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What the F*** Are ‘Adaptogens’? A Mushroom Tonic Challenge

Lately, everytime I read a profile about a successful business person or stalk a new wellness blogger on Instagram, they’re talking about ingesting adaptogens in a variety of different ways — be it via powder, capsule or tea. A trio of examples:

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that goooood good green drank🍵🌿 thick, foamy, low in sugar and full of healthy fats and protein. i start every morning with my matcha latte and it’s safe to say they’re the highlight of my day! incorporating the matcha routine into my travels helps keep routine and starts the day off on the right foot. below are the ingredients and instructions and some tips for my matcha latte. •1 scoop @vitalproteins matcha collagen (or 1 tsp @ippdoteausa matcha and 2 scoops of collagen peptides!) •1 1/2 tbsp coconut butter (makes it thick, creamy, and slightly sweet) •1/2 tsp organic Ceylon cinnamon (it’s important to buy organic cinnamon, and Ceylon variety is known to help support healthy blood sugar levels!) •1 tsp @sunpotion yin power (or another adaptogen such as powdered chaga. •14 oz hot water (not boiling) I like to use water rather than nut milk as its more cost effective and one less ingredient to have on hand 💁🏼‍♀️ combine all ingredients into a blender and blend on high for 2 minutes or until frothy. NOTE: if you are new to adaptogens and the taste is too bitter, i suggest starting with a 1/4 tsp or LESS until your tastebuds adjust (this can take a few weeks) and remember, just because its bitter does not mean its bad. you can also downplay the bitter taste by adding more coconut butter or a dash of nut milk. HAPPY FRIDAY EVERYONE! #leefromamerica

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And, of course, Gwyneth and Goop hold adaptogens in very high regard. In the introduction to an interview with an herbalist, this Goop writer reports adaptogens “merit a good deal of the hype they’re getting, if Goop staffers’ experiences with them so far are any indication.” Similarly, this BeWell post suggests adaptogens are a way to “help your body adapt to stress and resist fatigue” in contrast to the “rollercoaster of highs and lows” that the “proliferation of coffee and cupcake shops” has created.

In L.A., adaptogens aren’t only marketed as a better alternative to over-the-counter vitamins, but as an anti-stress necessity amid a tumultuous and illuminating political climate. At least that’s what they tell me at Erewhon, home of the Alpha Male Smoothie.

As for what the fuck they are, adaptogens are naturally-occuring substances in plants, herbs and many types of mushrooms (not the “magic” kind, though). Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine practitioners have used adaptogens in their practice for thousands of years, but their properties have never received much attention in the West until now. And although it’s easy to understand what a “substance” derived from produce is, adaptogens are tricky to talk about because part of their nature is their adaptability, hence the weird name — adaptogen.

Or better put, it’s harder to describe what an adaptogen actually does in the body because part of what defines it is its mutability based on the needs of an individual body. Tero Isokauppila, the founder of Four Sigmatic, a brand of adaptogen-rich mushroom drinks, describes it as follows in his book Healing Mushrooms:

“To qualify as an adaptogen, a mushroom must help the body in a non-specific way. That last part is important because rather than serving a single, targeted purpose, adaptogenic mushrooms will adapt their healing properties to whatever your body specifically needs at a given time in order to restore you to peak functionality. Think of adaptogens this way: You know that good friend who comes over to your house to vent after she’s had a bad day, but sees that you’re over the moon about some terrific news and promptly adjusts her demeanor to celebrate your happiness with you? That’s what an adaptogen does in the human body — it senses what the body needs and alters its behavior in whatever way necessary to foster peak health.”

That’s uh, ambiguous, huh?

No wonder so many of these brands use words like “alchemy” in their descriptions, which for the record, only makes me more interested in them.

In terms of specifics — as far as there are any — adaptogens are most famous for resisting stress in the body and normalizing bodily functions that stress has messed up, like the adrenal system.

A lot of people first encountered adaptogens courtesy of lifestyle guru Amanda Chantal Bacon. Her Moon Juice products (e.g., “Brain Dust” and “Sex Dust”) thrust adaptogens into the mainstream by branding the blends with their intended results rather than their ingredients — essentially marketing ashwagandha by putting it in pricy pink and blue packets. (The best intro to these “dusts” is in this New York Post story: “There’s a mind-altering powder that celebrities and power players in Hollywood can’t get enough of. It’s not cocaine, it’s Moon Dust…”)

I first dosed on adaptogens as part of Sun Potion’s Anandamide, or “Bliss Alchemy,” a bulk bag of blended cacao and herbs my friend Alexa left at my house in 2016. The taste was Burning Man Hot Cocoa, pleasant enough but distinct in its earthiness. I sipped until the bag was gone, but willy-nilly, never regimented.

But for the past few weeks, I’ve attempted to implement a true adaptogen routine with the Four Sigmatic adaptogenic mushroom products Isokauppila and his team created. I found Four Sigmatic on Instagram, where they post ads with the hashtag #onshrooms.

Naturally, I thought #onshrooms meant the magic, psilocybin kind, so I clicked and followed.

Next thing I knew, I was downing their various mushroom-infused tonics.

They did, after all, promise that mushrooms are the most overlooked superfood.

My Goal

Achieve a massively relaxed state that not only makes my physical body feel better, but makes me able to get way more work done everyday. Usually stress is thought of as a result of hard work, but I usually find it to be a prohibitor of good work. My interest in these adaptogenic mushrooms was mainly to crush my end-of-the-year assignments without biting off all of my nails or losing sleep, two anxiety-riddled behaviors I’ve tried to chill out on.

Strategy

I drank a variety of Four Sigmatic beverages on a regular, but rotating, basis.

Mushroom Coffee with Lion’s Mane: The instant Arabica coffee powder is full of adaptogens from Siberian chaga mushroom, organic lion’s mane mushroom and rhodiola root. The slogan for this one is “Be productive. Skip the jitters.” Along with dealing with stress, chaga is an antioxidant used to lower inflammation, boost immunity against colds and improve one’s skin and hair. Lion’s mane is thought to protect your nervous system, boost concentration and improve memory function. Rhodiola root is something I’ve heard referred to as “nature’s Adderall,” but it’s derived from a flowering plant, not a mushroom. In terms of taste, I was surprised by how rich and tasty this coffee was compared to other “just add water” brands.

Mushroom Hot Cacao with Reishi: This better-for-you-than-Nesquik hot chocolate gets its adaptogens from the red reishi mushroom, which is used to cure seasonal allergies and help people sleep, and comes sweetened with stevia and sugar seasoned with cinnamon and cardamom.

I didn’t realize until now that I was supposed to drink it “espresso style” by mixing it with just 3 ounces of water. No wonder I thought the taste was extremely diluted. I drank mine with at least 6 ounces of water and a dash of milk. And not nut or oat milk either. Whole. Cow. Milk. I imagine it would’ve tasted better if I drank it with less liquid. Mine just tasted like Sweet. Whole. Cow. Milk.

Brain Stick Pack: A caffeine-free “vitality” product with adaptogens from lion’s mane mushroom, cordyceps mushroom and rhodiola root. This is the Tang of adaptogenic mushroom products. You mix it with a full glass of water, and the result is light and fruity. Cordyceps are said to help athletic and sexual performance, increase energy and alleviate asthma.

This is the only drink I tried that was meant to be chilled, and while I liked it cold, it made the texture more powdery than the others. Powders don’t dissolve as well in cold water, so with the Brain Stick, I was way more aware that I was drinking something for its benefit than its taste.

I took my adaptogens once or twice a day, but just one kind of adaptogen a day — i.e., I never started with a Brain Stick Pack and finished with Lion’s Mane Coffee, with something completely different in-between. It was all one or the other.

Results

Overall, I’ve had a great few weeks, both personally and professionally, but I’m hesitant to chalk up everything to these mushroom drinks. I mean, I got a lot of writing done and didn’t get into a single family feud over the holidays, so my goals were met — and less stress, or at least better stress management due to the adaptogens, may be the reason why. I still ripped all my acrylic nails off in an anxious, editing fit though. The cordyceps might have helped me out during my trip to Mexico City, too, because I managed to avoid altitude sickness, which a lot of people suffer from when traveling there for the first time.

My favorite drink was the mushroom coffee. I agree with this commenter on the Four Sigmatic website. They wrote, “Not sure of the health benefits but I love the physical/mental focus and energy it brings.” I’m super-sensitive to caffeine lately and found this blend less harsh than a hot coffee from Starbucks or craft coffee shops.

Another byproduct of my adaptogen journey: I’ve learned a lot about mushrooms — and that mycrophobia, fear of mushrooms, is a real thing. That’s part of the reason why Four Sigmatic has The Mushroom Academy, a free online video course that educates people about mushrooms so they don’t fear, or just hate, them so much.

Conclusion

I’m not giving up my adaptogen regimen anytime soon, especially since I still have a ton of Brain Sticks left. But even when they run out, I’ll get more, or buy another adaptogen blend in bulk and drink it with hot water, which I think is more economical than the Four Sigmatic or Moon Juice routes. (Although the Four Sigmatic products feel like a better deal than the $38 Moon Juice mixes, a box of 10 coffee packets still costs $15 unless you sign up for that organic food service Thrive Market, in which case it’s $12.75).

I’ll do anything in the service of chilling out, and simply put, adaptogen drinks are just way sexier than classic multivitamins, especially since most of those are processed and full of sugars and fillers anyway. Although, according to my friend’s Chinese medicine doctor, a lot of old-school users of adaptogens don’t believe people should just begin their own regimen without consulting an expert.