All About Adaptogens
They’re the newest wellness craze. But do they work?
Ashwagandha. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Perhaps you recognize it from your new face cream, the supplements at the health food store, or even at your local smoothie stop. It’s promoted as a “stress-relieving super plant.” But really, what is ashwagandha and what, if anything, does it actually do?
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, “a class of herbs intended to boost your resistance to and tolerance of stress – emotional and physical,” explains Brierly Horton, MS, RD. That is precisely what makes adaptogens like ashwagandha, and the en vogue cordyceps mushroom (often touted as a coffee replacement) so appealing to the masses.
Allegedly, adaptogenic plants can reduce stress, squash fatigue and hone focus. Such claims can often skate by untested, hooking consumers with lofty life-changing promises left unfulfilled. Today, we’ll reveal the truth behind adaptogens: if, and how, they work, what types there are, and ultimately, if they are worth all the fuss. Let’s dive in.
History of a Super Plant
The term adaptogen was first coined by a scientist in the USSR in 1947. Essentially, scientists were seeking a ‘superhero pill’ that would allow military pilots to fly better, faster, and for longer periods of time. The Soviet Union scientist formally categorized adaptogens as “plant-derivatives that can non-specifically enhance the human body.” How wonderfully vague!
The practice of seeking out and consuming adaptogens, however, has a much older, richer history. Rooted in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, “some of the original adaptogens include ginseng root [as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory] and astragalus [for immune system support],” notes Keri Marshall, MS. “From a [traditional] Ayurvedic and Chinese Medicine perspective, adaptogens are meant to literally help ground you so you can get your roots back, in an effort to restore balance in your life.” These roots and herbs, used for centuries, have recently catapulted into the mainstream, integrated in everything from tea to face cream.
While I don’t believe adaptogens (or anything, really) can live up to the expectation of eliciting supernatural responses out of natural beings, adaptogens must provide some value if they have been safely used and consumed for thousands of years.
Adaptogens at Work
The question remains: Do adaptogens really perform as well as its proponents claim? Mostly, yes. “More recently, several adaptogens have gone through scientifically rigorous studies and have come out with the equivalent of a scientific thumbs -up,” says Brierly Horton, MS, RD. The results are promising, boding well for adaptogen enthusiasts. Horton goes on to note that, “clinical trials have found several herbal preparations with adaptogens to reduce stress-induced endocrine and immune impairments, while also boosting attention, endurance and resistance to fatigue.”
Scientific studies are now proving what Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine practitioners have known for centuries—these adaptogenic plants help support us in ways we need it most. “As the name suggests, [adaptogens] adapt to meet your needs. [They] bring balance the way a thermostat controls temperature: they turn up your energy when you’re fatigued and help you relax when you’re restless,” explains Horton.
Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinics Wellness Institute explains further, “Adaptogens train your body to handle the effects of stress.” While adaptogens don’t magically disappear stress, they do enhance your body’s ability to process it. “Adaptogens may tweak hormone production and physiological responses to stress to ensure that your body—from your mind to your immune system to your energy levels—functions as it should,” says Powell.
However, it is imperative to note that not all adaptogens effect our bodies in the same way. Each of the over 70 adaptogenic plants provides different benefits. Ashwagandha, for example, was found to aid in managing anxiety in a 2014 study, while rhodiola can be used for stress relief and focus. A double-blind, placebo-controlled 2012 study found that, “regularly taking rhodiola helped fight the kind of fatigue that dulls our mental performance and concentration,” notes Horton.
As for adaptogenic skincare, Los Angeles dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse, MD recommends moringa and marshmallow root. “Stress has been shown to impair the skin barrier, leaving it prone to water loss and dehydration,” notes Dr. Shainhouse, “Moringa and marshmallow root may help to repair the skin barrier and increase skin hydration.”
Whether you choose adaptogenic skincare, supplemental capsules, sip adaptogenic tea, or incorporate a premixed powder into soups or smoothies, the key to adaptogenic success is consistency. Laura Slayton, a nutritionist in New York, believes, “adaptogens need to be consumed consistently to see any effects.” Unfortunately, one cup of cordyceps is unlikely lower cholesterol or boost endurance. So remember, if you’re into the adaptogen experimentation mood, opt for investing in a powder, supplement, or tincture. As Slayton says, “If you’re putting a smudge of ashwagandha in your smoothie here and there, it’s unlikely to do much.”
Not all adaptogenic supplements, powders and tinctures are created equal. However, the burden of checking the quality of these supplements falls on consumers. “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t monitor the quality of herbs and supplements like over-the-counter products,”’ says Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D, R.N. When buying adaptogens, get to know the brand. Check the ingredients, seeking purity and lack of fillers.
If you seek the cream of the adaptogenic crop, naturopathic doctor Keri Marshall, M.S. recommends opting for liquid tinctures. “Generally, liquid versions are going to be better than a powder. That’s because when a liquid extract is made, you have the ability to pull out the important medicinal components you want…Essentially, a liquid extract is more pure.”
As for side effects, nothing major has been reported. Dr. Powell says, “there’s little evidence to suggest that adaptogens can cause side effects or health problems—though, like any plant, they can be allergenic or cause gastrointestinal distress for some people.” Furthermore, Keri Marshall, MS discourages adaptogen use, “if you’re on immune-modulating drugs.” Adaptogens themselves are immune modulators and may result in undesirable interactions. Jenn Miremadi, MS suggests it’s best to consult with your healthcare provider, “before taking any new supplements, including adaptogens.”
Balance is Best
For all of their beneficial qualities, it’s imperative to remember that adaptogens are not a cure for anything. Adaptogens recent rise in fame may be due to their stress management qualities, appealing to those seeking relief from the increased stress of life in the 2020s. “People are basically wanting to take these adaptogens all the time for their chronic stress that they’re not managing otherwise,” says Dr. Powell.
If taking a pill and being stress-free sounds to good to be true, that’s because it is. “There’s no good research that suggests adaptogens are a cure-all. And certainly not a substitute for tried-and-true stress management techniques and medical care,” says Horton, MS, RD.
Not even the incredible power of adaptogens can cure us of all our fatigue, anxiety, and stress. Adaptogens are best used as a supplement combined with an overall healthy lifestyle, structured stress management, and attentive self-care. We may never be as stress-free as we’d like, but integrating adaptogens into our self-care routines will enhance our bodies natural abilities to keep itself balanced.
Adaptogens are a class of plants that assist our bodies’ natural stress management processes. Taken regularly, they may help manage stress, anxiety, and fatigue. Consult a medical professional before incorporating adaptogens into your daily routine.
Note: This article was originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.