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.
What exactly are adaptogens?
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.
How do adaptogens work?
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.