But people are sick of feeling this way. Years ago, being “crazy busy” or “totally spread thin” was a badge of honor. But now, people are desperately trying to regain their zen. Surveys show that workers are regularly choosing stress-defusing flexible work arrangements over higher salaries, meditation is slowly becoming mainstream, and adaptogens are gaining traction among wellness devotees like Gwyneth Paltrow.
Never heard of adaptogens? You’re definitely not alone—but it’s not because it’s a hot new product. Adaptogens have been used to treat people for thousands of years in China and India. However, the term wasn’t coined until 1947. It was then that pharmacologist N.V. Lazarev used the word to describe herbs and other natural products that when ingested, help increase the body’s resistance to psychological or physical stress, says Prevention columnist Andrew Weil, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona and director of the school’s Program in Integrative Medicine. Studies show adaptogens work by reducing stress hormones such as cortisol, which go into overdrive not only when you have a last minute presentation at work, but also when you sustain an injury or become sick.
“Adaptogens, or tonics, are most commonly used for energy by people debilitated by illness or stress,” says Weil. There aren’t many human studies on adaptogens (funding for studies on Eastern medicine techniques tend to be scarce), but one clinical trial of people with anxiety found that the adaptogen ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, reduced people’s anxiety more effectively than psychotherapy.
A wide variety of adaptogens are available in many different forms, including capsules, powders, and liquids. Some of Weil’s preferred herbal tonics include ashwagandha (One to try: Organic Ashwagandha Root Powder 1200 mg, amazon.com), which can ease anxiety and fight insomnia (two things that make stress worse), according to a recent study in mice, and American ginseng (One to try: Now American Ginseng 500 mg, amazon.com), which may help ward off fatigue brought on by stress, according to a Journal of Ethnopharmacology animal study.
Weil also frequently recommends adaptogenic mushroom tonics for their immune-enhancing and anti-inflammatory effects. Some of his favorites are reishi (One to try: Terrasoul Superfoods Organic Reishi Mushroom Powder, amazon.com), cordyceps (One to try: Four Sigmatic Organic Mushroom Elixir Mix with Cordyceps, amazon.com), and maitake (One to try: Foursigmatic Mushroom Green Coffee with Chaga and Maitake, amazon.com). “Each works differently, and results are usually better with a combination of mushrooms, as their effects are often synergistic,” he says.
Weil recommends you experiment to find which tonic and formulation work best for you. Look for standardized products (we’ve linked to a few above) and follow label instructions on dosing. Since adaptogens respond to each person’s individual stressors, the effects may differ from person to person. And because the initial effects can be subtle, Weil recommends you use adaptogen daily for at least two months before assessing its overall value to your health.
Are there any risks?
Some adaptogens, such as astragalus, can increase bleeding and may be dangerous for people with blood disorders like anemia or deep venous thrombosis. The herb can also lower blood sugar could be risky for people taking diabetes medications. People with chronic conditions or who take medications should check with their doctor before taking adaptogens.