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Investigating the booming wellness subcategory
“There’s no information or transparency when I talk to [some] vendors about where they are sourcing from or how they are getting their products so inexpensively.”
Two summers ago, I found myself wandering the aisles of my neighborhood health food store. I came across a row of adaptogenic mushroom elixirs; their labels had the names of fungi I had never heard of before, like lion's mane and cordyceps.
Though these strange items were, to me, still shrouded in mystery, I felt compelled to try them. After all, they promised stress relief, so I shrugged and dropped a couple into my shopping basket.
These days, consumers are being pulled in a million different directions. I’ve often felt overwhelmed by all of the new wellness items at my fingertips. And though I approach new wellness trends with a degree of suspicion, since first trying adaptogenic products, I’ve been hooked—and I’m not the only one.
“Adaptogens have been gaining popularity over the past ten to fifteen years,” says Brita Zeiler, a clinical herbalist who is an herb and tea buyer at People’s Food Co-op in Portland, Oregon. “[They] definitely exploded over the past five years with different producers making products that are catered and marketed for a mainstream audience rather than an herbal audience, which is more of a niche market.”
To be sure, adaptogens have become a staple in the ever-growing wellness sector—now a $4.2 trillion industry. According to recent statistics from the American Botanical Council, herbal dietary supplement sales sat at roughly $7.45 billion in 2016, representing a 7.7% spike from the year before. As of 2017, the market reached around $8.1 billion. “In the past two years I've seen people wanting to purchase [adaptogens] in larger quantities and asking a lot of questions, in particular [about] ashwaganda, reishi, lion's mane, cordyceps, and tulsi,” Zeiler tells Supermaker. “They're all very popular.”
Despite the health benefits consumers of adaptogen products promise in their marketing campaigns, it’s important to understand how adaptogens work and what to consider before incorporating them into your wellness practice. Here’s what the experts say you need to know.
Broadly defined, adaptogens are a subset of herbal and plant ingredients that can help the human body better manage stress. Though the word adaptogen is relatively new in its mainstream use, they have been used for centuries by several different cultures and traditions.
“[Adaptogens] are a mixture of plants and herbs [that have been] used in Ayurvedic and Chinese healing traditions [and] claimed to bring homeostasis and physiological stabilization to the body,” explains Madison Deakin, a non-diet and inclusive nutritionist based in Melbourne, Australia, who is also the founder of Messy Health. “Something that once and still is a healing tradition for certain cultures has now somewhat been turned into another product and fad by the wellness industry.”
The idea of taking a natural supplement as a cure for stress or to boost immunity sounds great, but in order to have a realistic understanding of what to expect, we have to learn how exactly adaptogens are metabolized and what effects they can have on your body.
Research around adaptogens and their potential uses has increased in recent years, but we know that adaptogens work at the molecular level to stabilize adrenal, hypothalamic, and pituitary glands which comprise human stress response systems. In this way, studies have demonstrated the potential for adaptogens to aid humans against things like fatigue, stress, and depression while increasing mental capacities and attention spans.
This said, we are still unearthing the full potential of adaptogens, and there remains much to be learned. “Health requires a multifaceted approach, so simply taking or drinking adaptogens will have little impact on stress,” Deakin says. “Used as a tool in conjunction with other stress reducing practices may bring stronger results.”
Deakin explains that there are many different types of adaptogens, each with its own uses and health benefits. “Traditionally, different combinations of adaptogens are used for different ailments,” Deakin says. “For example, ashwagandha and ginseng are often used for stress, ginseng and rhodiola are often used to combat the fight or flight response. Reishi is often used for immune health.”
Despite the potential that adaptogens hold, not everyone understands the way that these products are incorporated into the body. “People expect something to be instantaneous [like] they’re consuming a medicinal product,” Zeiler says. “Sometimes that’s the case if you hit the nail on the head, other times it takes up to three months of working with a plant to really find if it’s effective or not.”
There are many ways to consume adaptogenic products, including drinking adaptogen teas, adding adaptogenic tinctures to water, or using adaptogen powders in your favorite beverages, like smoothies or your morning coffee.
Bear in mind, though, that incorporating adaptogens into your lifestyle doesn’t mean you’ll have instant stress relief or be able to work 100-hour weeks indefinitely. Zeiler often observes the misconception that one can consume an adaptogenic product and expect immediate results—like popping a pain reliever. This, she says, is not the case. Instead, she encourages people to broaden their conception of what it means to promote healing in the body over time.
Often, Western medicine offers solutions that mask symptoms without encouraging individuals to take a close look at underlying causes of a health problem or disease. Conversely, Zeiler says, “herbal medicine requires the individual to be working on their own healing, noticing their body, and tuning into what works for them.”
Zeiler adds that the best way to add adaptogens to your health and wellness routine is by really taking the time to notice how they are working in your body over time. “I ask that people dive into that more rather than just trying to numb out or put a band-aid on whatever pain they’re feeling—whether that’s due to stress, burnout, a breakup, or starting a business and having to work 20 hours a day.”
Given that researchers are still unearthing the full spectrum of uses and risks related to adaptogens, it’s always a good idea to approach any kind of supplement with caution. Furthermore, if you are taking other medicines or have a health condition, you should seek out professional help.
“Someone who suffers from an autoimmune [disease] such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus should be very careful and should consult with their doctor before taking adaptogens,” Deakin continues, noting that ashwagandha is an immunosuppressant and could potentially worsen symptoms.
Today, adaptogens are all the rage, but Deakin warns individuals not to believe everything they see on social media. “I suggest people to stay away from any type of product that is promoted on social media or by influencers,” she says, suggesting to instead seek out professional dietitians, nutritionists, or registered traditional chinese medicine practitioners or your doctor first.
Ultimately, when it comes to adding adaptogens to your wellness practice, it’s important to remember it’s not an overnight fix. “We can apply a bandaid to your situation with adaptogens, but it’s not going to cure the root cause,” Zeiler adds. “I walk cautiously with my clients and customers around that, because there could be consequences down the road with using adaptogens for too long or using them inappropriately.”
“The incorporation of plants into the diet is something that I will always encourage but I urge people to do their research and speak with a health professional before trying them,” Deakin explains. “Because they have been hyped up, the quality of adaptogens may be compromised.”
To be sure, there can sometimes be quality control challenges when it comes to sourcing adaptogens, particularly from international suppliers. “We want to make sure that who we are getting the herbs from is as vetted as possible,” Zeiler says. “And that’s incredibly challenging.”
Despite—or, perhaps, as a result of—the popularity of adaptogenic products, Zeiler is sometimes unable to get enough information about where products are coming from. “There’s no information or transparency when I talk to [some] vendors about where they are sourcing from or how they are getting their products so inexpensively.”
This said, consumers are increasingly inquiring about adaptogens, where they are sourced from, and how consumers can ascertain their quality level. “People are really demanding transparency and higher quality, and better environmental stewardship so we’re not just depleting the resources of other countries,” Zeiler says. “There’s a lot of different considerations, and my process generally trends towards herbs that can be produced locally and with little impact.”
Zeiler notes that adaptogens and other herbal medicines have been used by Indigenous peoples around the world for a very long time, and often, these communities are sometimes devastated by overharvesting or environmental depletion due to food and wellness trends.
“We’re looking at a situation that’s layered in its complexity with environmentalism, colonialism, and over-harvesting,” Zeiler says, adding that because of high market demand, there can also be contamination and dilution of product in the industry. For this reason, Zeiler encourages consumers to be mindful of where the adaptogenic products they purchase are being sourced from—and not to be afraid to ask brands or your neighborhood health food store.
Ultimately, if these trends continue, adaptogenic products will be around for a long time. These powerful plant medicines have been used for centuries and have much to offer us, but it’s important that we be mindful not just of where these adaptogens are coming from and their impact on local communities, but of the way that we choose to incorporate them into our lives and bodies.
“Using the resources of these very powerful adaptogenic plants responsibly is key to making sure that the quality stays intact for a longer period of time and that we’re not exploiting the earth’s resources just so that we can work harder,” Zeiler concludes. “Because, in that instance, we’re also exploiting our own resources of production; we also want to be careful of how we’re treating ourselves.”