Adaptogens are the health-boosting darlings of the wellness world. And for good reason: The herbs (like ashwagandha, maca, and holy basil) help protect the body from the negative effects of stress so you can experience better sleep, improved libido, regulated digestion, and more.
Why, then, did a wellness expert I trust tell me she wished people were more careful with their adaptogen consumption?
In a lengthy conversation one sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine expert William Siff, who founded Goldthread Herbs, attempted to answer this question.
Keep reading to find out whether you’re taking too many adaptogens—and how you can curb your use, organically.
Why are people overusing adaptogens?
The main issue, Siff tells me, is that adaptogens are being used to spot-treat issues without considering to your overall health or specific circumstances. “[These herbs] come from traditions where we look at a person’s individual bodily constitution in a very deep and detailed way,” he says, naming your Ayurvedic dosha as an example. “What’s missing now is that nuance.”
For instance, Siff cites the use of ginseng in people under 40. He explains that when most young people feel sluggish or foggy, they’re actually experiencing a stagnation of energy—meaning, they can produce more energy than they can circulate— rather than a lack of energy. So for this demographic, adding the performance-enhancing ginseng won’t do much. “The analogy is like a hose that’s turned on at the nozzle, but there are knots in the hose,” he says. “All you’re doing is accentuating the force at the origin of that nozzle and it’s not addressing those stagnation points.”
By popping adaptogens in the readily-available supplement form, without mindful mixing or taking your constitutional specifics into account, people can throw some aspects of their system out of whack.
Traditionally, Siff adds, adaptogens were taken in tonic forms, which means they were mindfully incorporated into potions designed for balance. To illustrate this point, he references shilajit, a Himalayan adaptogen. Energetically, he says, shilajit is very warm or hot, which means it speeds up metabolism. “This gives a person more energy. But then there’s a cost because, if you’re going to rev the engine really hot, you’re going to dry it out and need more lubrication,” he says. “Shilajit would’ve [traditionally] been taken in a formulation that also takes care of the basic moisture levels of the body.”
Another built-in safeguard for misuse, Siff further explains, is that adaptogens have traditionally been incorporated into one’s diet in ways that would have made it difficult to OD. “You would have, for example, a ginseng soup broth that has jujube dates and maybe a slice of astragalus and some medicinal mushroom.” Four adaptogens, one well-rounded meal. This food-based delivery system, Siff says, “diluted any negative characteristics” of the adaptogens used.
Today, however, it’s common to pop an adaptogenic pill when you feel like you need a boost. And by taking these herbs in the readily-available supplement form, without mindful mixing or taking your constitutional specifics into account, Siff says, people can throw some aspects of their system out of whack.
Is it dangerous to take too many adaptogens?
You can breathe a sigh of relief: Siff assures me that taking the wrong adaptogen—or the wrong dose—is not dangerous. “You’ll have functional disturbances, but not things that are illness-provoking,” he says. So you may get biofeedback like headaches or sleep disturbances, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll react in a way that will send you to the ER. But to avoid issues, Siff advises, it’s best to consult an expert before adding adaptogens to your diet. Parsley Health’s Adrienne Dowd, RN, agrees, especially if you’re looking to treat a pre-existing disease.
Tero Isokauppila, founder and president of adaptogenic mushroom company Four Sigmatic, points out that “safe” is literally written into the definition for adaptogen. “[To be considered an adaptogen], it must be considered generally safe, non-toxic, and non-habit forming, it must have a nonspecific effect on the body, and it must help normalize systems and bring balance to the body,” he explains.
But, he adds, “You can have too much of anything. That said, it would be very tough to binge on ‘a bag of adaptogens’ due to their bitter flavor alone—they’re not potato chips.”
Looking for additional ways to reduce stress? Well+Good council member Kelsey Patel offers a tip to help you do so anytime, anywhere. Science says this *hopefully* fun activity can help, too.
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