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We are used to seeing those “healthy” juices (read: sugar water) on the supermarket shelf that brag about the “life changing” benefits of acai or pomegranate or cranberry (high in antioxidants? Yes. Better than eating a handful of blueberries)? Not as much). But now it seems that the wellness world has shifted from antioxidants and maybe even superfoods in favor of adaptogens. Are they worth the hype?
Adaptogens are backed by evidence – and they’re especially beneficial during times of stress. Used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, these herbs and roots help mitigate the effects of cortisol on the body, improve digestion, contribute to better sleep, and reduce inflammation. (Need evidence? We knew we liked you. Here’s our deep dive into the effects of adaptogens on your body. Spoiler alert: It’s kind of great.)
“As we all know, stress can take its toll, which is why many people turn to adaptogens for support,” says Dr. Josh Ax, DNM, CNS, founder of Ancient Nutrition, DrAxe.com, and author of Ancient Remedies.
“They are known to aid the body’s healthy response to stress and stressors, including physical, emotional, and mental.”
All good so far, right?
Here is the thing. Like most supplements, adaptogens exist in a cloudy, unregulated gray area, with companies beyond the FDA’s control taking advantage of consumer ignorance to create products that do little more than make your urine more expensive.
If we pay good money for adaptogens, we want them to work.
“There are a lot of companies that do this cheaply.”
Chris Kilham, Medicine Hunter, usually spends his days patrolling the world for the most incredible plants for better health. Since he’s stuck at home (like the rest of us) for a while, he’s answered some of our burning questions about what to look for on the label – and which pointers are somehow (or completely) meaningless.
Not all adaptogens are created equal
While adaptogens share some traits, they are not all the same, and what works for one person may not work for another. Ashwagandha, for example, is very popular for promoting restful sleep and reducing cortisol (a favorite of our editor-in-chief Laura Klein); Cordyceps help increase stamina and energy. Other adaptogens include ginseng, schisandra, holy basil, maca, rhodiola, and more – and each has its own set of benefits.
“Check them out to see which one or which might be right for you,” says Ax. “Do your homework.”
(Psst! Are you cheating on ours? Check out our guide to 13 Adaptogens To Help You Overcome Stress – And Other Stuff, too!)
Adaptogens are easily absorbed
Some herbal medicines need to be combined with other compounds to be better absorbed, such as turmeric and black pepper. And some types of vitamins are more easily absorbed than others, such as B. chelated zinc.
However, according to Kilham, this is nowhere near the case with adaptogens. “There have never been any problems with adaptogens ingestion,” he says. “Period. None of them.”
If a company markets its adaptogen as “easily absorbed”, it is like a water company declaring its product “easy to drink”.
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.
“When you make a tomato sauce, you concentrate it so it’s always the same thickness and sweetness, right?” says Kilham. “You don’t take things out molecularly, you just concentrate them. With herbal extracts you basically do the same thing on a grand scale. “
Adaptogenic extracts can be standardized to a certain percentage of the active ingredient in the adaptogen: Rodavine for Rhodiola, Withanolide for Ashwagandha or Ginsenoside for Ginseng. But unfortunately, this is not the process that many companies that make adaptogenic products use.
“There are a lot of companies that are doing this cheap,” says Kilham. “They buy, say, ashwagandha root, grind it into a powder, put it in a capsule, and sell it as an ashwagandha supplement. Meh, probably won’t do anything, but the label says ashwagandha root. “
“One thing I’ve seen in the natural product industry for decades is that people tend to put as little as possible into a product in order to get the name of something on the label.”
Instead, don’t just look for an indication that the company is using a standardized extract, but keep an eye on the percentage standardization, suggests Kilham: clinical studies have shown the effectiveness of these amounts. For example, look for a reference to ginseng stating that it contains at least 150 mg standardized to 8% ginsenosides; for ashwagandha, look for 600 mg of an ashwagandha extract standardized to 5% withanolides. For Rhodiola Rosea, look for 200 to 400 grams of 3 to 5 percent rosadine.
“I’m always suspicious of ‘a proprietary blend of …’ and then they list 45 different extracts.”
“One thing I’ve seen in the natural product industry for decades is that people tend to put as little as possible in a product in order to get the name of something on the label,” Kilham warns of what amounts of extracts actually work to know whether or not they are getting a decent product. “
Price isn’t everything … but it’s something
If price were everything, snake oil sellers would kill even more in the adaptogenic cycle than they already are. But, according to Kilham, price is a good indicator of the quality of the supplement you will be paying for.
“If you can get 250 capsules for $ 9.95, you are not getting what you think you are getting,” he says. “Because the adaptogens aren’t cheap. So I would be eager to avoid obviously cheap adaptogens. “
It’s not a cocktail
While some companies mix a combination of adaptogens into one product, Kilham says to be careful with these offerings.
“I’m always suspicious of ‘a proprietary blend of …’ and then they list 45 different extracts,” he says. “That means you get a tiny, little bit of everyone, and they kind of make a huge mix.”
Know who to trust
Unfortunately, there is little oversight of the supplement world, but there are a few companies Kilham trusts such as Herb Farm, Gaia, and Purity Products (disclosure: Kilham owns Purity). He is also a fan of companies that purchase from Schwaba, which supplies high-quality extracts.
Axe’s Ancient Nutrition supplements are another great choice, fermented to make them more digestible and tested for heavy metals and microbes.
And if you want to try something different, Elements tasty and alcohol-free adaptogenic functional drinks are a tasty way to get your daily dose.
“The extracts used in Elements are formulated in concentrations or forms similar to those used in clinical trials, but are also formulated to be convenient, portable, and tasty,” explains Kerry Hughes, ethnobotanist and certified clinical herbalist. The range includes Vitality, a tangy ginger orange drink with 150 mg ginseng and 250 mg rhodiola, as well as Focus, a light 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 was wary of), the company notes that together they “provide the equivalent of 550 mg combined per 10 grams of brewable coffee”. And they’re much more transparent with Focus, a blend that combines rhodiola extract (standardized to 3% rosavine) and organic lion’s mane extract with the coffee to deliver the equivalent of 100 mg coffee fruit, 150 mg rhodiola, and 500 mg lion’s mane per 10 grams of brewable coffee.
These are just a few of the adaptogenic products worth your time and money that stand out against a landscape of mostly forgotten alternatives.
The final result? Do your research – the FDA certainly won’t.
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