated plasma corticotropin and corticosteroids levels. A thorough review of the human studies to withstand adverse conditions (heat, noise, motion, work load increase and exercise) to improve auditory disturbances, mental alertness, intellectual work capacity, work output, quality of work and athletic performance concluded the evidence is extensive. The Complete German Commission E Monographs indicated Eleuthero Root is “a tonic for invigoration and fortification in times of fatigue, and debility or declining capacity for work and concentration.”

In Mongolia, it is used to accelerate adaptation of new people to the harsh mountain and desert climate. In the U.S., it has been used for a rapid recovery from exercise. It has also be found to be effective with treating upper respiratory tract infections, common with runners.

The quality you purchase is very important because many commercial products can have little to none of the herb at all along with contamination. Avoid taking past 3:00 in the afternoon since it can affect sleep.

The Athlete’s Power Tonic is fairly unknown, and is also a very affordable and effective tincture. It contains eleuthero root, sarsaparilla, saw palmetto and gotu kola. The herbs contain natural phytosterols (plant steroids), and sarsaparilla may augment testosterone. On days I have used this product, I have seen an incredible increase of endurance and strength that I couldn’t attest to anything else when used 3 times daily. It has also helped focus and concentration for long hours. I would love to hear more people’s experience with it.

#4 Rhodiola Rosea

Ages: 18 and up

I will admit it, rhodiola is a mystery to me. The science on it is astounding, and the history behind it is equally as interesting. It was recorded to be used in ancient Greece, and the Vikings relied on it for strength and endurance. I mean c’mon, have you seen pictures of those guys? Yet it seems to be very hit or miss with people. That is the nature of adaptogens however, and you need to find the right fit for you.

In terms of Rhodila, my impression from the research shows that it appears to have the most effect on mental performance, which drives physical performance. In multiple double-blind, placebo controlled trials, Rhodiola Rosea enhanced learning, prevented mental fatigue, reduced errors and improved the quality of work produced.1,2 Rhodiola rosea has the most pronounced effect on mental fatigue during stress and strain when compared to other adaptogens.

This could prove invaluble if you need to increase your drive, focus and will to push thorugh the pain when your body can go much longer than your mind. Numerous Soviet studies have shown that Rhodiola not only enhances learning and memory, but it improves mental speed, accuracy, work capacity, abstract thinking, reaction time and errors. Biochemically, it raises levels of the feel good neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in the brainstem, cerebral cortex and hypothalamus. It may be contraindicated in those with bipolar disorder or manic depression.

If you are interested in reading more about it, I highly recommend the book The Rhodiola Revolution: Transform Your Health with the Herbal Breakthrough of the 21st Century. Rhodiola is inexpensive, but buy from reputable brands for quality control like the one in the link.

#5 Wild Chaga Double Extract from Maine

Ages: Considered safe for teenagers and up

Chaga grows on wild birch trees in the extremely cold, inhospitable environments of Siberia, Canada and parts of northern America. The incredible compounds of Chaga are mostly due to the nutrients of the wild birch trees that are transferred to the mushroom. Chaga contains a multitude of minerals, and is one of the highest sources of superoxide dimutase (SOD) known, responsible for blocking the toxicity of free radicals. In one study, the researchers concluded that Chaga mushroom extracts might represent a valuable source of biologically active compounds with potential for protecting cellular DNA from oxidative damage in vitro.3 This is important for those undergoing heavy endurance training and oxidative damage.


1. Darbinyan, V. et al. Rhodiola Rosea in Stress Reduced Fatigue-A Double Blind Cross-Over Study of A Standardized Extract SHR-5 with a Repeated Low-Dose Regimen on the Mental Performance of Healthy Physicians during NIght Duty,” Phytomedicine 7, no. 5 (2000): 365-71.

2. Spasov, A. A., et al., “A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study of the Stimulating and Adaptogenic Effect of Rhodiola Rosea SHR-5 Extract on the Fatigue of Students Caused by Stress during an Examination Period with a Repeated Low-Dose Regimen,” Phytomedicine 7, no. f2 (2000): 76-78.

3. Park, Lee et al. Chaga mushtroom extract inhibits oxidative DNA damage in human lymphocytes as assessed by comet assay. Biofactors 21 (2004) 109-112.


23 Responses to Adaptogens: The Secret Weapon for Athletes

  • Alex,
    Just dropped in an checked your program out.
    Awesome effort you are putting forth
    Check out this formula, you might find it interesting….I’m sitting with the formulator when we stumbled on your site…..
    great minds think alike….
    Paul Romero

  • My question – is there a point of diminishing returns if one was to put together a regimen of the above adaptogens?  Is it advisable /inadvisable to mix and match them?  And if my primary goal is to lose weight while gaining endurance and strength for 5+hr athletic events – is there recommended adaptogen(s)?


    • Hi Steve,

      Yes, in my experience one to two adaptogens are sufficient enough to get the best results. I think at a certain point your body is working at an optimal level and anything more is unnecessary. Any of the above can be combined together. For your goals, cordyceps and ashwagandha will be the best adaptogens. Cordyceps have the ability to improve the metabolic response due to vanadium. Ashwagandha does an excellent job of preventing excess cortisol levels, which diminishes testosterone and is common in that range of activity. Check with your doctor first.

  • And what dosages would you recommend of each?

    • A general dose is 2,000mg of cordyceps and 500mg of ashwagandha. I also wanted to note that adaptogens work differently than stimulants, and you will notice the results over a few months. They make subtle changes that compound over time. I noticed that the brand I recommended for athletes has become more expensive, so will add the other one I use by Mushroom Science. The capsules for those are 400mg, so you take 3 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon.

  • Maca Root is a another good adaptogen to consider.

  • Which adaptogens do you recommend for swimmers training 3 to 4 hrs a day (includes weight training) 4 to 6 days a week? Also which magnesium? Awesome articles appreciate your work!!!

    • Hi Michelle,

      I recommend Cordyceps for that age range and sport. The other adaptogens (besides Chaga) are for 18 years and up.

      There are numerous types of magnesium, and more than even I listed in my magnesium article. I haven’t personally used magnesium aspartate, but only because I have had success with the others. I think it is fine to continue using it, and I will spend some more time researching it.

      I appreciate the feedback!

  • Also the swimmers are girl 17 and boy 16…they both take magnesium aspartate which I see is not on your magnesium list…we were told it was good for the lungs…? Thank you!!!!

    • Hi Michelle,

      I spent some more time researching magnesium aspartate, and one magnesium authority named Dr. Carolyn Dean and one excitotoxin authority named Dr. Russel Blaylock both agree that magnesium aspartate should be avoided. The reason being is that aspartate is an excitotoxin like glutamate, and for certain individuals this can be problematic.

  • Hey Alex
    Regarding adaptogens, you should check Mumiyo (Mumie, in India known as Shilajit) 😀

  • Hi Alex! I stumbled upon your website while I researching the most reputable and trustworthy resources to purchase vitamins and supplements from. I am elated that this information exists and you love and care about it to the extent of writing so thoughtfully on it. Bless you!

    It’s been a long journey for me. 29 y/o female, 5’6″, 165 lbs. serving in the Army as a vocalist in the band; very active (Crossfit, olympic lifting, run, swim, yoga) and prefer a holistic approach to health as opposed to a Pfizer fest. I had a run in with antidepressants awhile ago and it did nothing but turn me inside out and upside down. Horrific nightmare. I’ll never touch them again. Did my first whole30 in January 2013, and my interest was officially piqued in the world of wellness, and the prevention of systemic inflammation, etc. Fast forward a few years: coming out of a sudden case of stage 3 endometriosis after coming off hormonal birth control for 10 years (I am convinced it was the sole source of awful dyshidrotic eczema on my hands), and diagnosed with hypothyroidism a few weeks back. Started 75mcg of synthroid. I just want to feel normal again. I love being active, I love singing and performing for the American public as well as my fellow brothers and sisters in arms, but my weight either fluctuates 6-8 pounds in an untimely fashion for WHATEVER reason, and I cannot seem to get back to the weight I was prior to the antidepressant stint. I’m about 20-25 pounds heavier now. I admit, I have a hard time trusting whatever it is I am “recommended” to use; however, your website and clear, effective writing has provided a great deal of comfort to me. Again, thank you.

    Any recommendations? I’d like to create a regiment containing a multivitamin, fish oil, probiotic, adaptogen, and anything else that might lead to some physical normalcy as I gradually return to my training regiments post laprascopy (18May) from the removal of the aforementioned Endometriosis. Thanks for reading and keep up the good work! People out there need ya!

    • Hi Megan,

      Wow, it has been quite the journey! Thank you for your kind words. There is a lot cover and explain, but I’ll try to keep it concise.

      As you may know, anti-depressants manipulate serotonin receptors. For some people who have a slow MAO-A gene, serotonin levels are not broken down efficiently and it can lead to serotonin syndrome (more likely when taken with other medications). It is very common for weight gain to occur on and off of anti-depressants, most likely due to serotonin fluctuations that create sugar and carb cravings (both boost serotonin). Since 95% of serotonin is made in the gut, I suspect there are other mechanisms at work from anti-depressant use that affect metabolism. If you haven’t read the article already, check out Mental Health Starts in your Gut, Not Your Brain.

      Birth control can cause high estrogen levels, which also can lead to weight gain. It also depletes numerous vitamins and minerals needed by the neurotransmitters. Bringing estrogen and progesterone levels in the right range with higher fiber intake, B6 and magnesium in your diet is key to prevent bloating and water weight.

      Your TSH level should be between 1.5-2.0. If it is in the hypothyroid range, it can be challenging to lose weight until it is in range. The thyroid requires adequate magnesium (common deficiency, esp. in athletes), iodine, selenium, B2 and vitamin C.

      The multivitamin I recommend can be found here. Ashwagandha is a good adaptogen that also benefits the thyroid. Magnesium is a must, and the article can be found here. I’m working on a fish oil article and a probiotic article. For fish oil, Nordic Naturals, Wiley’s Finest and Carlson’s are all good brands. For probiotics, Ultimate Flora, BioKult and Probiota 12 are solid.

      You keep up the good work as well!

  • Hello Alex,
    I am wondering what you would recommend for me (47 year old male, 12-13% bodyfat, 150#, 5′ 4″) I was taking testosterone for hormone replacement therapy and stopped a couple months ago as I am looking for a way to increase testosterone and attain the benefits of such without injecting a synthetic (bio identical) substance into my body. I am considering Ashwagandha (Organic India brand, the best I have seen yet), I like the Oh Boy product by them I am wondering what dose is needed daily to increase testosterone or lower cortisol levels thereby increasing testosterone??


    • I also saw some research on KSM-66 brand of Ashwagandha extract, very promising but I like using organic when possible and its an extract not the full herb…

    • Hi Darrin,

      I highly recommend reading the article I wrote on raising testosterone naturally found here.

      The amount your testosterone will increase will depend on your base level, current stress, your diet and training style (all outlined in that article). Adaptogens help your body reach balance, and the reduction of cortisol helps testosterone elevate. In terms of the dosage for ashwagandha, the best results I’ve seen in research is 300mg 2x a day of the root extract. You can see the study here.

      For this reason, I like the Gaia product because it is certified organic and the root extract has been proven to work.

  • Hi Alex,

    Curious about adaptogen supplementation for swimmers. Both girls, 14, & 16. The 16 year old has a soy allergy and I have read that cordyceps is now cultivated on soybeans. Are you aware of any sources that are soy-free?

    • Hi Anne,

      Great questions and I wasn’t aware of that change. I spent some time doing some research and came up with the Cordyceps Peak Performance by Real Mushrooms. It uses a fruiting body of cordyceps militaris, which doesn’t have any grains/soy. Host Defense uses a brown rice medium and grows mycelium, which in my opinion isn’t ideal because a lot of starch ends up in the product. However it is also soy free. I left a message with the owner of Mushroom Science because the staff didn’t know whether or not soy was in the liquid medium.

      I added the Cordyceps Peak Performance Real Mushroom powder to this article and will test it out myself because I’m very interested in this company. I will also start doing more research on the C. militaris form in comparison to the C. Sinesis. I personally use cordyceps and lion’s mane (and ashwagandha), so it is time to update.

  • Thank you Alex! I appreciate the quick response and great information.

  • Dear Alex,

    I’m a 20yr old male. Now during school days I normally play 2 hrs a day, 3 days of the week in the afternoon of these sports: My main sport is soccer. My second sport is basketball. After which I less frequently do various fighting sports, tennis, pingpong, dodgeball, …
    During the summer I was doing something like 4hrs soccer daily.

    Concurrently with my afternoon sports, I either weigh train or do yoga every morning (1hr daily, 4x a week is weighttrain, 3x is yoga).

    I’m always trying to gain weight by eating as much good foods as I can, although considering my activity level I normally lose weight. In the summer I dropped from 165lb to 148lb. A month back in school and recently receiving a toe fracture, I’ve stopped the afternoon sports. Hopefully I’ll return to them within a month or two. I’m trying to make the most of my toe fracture, focusing on my morning weight training, and so far coming up to 158lb.

    For the last year, I’ve been consuming a capsule of cheaper cordyceps daily, Amazon’s Nature’s Way Cordyceps or Now Foods Cordyceps.

    After reading your article, I’m thinking of getting a better cordyceps. Preferring capsules, I’m thinking of getting Cordyceps Cs-4 400mg Mushroom Science and consuming 1 daily.

    For someone who is currently just doing morning lifting / yoga but plans to add afternoon sports like soccer, would u recommend anything else. / Am I overthinking and just Cordyceps is fine / 1 tab daily fine? / Will my adaptogen supplement requirements change when I add in soccer?

    Note: When I’m only weightraining, my goal is to gain weight but if I’m heavily playing soccer or some other sport my goal is to inhibit weightloss as much as possible. Either way I stuff myself.


    • Hi,

      The cordyceps work best at a dosage of 2000-3000mg daily. What you will need depends on the feedback of your body. If your VO2 max aerobic capacity is good, you probably do not need any more than cordyceps. If you feel like you want to increase your strength and oxygen capacity more, you can add ashwagandha as well.

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