The Buzz: Adaptogens

What’s the buzz?
Adaptogens might be the mystical medicinal tonics that can bust your stress naturally.

What does the science say?
High levels of daily stress have become normal for many Americans — we’re working longer hours, tasked with doing more, and, thanks to technology, more connected than ever before. The link between stress and health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and cognitive and digestive disorders has many people searching for the best ways to reduce the effects of chronic stress. Enter the latest solution in the wellness community: adaptogens.

Used in Eastern Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, adaptogens are plant extracts believed to reduce the damaging effects stress has on your body. The Western world has caught on, and some integrative medicine and holistic health professionals have started using adaptogens in practice in hopes of helping patients boost energy, combat stress-induced inflammation, and balance hormones. Maca and ginseng, perhaps the best-known adaptogens, may boost energy without caffeine, whereas rhodiola, ashwagandha (say that five times fast!), holy basil, and lion’s mane and turkey tail (which are types of medicinal mushrooms, not actual animal parts) are said to boost immunity and reduce the effects of stress — and that’s just a few of the many varieties used today. Sold in powdered or liquid supplement form, they are typically blended into coffee, tea, smoothies, or other beverages to make a tonic.  

Whether or not adaptogens really work is still up for debate. Although some short-term studies on a few of the more commonly used varieties have shown promise, research is limited in this area. Safety of these (quite spendy) supplements is still unclear. They are not well-regulated so may vary between brands, and we still don’t know if there are any long-term side effects. We do know that a variety of licorice (the root, not the candy), an adaptogen used to combat the negative effects of chronic stress, may raise blood pressure, so should be used with caution. Some adaptogen users recommend daily preventative use, while others recommend they be used to address specific ailments in the short-term.

What’s the takeaway?
Until more research is available, use these extracts with caution and always check with your doctor if you are taking any other medications; there could be interactions that reduce effectiveness of those medications. Instead, to combat stress, boost immunity, and improve health, focus on eating well, staying hydrated, exercising regularly, and getting adequate sleep first and foremost. Your body (and wallet) will thank you.

Read one dietitian’s assessment of common adaptogens