Adaptogens: Is This the Safest “Supplement” for Better Health?
Call it nutritional necessity or the greatest marketing scheme ever played: Whatever the reason, Americans are consuming massive amounts of dietary supplements each year.
To date, more than 68 percent of American adults take some form of dietary supplement. This helps explain why the industry is expected to grow to more than $278 billion by 2024. (Yes, that’s right: $278 billion.)
The need for the boost from supplements is very real.
For starters, the average American diet is notoriously light on essential nutrients: We’re not eating enough produce, we’re eating a lot of cheese, and we’re consuming more calories than ever before. Additionally, there’s evidence industrial food production processes are stripping our soils of nutrients.
This means the food that grows in said soil won’t contain as many vitamins and minerals, and your meals (even the ones that contain plenty of produce) won’t pack as big of a nutritional punch. Whether the cause is an unhealthy diet or nutrient-deficient food, popping a pill seems like a simple and efficient way to make up for any gaps in our nutrition.
And then there’s the question of stress. It probably won’t come as a surprise that Americans are more stressed out than ever before, and it’s taking a serious toll on our health. Chronic stress can harm both our emotional and physical wellbeing and contribute to a variety of health conditions including anxiety, cognitive impairment, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, inflammation, sleep issues, and more. So it stands to reason that Americans are reaching for potential fixes in the form of supplements—both for the stress itself and the conditions it can cause.
Here’s the problem. Many of the dietary supplements on the market today may not be as helpful as they claim—and in some cases, they may actually do more harm than good. That’s part of the focus of Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health, which looks at the most overlooked superfood in health and wellness.
Synthetic supplements, in particular, are known for their lack of regulatory oversight, use of potentially harmful additives, and issues with “megadosing” and improper absorption by the body. We’ll touch on each of these issues in more detail below.
The TL;DR version of the story: in spite of their popularity, synthetic substances may not be providing you with the health boost we seek.
The Natural Supplement
That’s the bad news. The good news is there are safer and healthier ways to cope with the physical and/or emotional stress that arises from nutritional deficiencies, demanding schedules, ornery bosses, and the trials and tribulations of everyday life—all thanks to a variety of plants and fungi known as “adaptogens”.
If your first response to that statement is “adapto-what?,” you’re not alone. These naturally occurring substances are just making their way into the popular health scene in the west. But the truth is they’ve been utilized for thousands of years. Both Eastern and Western medicine corroborate that adaptogens may assist with stress relief, improved focus, boosted immunity, increased energy and stamina, and balanced mood—all without the use of potentially harmful or un-absorbable ingredients.
Follow along as we explore why adaptogens may be the key to safe, effective supplementation and greater overall wellness, and why synthetic supplements may not be as healthy as they claim.
The Wellness Benefits of Adaptogens
First things first: What the heck is an adaptogen?
Put simply (kind of), adaptogens are naturally occurring, non-toxic substances that can help protect your body from stress by stabilizing and optimizing a host of physiological functions. Rather than serving a single targeted purpose, an adaptogen will (ahem) adapt its healing properties to whatever your body specifically needs at a given time in order to restore you to peak functionality.
In order to formally qualify as an adaptogen, these natural substances must meet the following criteria:
- They must be safe, nontoxic, and non-habit forming
- They must have a non-specific effect on the body—in other words, they must help a variety of bodily systems and help the body defend against a variety of stressors including physical, chemical, and biological factors
- They must help normalize system functions and maintain a state of homeostasis, or overall balance
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 then she 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 wellbeing.
Because they are so (ahem again) adaptable, adaptogens can have a number of positive effects on your body. Among other benefits, adaptogens have been shown to:
- Minimize fatigue and improve focus and endurance in the face of fatigue
- Boost immunity
- Protect against disease
- Boost energy and increase physical endurance
- Relieve symptoms of depression
- Balance mood
- Sustain mental focus
- Restore balance to metabolic processes
- Promote overall wellness
But perhaps adaptogens’ biggest claim to fame is their ability to protect your body from stress. This is hugely important when it comes to preserving people’s well being because stress plays a role in up to 90 percent of all illnesses.
Here’s how it works: When your body is stressed, it produces the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This isn’t a problem in small doses. (In fact, it serves a vital evolutionary purpose.) But when these chemicals are constantly being released into your body—as in the case of chronic stress—it can degrade a person’s health in a number of ways, from poor mood to difficulty concentrating, chronic inflammation, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, insomnia, and even premature aging. Chronic cortisol production can also drain the adrenal glands, which can further erode your physical and emotional health.
What makes adaptogens so remarkable is they can help defend against these damaging effects of stress by regulating the release of stress hormones and protecting your adrenals—no matter the underlying cause of said stress.
Too Good to Be True?
We know: This stuff doesn’t even sound real. That is, until you review adaptogens’ historical precedent and the fact that decades of research back up these claims.
In fact, adaptogens have been used to great effect in both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine for thousands of years. Adaptogens first emerged on the Western scene when Russian researchers began studying them in the 1940s. (A Russian pharmacologist named N.V. Lazarey was responsible for giving them the name we use today.) It took a few more decades for U.S. researchers to take notice—the FDA accepted the term in 1988. Since then, Western research has continued to play catch up when it comes to understanding and utilizing adaptogens’ benefits.
While they’re still sorting out the details, researchers believe one of the ways adaptogens work is by increasing a certain protein in the body (Hsp70) that is responsible for defending against physical and emotional stressors and simultaneously increasing stress tolerance. There’s even evidence that adaptogens may actually reduce the circulation of cortisol throughout the body. This regulation of the stress response has been linked to the upticks in emotional and physical wellbeing described above. What’s more, these benefits are achieved gradually and gently without letdowns or energy crashes.
Stellar Sources of Adaptogens
Adaptogens are found in a variety of herbs, other plants, and mushrooms. Many of these plants and fungi are particularly well suited to help protect against stress because they themselves are adapted to survive in stressful conditions, from high altitude to extreme temperatures or moisture conditions.
Some of the most potent sources of adaptogens include (but are definitely not limited to) ashwaganda, astragalus root, American and Asian ginseng root, Eleuthero root, goji, holy basil, licorice root, maca root, rhodiola, and a variety of mushrooms including chaga, cordyceps, maitake, reishi, and shiitake.
Each adaptogenic mushroom is known for possessing certain qualities beyond the general benefits offered by adaptogens. For example, chaga is known as a potent disease fighter thanks to its support of immune function thanks to its antioxidant properties. Cordyceps may stimulate energy, increase stamina, enhance immunity, and support the wellbeing of a number of organs. And reishi is renowned for its ability to help you relax, improve sleep, and support the immune functions. This helps explain why it’s colloquially known as “The Mushroom of Immortality.”
In spite of this moniker, no one is claiming that adaptogenic mushrooms and other adaptogens will make you immortal (or at least we aren’t). But there is good evidence that utilizing adaptogens may provide a safe and effective alternative to synthetic supplements for anyone who is looking to improve their overall wellness.
Where Most Supplements Go Wrong
Even though Americans consume dietary supplements with the best of intentions—to improve our physical and/or emotional well being—many supplements made with synthetic ingredients are unlikely to live up to their health claims. Unfortunately, most of the supplements lining grocery and vitamin store shelves are the synthetic variety.
For those not familiar, a synthetic ingredient is one that’s produced artificially in a lab. This is in contrast to natural nutrients, which are derived from whole food sources (either plant or animal). A quick way to determine whether a certain product contains natural or synthetic ingredients is to look at the label. Natural ingredients will show up as recognizable food sources such as “beet root” or “garlic”. In contrast, synthetic ingredients will be listed as individual vitamins or chemical names (e.g. “vitamin E” or “ascorbic acid”).
Here’s a quick look at some of the ways synthetic supplements can go wrong.
They’re not thoroughly tested.
The FDA will be the first to tell you that dietary supplements including amino acids, minerals, and vitamins are not reviewed for safety or effectiveness before being sold to consumers. Yes, you read that right.
So who’s responsible for ensuring these products are safe to use and that they actually do what they claim? Why, the manufacturers of the supplements! (What could possibly go wrong?) What’s more, manufacturers aren’t even required to include warning labels on their supplements to address possible side effects, contraindications, or interactions with other medications (with the exception of noting that iron overdoses can be fatal to children).
They often contain megadoses.
Americans tend to have a “more is better” mindset, and this holds true for our dietary supplements. Many supplements on the market today contain what’s referred to as “megadoses” of vitamins and minerals well beyond the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). And given that most of us are already consuming at least some vitamins and minerals through our diets, utilizing vitamin and mineral supplements often means we’re getting much more of a given nutrient than we actually need.
In spite of the persistent idea that our bodies will simply excrete what they don’t need, the reality is we can overdose on vitamins. This won’t be as dramatic as, say, a drug or alcohol overdose, but it can still lead to negative effects on the body.
For example, when pregnant women consume excessive amounts of vitamin A, there’s evidence their babies may be at a higher risk for birth defects. For the general population, consuming too much vitamin E is correlated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality. Antioxidant supplements may do more harm than good for people who already well nourished. Both standard and megadoses of some vitamins may interfere with prescription medications. (For example, vitamin K can reduce the efficacy of the blood thinner Coumadin.) Ironically, taking megadoses of vitamins and minerals may even disrupt our body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Bottom line? Consuming huge doses of synthetic nutrients may not provide us with the health boost we’re going for—and there’s a chance it may actually cause us harm instead.
They may not be properly absorbed by the body.
While supplement manufacturers will claim that synthetic ingredients are nearly chemically identical to the ingredients in whole foods, that doesn’t mean our bodies will respond to them in the same way. That’s because whole foods contain a complex of different nutrients that work in tandem. (For example, a single carrot contains a whopping 200 nutrients and phytonutrients, including enzymes, coenzymes, co-vitamins, minerals, and so on.) In contrast, synthetic ingredients are often incorporated into supplements in isolation and lack this synergy.
Take vitamin C as an example. The vitamin C found in whole foods is actually made up of a variety of C vitamins. In contrast, the “ascorbic acid” that shows up in some dietary supplements is simply one isolated C vitamin as opposed to the full vitamin C complex. Thus, when you consume ascorbic acid, you’re not actually consuming vitamin C in its whole form—and you’re missing out on key nutrients as a result. Importantly, this also changes the way your body will relate to and process that ingredient. This doesn’t just apply to vitamin C: The same general concept holds true for a variety of other nutrients.
They may not be helpful.
The verdict is still out on whether synthetic supplements do more harm than good, but a growing body of evidence suggests these products may not always be as beneficial as they claim. For example:
- A decades-long Harvard Physicians study found that multivitamin supplementation had no impact on the risk of heart attack, stroke, or mortality.
- A number of reviews have found claims that antioxidant supplements can increase longevity or reduce the risk of cancer are unsubstantiated. There’s even some evidence that high doses of antioxidant supplements may actually increase the risk of cancer, especially in women.
Much of the discord over the efficacy of mineral and vitamin supplementation stems from the fact that many of the studies touting supplements’ benefits are strictly observational—meaning they don’t contrast supplementation against consuming a placebo under controlled conditions. Without these controlled trials, it’s difficult to say for sure whether vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant supplementation is truly helpful.
All told? It’s looking a little bleak for synthetic supplements. But if synthetic dietary supplements fail to live up to the hype, where can people turn for a wellness boost that can truly help them counteract the physical and emotional stressors that are par for the course in their daily lives?
This is precisely why adaptogens may have a powerful role to play.