Will Adaptogens Fix Our Unbalanced Lives?

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Recently, while browsing Sephora on my phone because I “needed” a new moisturizer, I encountered a product called Adaptogen Deep Moisture Cream, made by the company Youth to the People. Described as being “powered by adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms: ashwagandha, rhodiola, reishi, and holy basil,” this moisturizer claims to “calm the skin when faced with daily stressors” like UV rays and pollution. It is also vegan. Of the product’s 838 reviews, 722 are five-star raves. I added the cream to my cart, where it pushed four other creams promising various, inferior miracles to the bottom. It was news to me that my face itself might be stressed out, and “adaptogens” sounded just scientific enough to address the problem.

I’d also heard of them before. Having more or less picked up where turmeric left off, adaptogens are the latest must-add supplement to smoothies, juices, matcha lattes, and, apparently, moisturizers. Like turmeric, the herbs encompassed by the term “adaptogens” have long been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese healing traditions, though the word “adaptogen” itself was coined in 1947 by Russian scientist Dr. N.V. Lazarev to mean “a substance which was claimed to increase ‘non-specific’ resistance to adverse influences to organism and stress.” Today, you can mostly find them in powder form, in glossily packaged bottles or bags sold for between $30 and $60, and the definitions offered by wellness sites are generally pretty vague, and variable. Goop is obviously a major endorser (Gwyneth has them in her smoothie every morning!), as is she of Moon Juice fame, Amanda Chantal Bacon.

What exact properties and effects each adaptogenic herb is said to have varies by its maker and its particular blend, but the general consensus is that adaptogens are supposed to restore balance. This, to me, is just about the most appealing promise that could be made at this moment in time, surpassed only by “free money.” Balance evokes Marie Kondo, houseplants, a mug of caffeine-free tea. Balance means having the internal resolve not to jump on the latest trend. (Unless that trend is adaptogens.) Balance looks like deleting every social media app from your phone and looking out the window instead. Or so I imagine.

The way adaptogens are thought to restore balance is by battling what’s called “adrenal fatigue,” itself an iffy diagnosis, says Dr. Deena Adimoolam, an endocrinologist and an adrenal specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “The thought is that when the adrenal gland isn’t able to make enough of a stress hormone called cortisol, maybe these adaptogens can help balance out your body, so the amount of stress hormone that’s produced is what your body actually needs,” she explains. A healthy person’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland can sense when their blood contains enough cortisol, and “fine-tune” the amount they release, given the body’s cortisol-related needs that day — which include responding to stress, but also regulating blood pressure, keeping inflammation down, controlling one’s sleep cycle, and increasing blood sugar. High-stress situations call for a rush of cortisol, and in the event that one’s body is unable to provide them (which is possible, typically for those with a condition called Addison’s disease), adaptogens are thought to provide a needed boost in production by supporting the adrenal system.

However, most studies done on this hypothesis have been on animals, which gives nutritionist and registered dietitian Abby Langer pause. “You’re not a rodent,” she tells me, kindly. Langer says she isn’t certain adaptogens can’t produce those same benefits in humans, but she says more research is needed.

Adimoolam is similarly skeptical. “For a healthy individual who has a normal adrenal gland, and has normal adrenal function, their body should be able to mount the appropriate response to stress with cortisol,” she says. “There’s no need to necessarily take any other adaptogens to help boost the body’s ability to do so.” In some cases, because adaptogens remain unregulated by the FDA, taking them in supplement form can even be dangerous. “Some of these medications can be laced with a medication called prednisone, which is a steroid that mimics the effects of cortisol, and so you’re actually getting back hormones unnaturally,” says Adimoolam. In fact, people who take adaptogens laced with prednisone risk making too much cortisol, which can result in high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain, problems with lower-extremity swelling, and worsening weakness.

And yet, there is something comforting, in this moment, in believing our exhaustion is medically specific, rather than general and existential. If it were the former, we could take a pill for it. As it stands, it’s harder to see a way out. Americans — especially women, and especially black women, among other marginalized groups — are, collectively, stressed the hell out, and stress is exhausting. But in an era of widespread underemployment, cultural pressure to work harder and longer than ever, and relentless bad news, many people feel unable to take a lunch break, let alone a substantive vacation.

“So many members of our society are battling with chronic fatigue: everyone feels tired and everyone feels weak, and everyone feels stressed,” says Adimoolam. “Some people think, ‘Oh, maybe it’s my adrenal glands. Maybe I have adrenal fatigue, and that’s why I’m exhausted.’ But the truth is, most of the time it’s related to our lifestyle, and that’s what needs to be evaluated first.” But whether we’re right or not, many of us feel we don’t have time to exercise, or shop for healthier, filling foods, or to pursue a creative, comforting hobby. What we can squeeze in is exactly one teaspoon of ashwagandha root, mixed into whatever new coffee we’re doing these days.

Beyond our unending search for a holy grail wellness Band-Aid, Langer thinks our contemporary fixation on adaptogens has a lot to do with our general terror in the face of our failing bodies. She cites the rise of “biohackers,” or the group of mainly white, wealthy, 40-something men attempting to live forever by injecting stem cells into their spinal cords and eating keto. “There is this push against the natural aging process and slowing down,” says Langer. “You’re not going to biohack your organs. That’s nature. You can’t, nor should you want to hack any part of your body that’s functioning the way it’s supposed to function.”

Stress and exhaustion can be signs your body is trying to tell you something, yes, but, experienced in moderation, they are also functions of being a human being who is alive in the year 2019. Whether a $40 jar of ground adaptogenic mushrooms (or a $58 jar of mushroom-powered face cream) can really help you with that remains to be seen.

Will Adaptogens Fix Our Unbalanced Lives?