What Are Adaptogens, Really, and Do You Need Them to Be Healthy?
Would you like some lion’s mane with your coffee? Thanks to a trend in supplements, adaptogens like lion’s mane (and many other fungi) are now readily available to add to your morning pick-me-up. This category of coffee and tea add-ins is becoming so popular that it’s led to the launch of multiple companies dedicated to producing them, making it easy for the everyday consumer to add exotic herbs to their daily routine. But, just like any trend, it has us asking what adaptogens actually are—and if they’re really needed as part of a healthy diet.
Adaptogens: The Basics
Though they’ve only recently shown up on store shelves (and in your social media feed), adaptogens are not new. “Knowledge about these naturally harmonizing substances dates back thousands of years in traditional Chinese and Ayruvedic medicine,” explains Stephanie Hein, certified herbalist with Four Sigmatic, a company specializing in superfoods, functional mushrooms and adaptogenic herbs. The scientific study of this category of herbs started in the 1940s and research been steadily increasing since then.
The term “adaptogen” wasn’t used in scientific literature until 1957 when Russian toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev coined the term. According to Nikolay, and as defined in the paper “Adaptogens: A Review of Their History, Biological Activity, and Clinical Benefits,” adaptogens are substances that increase the “state of non-specific resistance.” They’ve also been defined as substances that strengthen systems compromised by stress and increase resistance to stressors.
In our modern day, adaptogens are packaged with claims to eliminate brain fog, help with concentration and—you guessed it—reduce stress. “Adaptogens are a class of natural medicine (herbs and fungi) that can be thought of as ‘adapting’ to the body’s needs to bring one into a state of balance and vitality,” explains Danielle Ryan, registered herbalist (American Herbalists Guild), also of Four Sigmatic.
Dr. Cassie Wilder, a naturopathic doctor based in the Minneapolis area, says that adaptogens are meant to help the body adapt to stress. Here’s how she explains the body’s stress response: “Stress is monitored and regulated through the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis), meaning if you see a bear, your brain is going to send a signal down to your adrenals to output cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline and send you into fight or flight mode. If you are consistently under attack from a ‘bear,’ your brain will start to slow down that HPA pathway, and you’ll mount less and less of an adrenal response over time.” Adaptogens, Dr. Wilder continues, are meant to moderate the body’s response to this type of chronic stress.
Okay, But What Are Adaptogens Made Of?
“Adaptogens can be thought of as an umbrella category of natural, earth-based medicines that include some plant species and some fungi species,” says Danielle. Some are mushrooms while others are berries, roots, spices or a blend of one or more of these components. These are different from the mushrooms you can pick up at the grocery store and add to a stir-fry. “What really makes something an adaptogen is its pharmacognosy profile, or the constituents in the plant that give it its medicinal actions,” explains Dr. Wilder.
But what’s interesting is that the exact amount needed for those medicinal actions isn’t exactly clear. “We still don’t know exactly why or how plants can be extremely effective at treating disease—and there’s not a whole lot of research money being thrown into herbal research,” Dr. Wilder says.
Today, you can purchase adaptogens in an assortment of forms. Pills, powders and foods such as granola bars and ready to drink beverages are all available from an increasing number of food and supplement companies. Many companies have slick marketing and Instagram-worthy packaging that blurs the line between an adaptogen as food or as medicine. Add to it the claims to “help you achieve your optimal state” and “enhance your daily routine,” and you have an appealing product that is hard to resist.
“Functional mushrooms are ‘adaptogenic’ tonics intended to be taken daily for longevity, immunity, stress support and overall well-being,” says Danielle, but the challenging part of this is that there isn’t a standard dosage recommendation. Says Dr. Wilder, “I think with all medicinals the dose is the most important part—meaning you can probably go out and wildcraft these herbs or mushrooms and consume them, but the dose you’re getting in supplemental products is going to be much higher than what you can probably consume on your own.”
She goes on to explain that despite not having a standardized dose, many of the supplements on the market are standardizing their product. “A lot of these high-quality supplements are standardizing the amount of the active ingredient that can be expected in their product—that way we can make sure you’re at a therapeutic dose, and we can formulate a realistic timeline as to when we think you should be feeling the effects,” Dr. Wilder says.
Are Adaptogens Medicine?
Adaptogens are in a category separate from foods and their use as an addition to the diet must be approached differently than food. “There are many factors to consider when finding the perfect dose for an individual and the subject can actually be quite vast,” Stephanie explains. That means it’s also complicated to assert that adaptogens are what we conventionally think of as “medicine.”
Add to that that each plant composition is influenced by its growing and harvesting method, including the time of day, the time of year, the soil where it was grown and the amount of water it received, among other variables, and standardization is really tricky. “It’s not measurable and consistent, as the Western world needs and requires in standardizing medicine,” says Danielle. “Each herb is not only unique from other adaptogens in its category, but each specific harvest of a plant or fungi is going to be completely unique in its constituent make up.”
The inability to standardize is why some experts like Katie Andrews, registered dietitian and founder of Wellness by Katie, are skeptical. “The benefit of Western medicine is the fact that we have the ability to understand the mechanism within our bodies—the very fact that adaptogens are all different and react differently in every individual makes them almost impossible to study outside of single cases (not exactly the gold standard of medicine),” she says. So, she approaches the use of adaptogens with caution because there isn’t a clear definition of their benefits.
I Added Mushrooms to My Coffee… Now What?
Some companies that manufacture adaptogens provide blends for specific needs and also make recommendations for how to consume them in the diet. Others make and sell adaptogens as a part of a single-serve food like a granola bar or drink. So, what should a consumer do?
“It’s important to be aware of how adaptogens are treated in our food system,” says Katie. “They’re not technically ‘drugs’ and therefore the Food and Drug Administration does not test them for efficacy or safety; but they certainly have the potency to do harm.”
If you want to take adaptogens, consider two important things: quality and expert recommendations. Dr. Wilder says that not all adaptogens will work for everyone. “We’ve all taken a product because the marketing material made us believe that it would work and then been massively disappointed at the results,” she says. “If you’re looking for personalized recommendations that are going to be specifically handpicked to work for you, then stop reading the marketing material and wasting money trying everything on the shelves and seek help from a Naturopathic Doctor or herbalist.”
Looking for other health tips? Check out what a doctor says about the five easy steps to biohack your health.