Truth About Adaptogens
I’m asked about adaptogens nearly every day.
As an herbalist and owner of Supernatural in New York, clients and customers alike bring me their dust collections, eager to know if they’re taking them correctly. Cafe walk-ins will skip the menu and simply order whatever is adaptogenic. And, unsurprisingly, one of the most popular points I’ve made on social media was to correct some (okay, a lot) of misinformation about adaptogens that was being passed around. I received thousands of replies with many thanks and even more pleas to continue sharing the adaptogenic truth.
To serve that demand, I’ve started teaching full workshops about adaptogens specifically, rather than herbalism more broadly, and have contemplated removing them from my menu entirely to make a point. (Related: I don’t serve matcha.) That point would be: we need to know about them more than we need to take them.
I am so glad to spend time clarifying outlandish marketing claims, debunking health myths, and taking apart wellness trends. (See, my story on wellness as a luxury good.) Not that the popularity isn’t great; it’s introducing more people to better wellbeing after all. But, when it comes to our health, trends can be dangerous, distracting, or detrimental to the cause. So it’s especially important to understand why we’re following them.
As for adaptogens, I see them popularly consumed but with a limited understanding of why or how to properly do so, aside from the notion that these herbs help our bodies adapt to stress. And that is only partially true. Regularly, I see folks spending more money on these supplements than on vegetables and consuming higher doses. (Btw, I always recommend vegetables before herbs.)
It’s no wonder adaptogens are topping our shopping lists, though. In addition to making us impervious to stress, they’re being marketed as:
Cures for anxiety.
Brainpower boosters - making us more energetic, focused, and kinder to our colleagues and partners
Fuel for our workouts, or naps, or all-nighters, or morning-afters.
Caffeine replacements. Xanax replacements. Multivitamin replacements.
Hormone balances for men, women and pets.
The remedies for weight loss, longer life, happiness, and superhuman healthiness, all in one simple pill offered as a convenient monthly subscription!
It’s hard not to believe all of that; herbs are incredible. From the mucuna bean full of dopamine to psychedelic mushrooms that have cured anxiety, depression, addiction and PTSD in one go, the plant kingdom never ceases to blow my mind. While herbs, and yes adaptogens, are impressive, that power comes with a lot of caveats and cautions. Effects vary per plant, per person, very dependent on dosages, and most importantly, all other lifestyle factors.
Most likely, though, you already knew that. Or, suspected it and have just been waiting for someone to validate it. A fascinating thing about this whole adaptogens conversation is that people know it’s a ton of hype.
So, let’s clear the air.
Adaptogens is an ambiguous term because it’s based in Eastern Medicine and there’s no equivalent Western Medicine idea of it. Essentially, though, they’re considered a type of tonic herb to promote general health and well-being. The term and concept was coined in the 1960s when Ginseng was being researched as a pharmaceutical. That means, the idea of adaptogens is not ancient.
Adaptogens “increase the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors and to avoid damage from such factors. In other words, they are herbs that help us resist stress and the harmful effects that accompany it.”
Now, we’ve heard that - that they help us adapt to stress - so let’s be more specific. According to David Winston, the most widely agreed-upon definition of adaptogens includes three important points. To be considered an adaptogen, an herb must be:
NON TOXIC in therapeutic doses. (People often think, “duh, of course they’re non-toxic” but a fun fact for you: many common spices - like nutmeg and licorice - can be toxic.)
NON SPECIFIC in their actions. Which means they are broad and sometimes contradictory in their benefits. For example, one herb can be capable of both raising and lowering a certain hormone, according to the body’s specific imbalance in either direction. Adaptogens act like internal thermostats: when the temperature is too high, they lower it; if too low, they raise it. So, they work for a variety of stressor including physical, chemical, biological, and psychological—not just the stress of a job, relationship, burning the candle at both ends.
NORMALIZING Adaptogens increase a state of “nonspecific resistance”, in one or multiple systems to help us “regain normalcy.” Normalizing doesn’t mean pushing us into super-human health. It does mean they’re great as assists through particularly stressful or difficult times in life, though. Which is how I look at them: as potent plant-medicines for particularly strenuous times, or periods of recovery.
In fact, one of the greatest cautions against adaptogens is misusing them in order to “better handle” chronic stress, which we’d be better off whittling out of our life. Relying on them in this way can be contraindicative lead to burnout if we’re not mindful.
Here’s the fun part: only about nine herbs fit the criteria of this definition*.
Others are considered “possible or probable adaptogens.” Maca, for example, isn’t an adaptogen. Nor is Reishi, Tocotrienols aka Tocos (which is more akin to powdered rice-bran milk, sorry) or turmeric, the latest claimed-adaptogen I encountered.
For perspective, since “adaptogen” is a classification of herbs based on their action, take a look at how many other herbal classifications there are:
ASTRINGENTS | AROMATICS | ALTERNATIVES | BITTERS | CALMING/NERVINES | CARMINITIVES | DIURETICS | EMOLLIENTS | EXPECTORANTS | AND MORE . . .
More perspective: It’s estimated that 50,000 medicinal plants are used around the world; about one quarter of all prescribed medications are derived from medicinal plants; and 80% of the world's population depends mainly on traditional medicine (aka herbalism and food-based home-remedies).
Many of the products claiming to be adaptogenic were born of good intentions, but have become misleading and without proper dosing or personalized recommendations, they’re often useless or at worst, harmful. Also completely missing from the current conversation is any other classification of herbs that may include the ones best for you. For example, Nervines - direct nervous-system supports - which are some of my favorites. Or, say, St. John’s Wort for treating depression. (More on that in Part II of this story.)
Hopefully, although I’ve dried them out a bit, you now understand what adaptogens are, how they work, and most importantly, how they’re being marketed. And so will approach the next ad and the next fad with a healthy dose of … adaptogenic skepticism. Just kidding! Skepticism only. Look alive.
*The ones tht fit the adaptogen criteria are Panax ginseng, American Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, Schisandra, Rhodiola, Shilajit, Rhaponticum and Cordyceps.