The truth about adaptogens & how to properly use them

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There are so many health-supportive herbs (like, hundreds of them!), but right now one category of these herbs is taking the limelight: adaptogens.

In herbalism, herbs are classified according to their herbal actions — i.e. the action they perform in the body. Herbs may fall into multiple categories, but each category is well-defined to explain the medicinal properties. Adaptogens is one such category. According to Medical Herbalism by David Hoffman, an adaptogenic is “an herb that increases resistance and resilience to stress, enabling the body to avoid reaching collapse because it can adapt around the problem.”

Hoffman explains that adaptogens work in a non-specific way, which is a key differentiator between adaptogens and other herbs used to treat acute symptoms. Adaptogens don’t just target one system or symptom — they enable the body to address environmental or physical stressors by working with stress-regulating functions in the body. Though adaptogens are trending now, they were discovered in the 1940s by Soviet scientists and were further defined in the 1950s and 1960s once their properties were better understood.

Despite there being dozens, if not hundreds, of products on the market now with “adaptogen” in their branding, the term is not a general catch-all for any herb that supports stress — it is a specific classification of herbs, as outlined above.

According to Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steve Maimes, there are 21 herbs classified as adaptogens or possible adaptogens, including ashwagandha, rhodiola, astragalus, reishi, tulsi (holy basil), licorice, and panax (Korean) ginseng, among others. The list varies a bit from source to source, and herbs are constantly being researched to more deeply understand their herbal actions, so this list may grow or change.

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But why are adaptogens getting big now?

These herbs are now being embraced because our current society experiences heightened stress. Given the news cycle, the overstimulation of city living, social media and a bombardment of content, as well as environmental toxins, we live — more often than not — in a state of fight or flight. Whether it’s meditation, fitness, diet or herbs, most of us are searching for a way to relieve stress.

It’s important, though, to note that stress is not inherently bad. In fact, it’s a necessary, and sometimes helpful, biological response for our body to be able to recognize and respond to potentially threatening situations. Yet instead of running away from a tiger, which our stress response was initially evolved to deal with, many of us now have the same stress response when an email pops up on our homescreen, or we worry about the environmental impact of our drive to the grocery store.

Adaptogens won’t make your stressors go away or pay your tax bill, but they will help you to react to them with more ease.

“One of the biggest misconceptions I see with adaptogens being so trendy is that people tend to treat them as a one-stop shop to treat stress. I believe it’s a helpful part to a larger toolbox in dealing with stress in one’s life. But if you don’t like your job, adaptogens can only help so much,” explains Yvonne Matthews, certified holistic nutritionist and herbalist. To that end, Matthews advises that, while you take adaptogens to even out your stress response, you should also be addressing the root causes wherever possible.

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So, how do adaptogens work?

My first experience with adaptogens was three years ago when my health coach recommended ashwagandha for my feelings of apathy, sluggishness, fatigue and just overall burnout. She explained that I might be experiencing adrenal fatigue, and that ashwagandha could potentially help me respond better to stress and regain vitality. So off I went to the health food store to investigate it further. And thus began my love for herbs and herbal medicine.

At my health coach’s advisement, I took ashwagandha for 30 days. I didn’t feel immediate relief, and it certainly didn’t solve the problems causing me stress. But after the month was over, I realized I wasn’t feeling as frazzled. A problem or stressful situation was a bit less triggering. It helped smooth out my edges and I felt more emboldened. Which makes sense, as research shows that adaptogenic herbs may alleviate chronic fatigue, and that ashwagandha reduces one’s levels of cortisol, with cortisol playing a key role in adrenal fatigue and stress.

That’s the thing with adaptogens: Like Matthews explained, they are unlikely to instantly give you a feeling of zen, nor will they solve your stressful problems. But with consistent and mindful use over time, they can balance out how you respond to stress and the impact stress has on your body. The key, though, is consistent daily usage — these herbs are meant to support you in the long-term, unlike certain other herb classifications that are meant for acute, in-the-moment treatment.

With so many products on the market, where do you begin? Since adaptogens are trending, it’s important to ensure that the product is well-formulated, using safe and well-sourced herbs, and not just a product thrown together to ride the trend (I get plenty of those advertised to me on Instagram, unfortunately). It’s important to dig deep into the brands before purchasing adaptogens.

Firstly, like with everything, trust your gut. Is this a product that seems legit? Secondly, get to know the founder. If it’s a small brand, do they provide in-depth information about herbs? Do they use a lot of buzzwords without providing a lot of information? Does the company’s founder have herbalism training? I like to check the “about us” section to see if they are really knowledgeable on the topic and where their training came from. Be wary if it’s a big company that doesn’t sell any other herbal products, as it may just be that it has added an adaptogen product to its line to draw in customers.

Next, evaluate the sourcing of the products. Are the herbs organic? Are they wild crafted (which is when herbs that grow in the wild are collected)? These are both, generally, great options. Look at where the herbs come from, and if the location isn’t listed, reach out and ask. A high-quality brand will be able to tell you exactly where their herbs are sourced from.

If you want to get really deep, ask the brand about its third-party testing to see if the products have been tested for mold and environmental toxins. Lastly, it’s useful to find out who formulated the product. Was it a businessperson who saw reishi and ashwagandha are popular and threw them in a mix? Or was it an herbalist? Price is not always indicative of quality.

Matthews recommends consulting an herbalist to ensure you are finding the right herb, dosage and approach for you. “As a trained herbalist, I always default to consulting an herbalist. There are so many different types of adaptogens that act so differently on the body. Knowing what you need for what you are going through is the best way to see results. Then we don’t exhaust any single adaptogen when something else will do and do so more effectively,” she explains.

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How to get started with adaptogens

Here are some of my favorite, expertly formulated products that cost less than a buck per serving (and some might even replace your morning coffee!). Just be sure to read the label and follow dosing instructions, and consult your doctor or herbalist to ensure it’s the right fit for you (especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or on medication).

Rasa Coffee Alternative

Personally, my daily dose of adaptogens comes from Rasa, a synergistic blend of 12 adaptogenic herbs, functional mushrooms and other herbs to support your gut, immune system and adrenal health, as well as your stress response. Some of the herbs included are ashwagandha, rhodiola, chaga and reishi mushrooms. I personally love Rasa because it both tastes good and it has become part of my daily ritual, which, as previously mentioned, is important because adaptogens are effective with consistency and time.

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Photo credit: Rasa

Adaptogen Power Tincture by Wooden Spoon Herbs

Tinctures have become one of my favorite ways to take herbs, especially while traveling. Just add a serving into a bit of water and take it like a shot. Adaptogen Power from Wooden Spoon Herbs includes tulsi, ashwagandha and reishi (three of my favorite adaptogens, but don’t tell the others!).

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Photo credit: Wooden Spoon Herbs

Anandamide by Sun Potion

Sun Potion makes many helpful and high-quality herbal products, but lately I’ve been really enjoying Anandamide’s “bliss blend,” because of the mix of ingredients at a reasonable price point. The blend contains ashwagandha, reishi, mucuna pruriens, astragalus and maca, in addition to tasty and health-supportive herbs like cardamom, cayenne and rose petals in a base of raw cacao powder. I add Anandamide to my Rasa, but you can also blend it into your favorite dairy or non-dairy milk, or your coffee, for a delightful drink.

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Photo credit: Sun Potion

Single herb tinctures by Herb Pharm

If you want to start with a single herb that is speaking to you, I recommend Herb Pharm’s tinctures, which you can find at many health food stores. They are affordable and high quality, and they enable you to test out one herb at a time (like I did with ashwagandha). If you aren’t sure which herb to start with, speak with an herbalist for a recommendation or research various adaptogens and see what speaks to you, and follow dosing carefully.

Loose herbs and powders at your local herb store

If you have access to a local herb store, I highly recommend taking advantage. I love chatting with the staff herbalists who can help recommend an herb for what I am working on, and you can generally buy herbs in small quantities (like an ounce) for a very affordable rate. The herbalists can also create a custom herb blend or tincture for you, and will advise you on the best methods of preparation (some herbs can be brewed like tea, while others need to be boiled on the stovetop).

Most adaptogens are easy to incorporate into your diet because they pair well with coffee. Check out our Bulletproof coffee tutorial below.