I was recently at a wellness conference when a speaker said something so alarming I almost fell out of my chair. It wasn’t that charcoal water is actually a sham (old news) or that “healthier” sugar isn’t actually that healthy or that low-carb diets aren’t one-size-fits-all.
It was when she dropped this bomb: “Adaptogens aren’t a thing,” she said. “The word is made up. It’s marketing. It’s nonsense.”
Up until this point, the speaker had me hanging on every word. Her debunking of the latest trends and health claims had me on the brink of a standing ovation. “It’s all about finding what works for your body,” she said. Preach!
But after she said adaptogens are BS, I looked around the room, expecting to see everyone’s jaw on the floor—as mine was. I’m used to learning that wellness products often aren't what they’re cracked up to be, but adaptogens?! What about my beloved ashwagandha, which has numerous scientifically proven benefits? Or maca, the nutty powder I’d been religiously adding to smoothies that I was sure was boosting my energy? It couldn’t be...
... could it?
What Are Adaptogens, Anyway?
Good news: Adaptogens are real. Not only does the term have its own Wikipedia page—just kidding, that’s not enough proof—but it is defined and studied by numerous scientists, and has been for years.
Adaptogens became a subject of study during WWII, when scientists wanted to see if herbal pills could improve physical and mental performance in pilots and submarine crews. They were also studied and tested by the former Soviet Union in the 1970s, as both a substance to help soldiers endure long, cold nights at high altitudes and as a performance aid for Olympians. (FYI: Steroids are not adaptogens.)
But adaptogens were used long before they started being studied by scientists. The supposedly powerful, plant-based substances have been part of Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions for centuries—long before marketing even existed.
So what are they, exactly?
In simple terms, adaptogens are medicinal plants believed to help the body respond more effectively to both physical and biological stressors. In scientific terms, they’re “substances that enhance the ‘state of non-specific resistance’ in stress, a physiological condition that is linked with various disorders of the neuroendocrine-immune system.” Let's break that down again: It's basically the long way of saying they’re substances (namely plants) that help the body adapt (get it?) to stress. Third time's a charm, right? (It took me a while to understand too.)
While you may not have brewed up an adaptogenic latte lately, you’ve likely stumbled across ginseng, ashwagandha, reishi, cordyceps, tulsi, or maca. And if those don’t ring a bell, it’s probably because the hard-to-pronounce—and even harder to remember—ingredients are often sold in adaptogenic blends that have fantastical names like Sex Dust and Queen Healer Mushroom.
Celebs like to sip them in smoothies, wellness bloggers whip them into Instagrammable elixirs, and I like to sprinkle them in coffee. But powders aren’t the only way to get yourself some adaptogenic goodness. The nontoxic plants are also sold as liquid tinctures, and for those less keen on their taste (some aren’t exactly known for flavor), as capsules too.
Why Is Everyone Consuming Them?
A quick search for “adaptogens” surfaces articles that claim they reduce stress, diminish anxiety, beat fatigue, and increase sex drive. You’ll also see the word “miracle” more than a few times. But that’s just a quick search.
A deep dive into adaptogenic recipes and blends will reveal that they supposedly balance hormones, help you sleep like a rock, kick PMS symptoms in the butt, ease cravings, rev metabolism, give you glowing skin, and basically turn you into a superhuman. It’s no surprise that the awe-inspiring tonics have invaded our Instagram and Pinterest feeds (according to Pinterest stats, "adaptogens in foods" has been saved 247 percent more times than last year), coffee chats, and wellness platforms across the globe.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what catapulted adaptogens into the spotlight, but it likely coincides with the ever-growing interest in holistic health. In 2011, the U.S. noted a 380-percent increase in the consumption of herbal medicines. Maybe the launch of Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop sparked some interest? Say what you will about celebrity-inspired wellness trends, but it can’t be denied the rich and famous can influence our health decisions.
So next time you see a mushroom hot cocoa, hormone-balancing nut milk, ashwagandha sleep tonic, or maca latte, don’t worry, you’re not late to the game. The world is slowly learning about adaptogens too—and drinking them in smoothies and lattes in the process.
Do They Work?
Because many adaptogens have yet to be adequately studied, it’s hard to say just how legit they are. But I decided to give four a go and see if they live up to the hype. Note: These are my personal opinions and experiences, so this is not meant to serve as nutritional advice.
If I were T. Swift, I’d write a love song about ashwagandha. What the multi-faceted herb lacks in taste—it’s bitter and pungent and has a bit of a stench—it makes up for in benefits, and science-backed ones at that. (It’s not always love at first sight! Or sniff, or taste... )
- What it is: An herb believed to offer rejuvenating properties that promote physical and emotional well-being and longevity. Never heard of it? You may recognize it as “Indian ginseng.”
- How it’s consumed: I like ashwagandha blended into my morning cup of coffee (with a splash of cashew milk), but I’ve also added it to smoothies, teas, and chocolate (wasn’t my favorite) and taken it down via tincture tube and capsule.
- What it tastes like: When it’s blended with deliciousness—like coffee and almond butter smoothies—you only get the slightest hint of bitterness (think a touch of bark, hint of leaves, and a wee bit of bite). Taking it by tincture, however, made me feel like I was swallowing earthy gasoline.
- What it does, according to science: According to the internet, ashwagandha can do pretty much everything. According to science, it may help ease stress and anxiety, increase endurance, boost immunity, fight diseases, heal wounds and backaches, treat fertility problems, increase sexual desire in women, reduce the signs of aging, and much more.
- The verdict: I am, without a doubt, drinking the ashwagandha Kool-Aid—and will be for years (if not the rest of my life). I’ve been taking it for a year and can confidently say I’ve reaped some of the benefits. Not only did my horrific menstrual cramps disappear, but my stress and anxiety have significantly dropped and my once sleepless nights are now anything but. Yep, I’m a fangirl.
Maca is hardly a new kid on the block. The first time I tried it was in 2012 when a friend recommended this heavenly chocolate and mint smoothie. I didn’t know what maca was or what it did. I just knew that I really liked it—or was it the mint and chocolate?
- What it is: A Peruvian root that’s believed to improve energy and stamina. The Ancient Incan superfood looks like a cross between a parsnip and a radish but has little similarity in taste.
- How it’s consumed: Maca’s neutral (and pleasant-tasting) flavor means it goes with pretty much everything. I like sprinkling it on yogurt, whisking it into hot chocolate, smattering it into smoothies, and sneaking it into pancake mix. Though I’ve only tried maca powder—which is how it’s primarily sold—it’s also available in tinctures and capsules.
- What it tastes like: Maca has an earthy, nutty flavor with a hint of sweetness. Some even say it tastes like butterscotch. I’m quite partial to it, but when I snuck it into a pot of black coffee, my housemates were none too pleased (perhaps a warning would’ve been wise… ).
- What it does, according to science: Similar to other adaptogens, the claims of what maca can do are quite expansive. According to science (full transparency... some of these have only been proven on rats, so we're still waiting for human trials), it may: increase sex drive, decrease sexual dysfunction, decrease signs of aging, lower cholesterol, and balance hormones in premenopausal women.
- The verdict: Long story short is that most of the research on maca is in its infancy and isn’t strong enough to make any solid claims—at least not yet. I’ll occasionally chuck it in my breakfast, but mostly because I like the taste (I didn't notice any significant changes while taking it).
It took me awhile to get excited about medicinal mushrooms. Not only am I permanently damaged from the horror stories told in D.A.R.E.—OK, those are magic mushrooms, but still!—but I’m also just not a huge fan of mushrooms. The texture and taste don’t do much for me, but I could be convinced if they have superpowers?
- What it is: Edible mushrooms used in Chinese and Tibetan medicine. But they’re not just a regular mushroom; they’re a cool mushroom that’s grown on the backs of caterpillars. (Come on, that’s pretty cool.)
- How it’s consumed: No surprise here. Our fungi friend is often sold in powder form and mixed into lattes, smoothies, and the occasional soup. Another non-shocker: I like to drink it with coffee. I love the various blends Four Stigmatic sells—hot cacao, coffee, matcha—as all you need to add is hot water (and perhaps a little almond milk).
- What it tastes like: On its own, cordyceps powder tastes earthy, nutty, and a bit, well, like mushrooms. But blended with my favorite morning ingredients—like coffee and cacao—you only get a hint of the shroomy flavor. Though cordyceps are commonly paired with sweeter flavors, I actually think they taste best mixed with savory ones, like soup broths.
- What it does, according to science: Full of essential amino acids and vitamins like B1, B2, B12 and K, cordyceps are pretty impressive. But what's even more impressive is that the medicinal mushroom has antitumor properties, can help treat autoimmune diseases, is anti-inflammatory and good for the gut, can increase sex drive and endurance, and may help protect our liver and kidneys. Casual.
- The verdict: I was secretly hoping cordyceps weren't all they're cracked up to be because I don't love the taste (which is a totally valid reason to walk away, friends!). But the medicinal powers are pretty potent, and quite frankly, hard to ignore. Though I personally haven't noticed better endurance or a rockin' sex drive, I'm not going to officially throw in the towel just yet. Rumor has it good things come to those who wait.
My early 20s were riddled with anxiety. Not only am I hyper-organized and a self-proclaimed perfectionist, but I also suffer from the disease to please—particularly in those years. I wanted to do everything, make everyone happy, crush my career… and it nearly broke me. Instead of turning to medication—which I knew I didn’t need—I turned to holy basil.
- What it is: A plant used to treat anxiety, also known as tulsi. Though it's closely related to sweet basil, you won’t be mixing it into your pesto any time soon.
- How it’s consumed: Ready for a wild card? Holy basil isn’t your new favorite smoothie or latte ingredient (though it is often consumed as a tea). Many take holy basil in capsule form, myself included, and sip on tulsi tea. It's also sold as a liquid tincture.
- What it tastes like: To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ever really tasted it. I’ve had many a tulsi tea, but it's often brewed with other potent ingredients like turmeric, ginger, masala, and rose. That said, it’s described as licorice-like and slightly spicy. (Sounds pretty good, actually.)
- What it does, according to science: Does the basil live up to its holy name? According to science, it may promote relaxation, well-being (equivalent to that of a yoga class), and a calm disposition. It's also anti-diabetic, revs the metabolism, increases endurance, helps prevent cancers, enhances cognition, and has some other pretty stellar benefits.
- The verdict: Holy basil is my holy grail when it comes to stress and anxiety. When I know I’m on the brink of stress—or I'm unexpectedly in the midst of it—I start taking it immediately. I notice a considerable difference when I take it consistently, as do the people around me.
With so many adaptogens on the market and more popping up every day, it's hard to analyze and test each one. (There are only so many coffees, smoothies, lattes, and capsules we can consume—and consistently at that!) So don't feel the need to try everything, as tempting as it may be. And as with any supplement you're considering trying, do sufficient research and make sure the claims are backed by science—not to mention, check with a doctor to make sure there's no risk of taking them with medication.
Of the four adaptogens I tried, ashwagandha and holy basil are the ones I'll keep in my daily repertoire. (Two out of four ain't bad!) If I ever come around to the taste of cordyceps, maybe I'll start sipping more regularly. As for the numerous others, I'll wait until substantial evidence of their benefits exists—no matter what the celebs say.