What Are Adaptogens And Why Are They In So Many Foods And Drinks?

There's never a shortage of new health food product buzzwords — probiotics, nootropics, MCT oil, superfoods — something new is always popping up, and we're led to believe we need to jump on the bandwagon and STAT.

One of the newer cool kids on the block, touted for a whole host of benefits, is adaptogens. The word is popping up on everything from teas and tinctures to powdered supplements to mocktails and even ice cream. According to a Global Market Insights report, the market for adaptogens is forecasted to grow to 19 billion dollars by 2032 — almost doubling in size from where it stood in 2022.

While it's not completely understood how adaptogens work, the premise is that they may interact with hormone production to aid in the body's response to stress. Ensuring every aspect of the body — from physical to mental — is working optimally, according to Time. Needless to say, it's worth exploring what adaptogens are as well as their purported health benefits and claims.

The history of adaptogens

Adaptogens are found in plants and mushrooms, according to Cleveland Clinic. In order to be considered an adaptogen, three qualities must be present: They must be non-toxic and suitable for long-term use; aid in resistance to physical, biological, emotional, and environmental stressors; and help restore normal function in the body — or bring it back into balance.

Adaptogens were officially identified in the late 1940s by a Russian scientist studying how the body handles stress, per Prismatic Plants. The term has Latin roots meaning "to adjust." They are believed to have the ability to help how your body handles stress, anxiety, and fatigue and boost general overall well-being — in other words, they "adapt" what role they take on depending on the needs of your specific body, hence their moniker.

However, prior to the official naming of these plant ingredients, adaptogens had been used therapeutically for thousands of years in Eastern medicine, especially in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine going back to 3000 BCE.

After several extensive studies, adaptogens were used on Olympic athletes in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as on Russian cosmonauts. By 1998, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed for the use of the term on certain product labels.

Potential health benefits of different adaptogens

The list of purported health benefits of adaptogens is long, with different herbs and mushrooms offering different uses. However, it's important to remember they're not regulated by the FDA, nor does their approval of the label ensure the product's safety or guarantees its claims, per Michigan State University. There isn't sufficient research yet, so for now, they are considered dietary supplements.

That being said, with their thousands of years of history and recognition by many medical experts, a chat with your healthcare provider may be helpful if you're curious about trying one. The most common ones are readily available and cover a myriad of health woes.

Ginseng, known to fight fatigue, has American and Asian varieties (via Cleveland Clinic). American ginseng may help with your immune system, stress response, and mood regulation. Asian ginseng may help combat physical and mental lethargy. Ashwagandha may help you relax and aid with depression. Rhodiola is also a popular adaptogen with potential effects on fatigue and depression. Tulsi, or holy basil, is touted for helping with focus and anxiety.

A popular mushroom called reishi potentially boosts the immune system and has been studied for its cancer-fighting properties, per UCLA Health. Another mushroom adaptogen, cordyceps, is often taken as a pre-workout supplement as it may help with energy and endurance. And the popular stir fry component, shiitake mushrooms, have been used for many years in Asia to help promote gut health and boost immunity, according to Om Mushrooms.

How do adaptogens work?

According to a study published in 2010 in Pharmaceuticals, adaptogens increase resistance to stress while also decreasing sensitivity to stressors. Researchers concluded they aid in bringing the body back to homeostasis by interacting with the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). The HPA axis is responsible for releasing cortisol, the body's stress hormone. In other words, they modify our stress response which promotes adaptation and survival, per a study published in 2018 in Chinese Medicine.

However, as Merck Manual points out, research on adaptogens as a whole category is so broad that it is insufficient. Each adaptogen needs to be studied on its own as well as the type of stressor being measured — mental, physical, or cellular. In addition, our stress response is natural and necessary. Completely blunting it may do more harm than good. The bottom line is more research is necessary, but it does look promising.

What to know about adaptogen products

The types of products containing adaptogens popping up on shelves run the gamut, and so do their health claims. Not only does the type of adaptogen come into play, but so does the quantity present in that product. Sure, cordyceps may help with energy for your workout, but at what dose? Does this drink contain enough? Is that powdered lion's mane you're adding to your coffee potent enough to reap any benefits?

Because adaptogens are not regulated by the FDA, what you're getting in a product isn't so cut-and-dry. They do have the potential to interact with certain medications and supplements and may not be suitable for pregnancy or breastfeeding, so consulting with your physician before experimenting on your own is paramount. They may also affect people in different ways. That mushroom coffee your friend swears by to focus on work may have little-to-no effect on you or even an undesirable effect. Integris Health recommends keeping an eye out for two labels: United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) seals.