Social-media trendsetters are making these ancient herbs very, very hot again.

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When Alison Wu attended a plant-medicine workshop about something called “adaptogens” at the Spirit Weaver Festival in 2016, she was just there for fun.

But after a weekend spent with various medicinal mushrooms, herbs and roots, she was hooked and began sharing her favorite brands and blends on Instagram.

A photo of perfectly layered, millennial-pink smoothies went viral, and since then Wu, who was a prop stylist at the time, has gone full-time into the wellness business.

One of the topics she’s asked about the most by her many followers is that of adaptogens. And yet she doesn’t always have the answers. “The definition of them can be blurry,” Wu, 31, says. “It means something different depending on who you speak to.”

Let’s try to clear things up.

Superherbs get hot

Coined in 1947, the term adaptogen refers to substances that theoretically “adapt” to what your body needs and help protect against various stressors. Although the science is murky and these supplements are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, that hasn’t stopped trendsetters from sharing their purported benefits, which include supporting the body’s adrenal glands, reducing stress levels and regulating hormone responses for an overall sense of homeostasis, or balance.

Jordan Younger, who blogs as The Balanced Blonde, is a fan of what she calls “superherbs.”

A favorite of hers is ashwangdha — a hallmark herb used in Ayurvedic medicine.

“Ashwagandha could help you slow down and unwind at the end of the day,” Younger, 27, says. “But for somebody else who might need more energy, ashwagandha could potentially give them a boost in the morning. I used to have ashwagandha to avoid getting jitters from caffeine.”

Shake tonics made with adaptogens at Lifehouse Tonics + Elixirs in Los Angeles. (Kendrick Brinson / New York Times)
Shake tonics made with adaptogens at Lifehouse Tonics + Elixirs in Los Angeles. (Kendrick Brinson / New York Times)

Jack Latner just opened a second location of his Lifehouse Elixirs & Tonic Cafe in Los Angeles.

His goal is to increase the understanding and awareness of adaptogens. “People are intimidated by them because they don’t know them,” Latner says. “They don’t know what they’re going to get and how they’re going to taste. I wanted to make adaptogenic tonics and elixirs super-approachable for the laymen who have never really had a chaga drink or a maca or astragalus or ashwagandha.”

His photogenic, popular tonics — with names like Greenhouse Chocolate Chip and Blue Light Rain — cost around $14 each.

A deep history

Lauren Slayton, a nutritionist in New York, believes adaptogens need to be consumed consistently to see any effects, whatever those may be. “If you’re putting a smudge of ashwagandha in your smoothie here and there, it’s unlikely to do too much,” she says.

CAP Beauty, a wellness-themed cosmetics retailer based in New York City, carries over 60 adaptogen products, says a founder, Cyndi DiPrima, including three adaptogenic protein powders and a bottle of daily capsules from Moon Juice. Customers most often request remedies for sleep and stress, DiPrima says, and they fit into the company concept of beauty, “which is that it comes from good self-care.”

Brands like Anima Mundi Herbals and Moodbeli offer blends made from organic plants and herbs, using what they say are ecologically friendly methods.

Anima Mundi Herbals manufactures in New York, with an apothecary in Brooklyn. Adriana Ayales, the owner, says she sources most of her herbs from the rainforests of her native Costa Rica and other developing nations in Central America and South America.

“By supporting native people directly and their ancient practices, we are contributing to the revival of plant medicine that has been lost in today’s world,” Ayales says.

Krysia Zanjoc, a founder of Moodbeli, which is based in Santa Cruz, California, also found inspiration for her business in Costa Rica. “There, I learned that adaptogens have all of these amazing abilities to kind of make us feel better, make us feel good and also teach us a lot about history, geography and cultural history,” she says.

The lack of scientific data does not trouble her. “A six-months-long FDA trial is great,” Zanjoc says. “But these have been proven remedies in human trials for 5,000 years now.”