Like “antioxidants” and “superfoods” a few years prior, “adaptogens” is the current buzzword in the health-food world. And like antioxidants and superfoods, adaptogens and their applications are broad and vague.
Though the substances we might label as adaptogens have been used in non-Western medicine since essentially the beginning of humanity, the word itself is only 80 years old, coined by Russian scientists. While many of the popular adaptogens on the market today might be somewhat foreign to the average consumer, like ashwagandha, more familiar herbs and spices like ginger and turmeric count as adaptogens, as well.
To be defined as an adaptogen, a plant-based substance must be used for non-specific purposes and assist the body in resisting a range of ailments. Secondly, adaptogens must help the body maintain homeostasis. Third, adaptogens cannot harm normal functions of the body. These vague specifications make actually testing adaptogens or proving their effectiveness difficult: Turmeric, for example, has been proven to have anti-inflammatory properties, but exactly how that translates to better health is challenging to measure against our entire biological condition. Nevertheless, there’s no actual harm in consuming turmeric as a preventative measure.
While many adaptogens like ginseng have been marketed for broad health-promoting purposes for several years now, more products are emerging aimed at producing specific results or for specific activities. For example, there are tons of adaptogen-based drink mixes claiming to aid in sleep or stress-relief. They’re often pretty pricey, too: A one month supply of anti-stress vitamins from the popular brand Moon Juice goes for nearly $50.
More recently, adaptogenic supplements for exercise have become popular among both the natural wellness crowd and those simply looking for a more effective workout. Usually, these products tout a boost in energy, aid in muscle recovery or both. However, none of the supplements on the market have been approved by the FDA. Still, there is some evidence that the adaptogens popularly found in these supplements, like ginseng and maca, do potentially help with energy and muscle fatigue. But some adaptogen-based pre-workout supplements contain straight-up caffeine, which will obviously give a boost on its own.
The effectiveness of various adaptogens will likely remain unproven by established sources like the FDA, but again, that doesn’t mean they don’t entirely work — maca, for example, does at least give you a ton of vitamin C — so with the exception of allergies and possible drug interactions, there’s no real harm in trying them. Worst-case scenario, you might get a headache or throw up.
Just keep in mind, the $45 tubs you might find online contain the same ingredients that have been sold by practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine and in the spice section of your local Southeast Asian grocery store for decades, often at a fraction of the price.