Adaptogens' biggest superpower? They protect the body from the toxic effects of stress, which is arguably the gnarliest health issue of our time. They might seem totally of-the-moment, but the term was actually coined by the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Health way back in 1947—referring to a class of herbs and mushrooms that offer heavy-duty support for the body’s natural resistance to "adverse influences," explains Ric Scalzo, the CEO and founder of Gaia Herbs (you might just call him adaptogens' head cheerleader). Those influences include anything that taxes the body, from illness to working out (like when you don't take your rest days) to straight-up stress.
Integrative medicine rockstar Andrew Weil, MD, likes to describe adaptogens as herbs “that can ‘tone’ the body and bring it back to homeostasis,” creating a non-specific response that helps it resist stress. Functional medicine guru Frank Lipman, MD, calls them "nature's miracle anti-stress and fatigue fighters." And though they're not necessarily on the radar of many mainstream medicine doctors, studies have confirmed the herbs have real promise in reducing stress and improving attention and endurance in the face of fatigue.
So we know what you're thinking: This all sounds like a busy gal's dream come true, but is it legit? Do these things really live up to the hype?
Everything you need to know about adaptogens, explained
How do they work?
“Adaptogens specifically support your adrenals, the glands that manage your hormonal response to stress and help you cope with anxiety and fatigue,” says Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder of LA-based apothecary-café brand Moon Juice, who personally likes to spike chocolate milk with her brand's ho shou wu adaptogenic hormone-balancing tonic.
“The charm of adaptogens is that they work with your needs specifically, adapting their function to your body’s needs,” she says, pointing out that they've been used for centuries in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.
So what counts as an adaptogen?
To be an adaptogen, herbs have to be non-toxic to the body’s physiological functions, offer widespread support, and help bring the body back to equilibrium, Scalzo says. Within that broad definition, he explains, there are different types.
Others, like reishi, ashwagandha and holy basil, help calm the body and soothe the adrenals when they're super stressed. Astragalus is another one that's become popular lately, thanks to its immune-boosting qualities.
Still more herbs, like anti-inflammatory turmeric, have some adaptogenic properties, Scalzo says, but that’s not their primary effect.
How do you take them?
Adaptogens come in lots of different forms, including pills that resemble vitamins; tinctures that can be mixed with water; powders, which you can throw into a smoothie; and teas. There's no "right" way to consume them, Scalzo says, because it's really a matter of personal taste—though he prefers a professionally prepared capsule or liquid extract.
Many people take adaptogens almost every day, while others will take them several times a day based on their needs (check with a professional for guidance about what's right for you). Gaia does recommend that you take a day off from your adaptogens each week; if you're using them for more than six weeks, to also take a full week off; and if you're using them for six months, to take a full month off. (These little breaks are said to let the herbs really take effect in your system).
And if you don't notice a difference instantly, be patient—Scalzo says adaptogens are powerful, but slow-acting, so it can take up to a few weeks to notice a difference.
Do I need them?
Adaptogens don’t treat a specific condition. Instead, they’re for anyone looking to boost overall well-being—and Scalzo is careful to point out that they haven't been evaluated by the FDA.
“Most people will know if they are feeling their optimal self: Are you sleeping well? Do you have a healthy appetite? Do you have healthy elimination? Do you have a healthy sex drive?” he says. “If you answer no to any of these, then you may be a good candidate for an adaptogen.” That makes, well, all of us.
Originally posted May 17, 2016, updated March 3, 2020.
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