What Classifies 'Adaptogen' Ingredients, And Are They Really Worth It?

You've probably heard the word 'adaptogen' popping up in more and more places, especially the grocery store. Billed as a natural way to cope with stress, adaptogens are quickly gaining popularity, with the global market projected to leap from $8.95 billion in 2021 to $13.49 billion in 2026 (via PR Newswire). We're projecting that adaptogen drinks will be one of the top food trends of 2023, based on how quickly they've gained a following. Nutritional Outlook floats the theory that the main reason adaptogens have become so trendy in recent years is due to the stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A disturbing slate of recent surveys indicates rising levels of anxiety and depression across the United States, which has led people to place a higher premium on their mental health.

However, adaptogens are nothing new. In fact, the word itself can be traced to an unlikely source: Russian doping. No, we're not talking about the steroid scandal that recently rocked the Russian Olympic team. National Geographic reports that, in the 1970s, the Soviet Union conducted a series of trials at a Siberian research facility, looking for plant supplements that could improve the performances of Olympians, astronauts, and soldiers alike. The Soviets dubbed these plants "adaptogens," but they were not exactly breaking new ground. TIME reveals that many of the plants we've come to consider adaptogens are rooted in ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. But what are they specifically, and more importantly, do they work?

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are plants that, in theory at least, can help our bodies cope with stress and fatigue. The Cleveland Clinic states that, in order for a plant to be adaptogenic, it must fulfill three requirements. Firstly, it must be non-toxic when consumed in normal doses. Secondly, it must help the body manage stress. Finally, it must help your body achieve a state of balance referred to as "homeostasis." If these sound a bit vague to you, that's because they are. The concepts of stress and internal balance are rather nebulous, but the clinic gets a little more specific in discussing the science behind adaptogens. Stress and fatigue are linked to the hormone cortisol. Excess cortisol creates stress while low cortisol makes us tired. Adaptogens are supposed to either increase or decrease cortisol levels according to our needs in order to balance our systems.

According to TIME, adaptogens work by interacting with our hypothalamus, pituitary glands, and adrenal glands to adjust hormone production and regulate our physical response to stress. Examples of adaptogens include ashwagandha, holy basil, and Asian ginseng for the purposes of long-term stress reduction. There are also reishi mushrooms to improve immune functions. One that you're less likely to have heard of is Rhodiola, an arctic flower that the Soviets found to have stimulating properties without the crash associated with caffeine (via National Geographic). These days, you'll find adaptogens in all kinds of food, notes Thrillist, listing coffee, nut butter, and gelato among the options.

Do adaptogens really work?

Now we get to the really important part. Are adaptogens legit, or are they a big waste of your money? Unfortunately, the answer in both cases is maybe. TIME explains that studies on the effects of adaptogens have remained a niche focus in the scientific community. McGill University also raises concerns that most of the research that has been done on adaptogens has been limited to animal subjects, leaving us with little data on their human effects. Considering this, it would be wise to approach adaptogens with caution, and not to completely buy into all the claims adaptogenic products may be making.

Aside from the promise of stress reduction, Time reports that some really bold medical claims have been made about adaptogens, including that they can boost your memory, liver function, and sexual health. There's little evidence to support these claims. McGill also sounds the alarm on proponents of adaptogens claiming they can cure long COVID despite a lack of proof. In general, the bigger the claim, the more skeptical you should be. However, The Cleveland Clinic takes an optimistic stance on the idea that adaptogens can reduce stress and fatigue by regulating cortisol levels. They caution that "Adaptogens work as a temporary bandage but aren't the solution to long-term stress" and note that adaptogens are not regulated by the FDA. They suggest asking a doctor about your diet, health, and other medications before going in on the adaptogen trend.