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The rise of adaptogens – wellness wonders or scam supplements?


Wellness gurus are swapping their kale, quinoa, and wheatgrass for something a little stronger. First, they went crazy for CBD; now adaptogens have taken centre stage. Critics might be rolling their eyes at the latest health trend, but the supposed healing benefits of adaptogenic substances have actually been utilised for millennia. 

Whilst they still have much to accomplish as far as Western medicine is concerned, an abundance of testimonials are singing their praises – and more people are starting to incorporate a bit of plant power into their wellness regime. I mean, who wouldn’t want an energy-boosting, stress-busting, mood-lifting, memory-enhancing kick all in one? 

Though, despite what the marketing says, whether the health-promoting properties of adaptogens are fact or a fad is still up for debate.

What are adaptogens?

The use of adaptogenic herbs, roots, and mushrooms can be traced back to ancient medicinal systems. They are thought to have played an essential role in the birth of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), somewhere around 3000 BCE. Despite their rich ancient history, the term “adaptogen” wasn’t coined until the 1940s, when scientist Dr Nicolai V Lazarev set out to find a performance tonic for the Soviet Union during the Cold War that could improve the body’s resistance to stress. 

And that’s exactly what adaptogenic herbs are touted to do. Now widely available as daily supplements in the form of capsules, powders, tinctures or teas, adaptogens are believed to help us adapt to stress and mitigate the toll it takes on the body. “In TCM, they’re known as qi tonics and in Ayurveda, rasayanas – rejuvenating herbs that restore the body’s qi, prana or ‘vitality’ and normalise physical, emotional and spiritual imbalances,” says Melissa Lee, a neuropathic doctor at Hong Kong’s Integrated Medicine Institute.

The use of adaptogens is on the rise. Ashwagandha, commonly hailed as the king of all adaptogens, as well as other herbs such as Rhodiola Rosea and Panax Ginseng, are proving popular. As are medicinal mushrooms like lion’s mane, reishi and cordyceps. Even more everyday household ingredients, including elderflower, arnica, and turmeric, are said to have adaptogenic properties. 

But what exactly do adaptogens do? Or perhaps the more appropriate question is what don’t they do? Each one has its unique effects but, on the whole, many claim adaptogens improve their energy, performance, and focus, as well as boost their mood and sex drive. They are also thought to strengthen the immune system, help fight infections, and rebalance hormones and blood sugar. 

Exactly how adaptogens do this (or whether they even do as they’re marketed to) is yet to be fully understood, but the prevailing theory is that they interact with a complex system involved in activating our hormonal response to stress, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When our hormones are skewed, adaptogens – in theory – bring them back to optimum levels which then helps to rebalance all of the aforementioned biological processes. 

Life has been a little stressful lately, to say the least. Financial pressures, political tensions, and even global temperatures are at an all-time high – all whilst we continue to navigate life at the tail-end of a pandemic. No matter how hard we try, the current state of the world isn’t conducive to a carefree lifestyle. So it comes as no surprise that people are seeking stress relief in record numbers. “Slow living” is in. And “wellness” is going mainstream.

In February of this year, co-founders of London Nootropics, Shez Shaikh and Zain Peer appeared on Dragons Den, receiving a £50,000 investment in their adaptogenic coffee blend company. This mainstream coverage certainly helped to bring the concept of adaptogens out of the niche health cafes and into the limelight. And as more people hop on the bandwagon, brands and consumers alike, it’s clear that 2022 is the year for adaptogen products. 

You’d be hard pressed to find a health store that doesn’t stock adaptogenic capsules, tablets, drinks, or even beauty products. Consumers looking to add adaptogens to their supplement regime are spoilt for choice; you could opt for an adaptogenic herb brew, a tincture to add to your coffee, or a powder for your smoothies and soups. They can pretty seamlessly slot into any busy daily routine, making them the ideal candidates for trending health supplements. 

And by the looks of it, this is only just the beginning. The global adaptogens market value, which was recorded as USD 9.8 billion in 2019, is set to reach $19.20 billion by 2027. The industry might be lucrative, but is there any scientific truth in the trend?

Do they actually work?

Despite many so-called “wellness gurus” claiming adaptogens to be effective natural remedies and medical treatments, the science is still pretty light on evidence. Let’s get one thing clear: adaptogens are not alternative medicines, and they are incredibly unlikely to cure severe mental or physical health issues.

Most of the existing evidence comes from studies using isolated human or animal cells. So whilst there’s definitely data showing that adaptogens could affect the stress response at a cellular level, whether this translates to an entire biological system is yet to be determined.

If we look at the more rigorous research, the findings are far less conclusive. Panax ginseng, for instance, is a plant from East Asia that is said to improve cognitive function and replenish energy, yet a reputable review conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that “there is a lack of convincing evidence to show a cognitive enhancing effect of Panax ginseng in healthy participants.” 

That said, several well-designed studies investigating ashwagandha, an adaptogen famed for its stress-reducing properties, have yielded positive results in reducing stress and anxiety. There is also evidence for its anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antioxidant, and immunomodulatory action in both human and animal studies. So sceptics can’t paint all adaptogens with the same brush.

Whilst it may be too early to confirm or deny the reported benefits of adaptogens, it’s certainly worth approaching this trend with caution. Health supplements are notoriously under-regulated; hastily jumping on the trend comes with a risk of consuming mislabeled products or harmful substances. Plus, certain adaptogens have been shown to interact with other drugs, so that’s certainly something to consider if you’re on any prescribed meds.

Existing evidence also suggests that the positive effects of adaptogens are short-lived. “The longest one I’ve seen is six months,” says Rashmi Mullur, an integrative endocrinologist at UCLA, in an interview with Inverse. “But truthfully, more of them are about 12 weeks on average. So that’s about three months of taking something and seeing a tiny bit of change.” 

Despite the limited supporting evidence, countless people swear by a daily dose of adaptogenic blends to support their health and wellbeing. We’ve already seen Western medicine take a U-turn on its stance on numerous ancient Eastern practices – yoga, meditation, and psychedelic rituals, to name a few. So what’s not to say that the science hasn’t yet caught up? The truth is, we don’t yet know. But if adaptogens are helping you through these anxious times, then so be it; we welcome the “wellness”.


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