We’re used to seeing those “healthy” juices (read: sugar water) on the supermarket shelf, boasting the "life-changing" benefits of açai or pomegranate or cranberry (rich in antioxidants? Yes. Better than eating a handful of blueberries? Not so much). But now it seems the wellness world has moved on from antioxidants, and perhaps even superfoods, in favor of adaptogens. Are they worth the hype?
Adaptogens are supported by evidence – and they're especially beneficial to consume in times of stress. These herbs and roots have been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, helping to mitigate the effects of cortisol on the body, improve digestion, contribute to better sleep, and reduce inflammation. (Need proof? We knew we liked you. Here's our deep dive into the effects of adaptogens on your body. Spoiler alert: it's kind of awesome.)
“As we all know, stress can take its toll, which is why many people are turning to adaptogens for support," says Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S, founder of Ancient Nutrition, DrAxe.com and author of the book Ancient Remedies.
“They are known to support the body’s healthy response to stress and stressors, including physical, emotional and mental ones.”
All good so far, right?
Here's the thing. Like most supplements, adaptogens exist in a murky, unregulated grey zone, with companies the FDA can't touch taking advantage of the ignorance of consumers to make products that do little more than make your pee pricier.
If we’re paying good money for adaptogens, we want them to work.
Chris Kilham, Medicine Hunter, usually spends his days patrolling the world for the most incredible plants to help improve health. Since (like the rest of us) he’s been stuck at home for a while, he answered some of our burning questions about what you should look for on the label – and what indications are kind of (or totally) meaningless.
Not All Adaptogens Are the Same
While adaptogens share some characteristics with one another, they are not all alike, and what works for one person may not work for another. Ashwagandha, for example, is super popular to promote restful sleep and reduce cortisol (it’s a fave of our editor-in-chief Laura Klein); cordyceps help boost stamina and energy. Other adaptogens include ginseng, schisandra, holy basil, maca, rhodiola and more – and each has its own benefits.
“Check them out to find out which one or ones may be right for you," says Axe. “Do your homework.”
(Psst! Want to cheat off ours? Check out our guide to 13 adaptogens to help you conquer stress – and other stuff too!)
Adaptogens are Easily Absorbable
Some plant-derived medicines need to be paired with other compounds to be better absorbed, like turmeric and black pepper. And some kinds of vitamins are more easily absorbed than others, like chelated zinc.
But according to Kilham, this is far from the case for adaptogens.“There’s never been any problem with absorption of adaptogens,” he says. “Period. None of them.”
So if a company is marketing their adaptogen as “easily absorbable,” that’s kind of like a water company calling its product “easily drinkable.”
Standardized Extracts Are Essential When it Comes to Buying Adaptogens, It’s the Smart Science
Much like ibuprofen or penicillin or curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric), you need a clinically effective dose for adaptogens to work. And for that, the best adaptogen companies rely on standardized extracts.
"If you make a tomato sauce, you concentrate it, so it always has the same thickness and sweetness, right?" says Kilham. "You’re not molecularly taking out things; you’re just concentrating it. With herbal extracts, you basically do the same thing on a large scale.”
From the Organic Authority Files
Adaptogenic extracts can be standardized to a certain percentage of the active compound in the adaptogen: rodavins for rhodiola, withanolides for ashwagandha, or ginsenosides for ginseng. But unfortunately, this is not the process used by many companies making adaptogen products.
“There are a lot of companies out there that do the cheap thing,” says Kilham. “They’ll buy, let’s say, ashwagandha root, grind it up into a powder, put it into a capsule, sell it as an ashwagandha supplement. Meh, probably won’t do anything, but it’ll say ashwagandha root on the label.”
Instead, look not just for an indication that the company is using a standardized extract, but keep an eye on the percent standardization, suggests Kilham: clinical studies have proven that these amounts are effective. For ginseng, for example, look for an indication that there’s at least 150 mg standardized at 8% ginsenosides; for ashwagandha, look for 600 mg of an extract of ashwagandha standardized to 5% withanolides is effective. For rhodiola rosea, look for 200 to 400 grams of 3 to 5 percent rosadin.
“One thing I’ve seen for decades in the natural products industry is people tending to put as little as possible in a product to get the name of something on the label," cautions Kilham. "So it does require people becoming familiar enough with what amounts of extracts actually work to know if they’re getting a decent product or not.”
Price Isn’t Everything… but It Is Something
If price were everything, snake oil salesmen would be making even more of a killing in the adaptogenic circuit than they already are. But according to Kilham, price is a good indicator of the quality of the supplement you’re about to shell out for.
“If you’re getting 250 capsules for $9.95, you’re not getting whatever it is you think you’re getting,” he says. “Because the adaptogens aren’t cheap. So I would assiduously avoid very obviously cheap adaptogens.”
It’s Not a Cocktail
While some companies blend a combo of adaptogens into one product, Kilham says to be wary of these offerings.
“I’m always suspicious of 'a proprietary blend of…' and then they list 45 different extracts,” he says. “That means you’re getting a tiny, itty little bit of each one, and they’re making some sort of a giant blend.”
Know Whom to Trust
There's little oversight over the supplement world, unfortunately, but there are some companies that Kilham trusts, like Herb Farm, Gaia, and Purity Products (disclosure: Kilham is an owner of Purity). He's also a fan of companies that source from Schwaba, which supplies high-quality extracts.
Axe’s Ancient Nutrition supplements are another good choice, fermented to make them more digestible and tested for heavy metals and microbials.
And if you want to try something a little bit different, Elements adaptogenic functional beverages are tasty, alcohol-free a tasty way to get your daily dose.
“The extracts used in Elements are formulated in levels or forms similar to those in clinical studies, while also being formulated in a way that makes them convenient, portable, and good tasting,” explains Kerry Hughes, Ethnobotanist and Certified Clinical Herbalist. The range includes Vitality, a zesty Ginger Orange drink with 150 mg ginseng and 250 mg rhodiola, as well as Focus, a bright Blueberry Lemon with 400 mg schisandra and 100 mg lion’s mane.
Another option? The Boost Coffee and Focus Coffee from Laird Superfoods. The former combines mushroom powder distilled into vitamin D and other functional extracts from red reishi and maitake mushrooms. While this latter blend is "proprietary," (yes, exactly what Kilham said to be wary of) the company does note that together, they "deliver the equivalency of 550mg combined per 10 grams of brewable coffee.” And they're a lot more transparent with Focus, a blend combining rhodiola extract (standardized to 3% rosavins) and organic lion's mane extract with the coffee, set to deliver the equivalency of 100mg of coffee fruit, 150mg rhodiola, and 500mg lion's mane per 10 grams of brewable coffee.
These are only a few of the adaptogenic products worth your time and money, standing out on a landscape of mainly forgettable alternatives.
The bottom line? Do your research – the FDA sure as shit ain't gonna.
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