Adapto-what? This is the reaction of most people when they first hear of the plant-derived compounds known as adaptogens, such as rhodiola and ashwagandha, which are taking the wellness world by storm. Herbal and medicinal, adaptogens are said to help everything from common lethargy to cancer. But the core health benefit—or hype, some might say—is hormone regulation.
Adaptogens help our bodies fight the one big havoc-wreaking condition we all suffer from: stress. Dr. Kyrin Dunston, MD, FACOG, says, “If the [stress-response] system is overworked and cortisol (the stress hormone) is too high, these herbs bring it down, and if the system is low-functioning (low cortisol), these herbs bring it up. Basically, adaptogenic herbs normalize the cortisol hormone.”
After seeing adaptogens pop up all over the place, I started experimenting with adaptogens about four months ago. I live in New York City and deal with my fair share of stress, so I thought, why not? While I can’t, in good faith, tell you these things taste good (unless you like the taste of dirt), I’ve talked to doctors, several experts, and the owners of two of the biggest adaptogen brands out there. Here’s what I learned and how they’ve worked for me (and might just work for you!).
How Do They Work?
Adaptogens are thought to be like regulators for your body—they provide balance and help the body function well. Naturopath Edward Wallace tells the experts behind the wildly popular wellness blog Dr. Axe, “An adaptogen doesn’t have a specific action: It helps you respond to any influence or stressor, normalizing your physiological functions.”
Like vitamins, adaptogens aren’t something you take a quick hit of when you need them. Instead, they build up in the body over time. Herbalist Karen Brennan, MSW, NC, says adaptogens “can affect the brain, nerves, endocrine glands, and the immune system by helping re-regulate, normalize, and enhance function. Taken over time, they can build up your overall health.”
Brennan says to rotate your adaptogens or take two weeks off after taking an herb for twelve weeks. “Your body can adapt (or become less responsive) to the herb, so it’s best to take a break or switch it up,” she says.
What’s the Research?
The term “adaptogen” dates back to 1947 when the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Health studied them. The herbs themselves and the medicinal practice of using them, however, can be traced back centuries in Indian and Chinese histories.
The science is hardly settled on the matter. In 2008, the European Medicines Agency declared that much of the research previously done on adaptogens wasn’t totally legit. Its report reads, “. . . the clinical data have a number of shortcomings such as deficiencies in the description of inclusion and exclusion criteria, description of the medication, diagnosis, study design, analysis, etc.” That said, there are studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals indicating the health benefits of adaptogens, especially ashwagandha, which I tried. The University of Minnesota responded to skepticism over these botanical medicines, saying, “Although supporting evidence-based research may be limited in these cases, we should not ignore that these botanical medicines have been used for thousands of years, long before randomized clinical trials were conceived.”
In any case, for every success story, there are always side effects or risks associated with starting new regimens. If you’re taking other medications or are pregnant, you should consult a doctor before diving headfirst into adaptogens.
How I Got Into Them
I’m remiss to say it, but I found out about adaptogens from the grand poobah of trend-driven wellness, Gwyneth Paltrow—she reportedly mixes adaptogens into her famous daily smoothie. Not to fear, we mere mortals can use the herbs effectively, too. “Ashwagandha and rhodiola are probably the two most effective adaptogenic herbs, and yes, they work for everybody,” Dr. Dunston says. “In 2017, our bodies are under so much stress from internal and external factors that most everyone needs to be on some sort of adrenal support (i.e., adaptogenic herbs).”
Most adaptogenic herbs come in powder or capsule form. Powder is generally added to a beverage, be it hot tea or a cold smoothie. Capsules can be taken daily (or twice daily) according to the label directions.
I’ve experimented extensively with various methods of consuming the adaptogen powders I’ve tried. I find most herbs taste earthy, which isn’t something I love. Ashwagandha is literally described as having the smell of a horse; needless to say, I’m usually trying to mask the flavor. Smoothies are the easiest way, especially if you’re adding citrus. I’ve also had success mixing the herbs in with loose leaf hot teas. Some say they’re great sprinkled in oatmeal or yogurt, but the one time I mixed ashwagandha in with my overnight oats, I found them inedible. Many fans, including the founder of celebrity-favorite adaptogen purveyor Moon Juice, mix the herbs in with nondairy chocolate milks, which I haven’t tried but can imagine might actually taste good.
Which Ones Are Most Popular?
It depends on what your needs are, but as Dr. Dunston says, ashwagandha and rhodiola are safe starting points. Ashwagandha is the adaptogen most touted for energy and immunity support. Sun Potion, a top supplier of herbs (and a brand I’ve personally used for adaptogen powders), describes it as “an excellent herb for stress relief and supporting an inner sense of well-being.” Sun Potion says this herbal remedy has been reported as helping users with “asthma, arthritis, chronic fatigue, anemia, infertility, depression, and blood pressure.”
Rhodiola is great for the brain. Sun Potion notes that this herb “may support weight balance, longevity, and focus” while boosting mental clarity and immune strength. Other popular adaptogens to consider include he shou wu (for skin and hair health), cordyceps (for endurance), reishi (for stress relief), and holy basil (for calm).
What I Noticed from My Herbal Routine
The herbs need to build up in your system over time, so don’t expect instant results. It took about two weeks for me to feel a difference in my energy levels after regularly consuming ashwagandha and rhodiola. I’ve also used he shou wu, which did seem to make my hair less brittle. I’ve not had any clinical testing of my hormones done during my use of the herbs, but I’ve noticed a decrease in hormonal acne since beginning my regimen.
Reishi is the one adaptogen I’ve tried that did seem to have an instant effect. Reach for this to prevent fatigue. While I don’t doubt the chemistry of adaptogens, I can also say that this ritual of these herbs has provided stress relief for me. The simple act of blending a tonic and sipping it gives me a sense of calm and accomplishment.
My Favorite Brands
I have personally tried three brands—Moon Juice, Sun Potion, and Neal’s Yard—and I’d gladly vouch for all three. When choosing adaptogens, you absolutely must read the fine print and be willing to pay slightly higher prices for quality product.
Sun Potion excels at providing detailed descriptions and transparency about what constitutes its herbs. Moon Juice is ideal for a woman on the go because its handy packets can be stashed in your bag for later. They are pre-mixed blends of several adaptogens, so you don’t have to fret about being your own chemist. Neal’s Yard will introduce its ashwagandha-based detox supplement later this summer, but I got to try it early. Its powder supplement is also a great option for someone who prefers a blend of several targeted ingredients that can easily be mixed into anything.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t find out about the capsule form until I had already invested in all the powders, but I fully intend to try them once I run out because a capsule seems like an effortless way to reap the benefits. If you’ve tried adaptogens, let us know how they worked for you in the comments below.