“Adaptogen” refers to substances that theoretically “adapt” to what your body needs and help protect against various stressors. The science is as murky as a mushroom drink, but products are trending up.
When Alison Wu attended a plant-medicine workshop about something called “adaptogens” at the Spirit Weaver Festival in 2016 with a few friends, 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. She doesn’t always have the answers. “The definition of them can be blurry,” Wu, 31, said. “It means something different depending on who you speak to.”
Let’s try to clear things up.
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Coined in 1947, adaptogen refers to substances that theoretically “adapt” to what your body needs and help protect against various stressors. Although the science is as murky as a mushroom drink and these supplements are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 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 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 — that Wu uses frequently in her Insta-famous recipe for Bliss Balls (no relation to Schweddy ones).
“Ashwagandha could help you slow down and unwind at the end of the day,” Younger, 27, said. “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.”
Jack Latner, a resident of Los Angeles with a penchant for Phish tunes, just opened the second location of a Lifehouse Elixirs & Tonic Cafe in the busy Century City Mall there. (The first is in West Hollywood.)
His goal is to increase the understanding and awareness of adaptogens. “We use a combination of traditional Chinese medicine herbs, Ayurvedic herbs, medicinal mushrooms, algae — holistic ingredients that have been used by a number of different cultures throughout history and throughout the world,” Latner said.
But there’s a catch: “99.9 percent of them taste horrible on their own,” Latner said. “People are intimidated by them because they don’t know them. 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 superapproachable 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.
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 said.
CAP Beauty, a wellness-themed cosmetics retailer based in New York City, carries more than 60 adaptogen products, said a founder, Cyndi DiPrima, including three adaptogenic protein powders and a bottle of daily capsules, introduced this year by Amanda Chantal Bacon’s Moon Juice. Customers most often request remedies for sleep and stress, DiPrima said, 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 (formerly known as Moon Deli) 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 and adjacent factory in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. Adriana Ayales, the owner, said she sources most of her herbs from the rain forests 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 said.
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 said.
The lack of scientific data does not trouble her. “A six-months-long FDA trial is great,” Zanjoc said. “But these have been proven remedies in human trials for 5,000 years now.”