What are Adaptogens, and are They Actually Good For You?

We’d wager that you’ve encountered the word “adaptogen” lately. It’s plastered on the bottles of high-end wellness supplements and mentioned routinely as a “superfood” on lifestyle sites like one founded by a certain blond actress-turned-wellness-guru. CBD is often labeled an adaptogen, too. But if you’re like the Hi&Low team, all the buzz makes us as skeptical as we are curious. So we set out to answer: what is the hype all about?

Let’s start with definitions
What is an adaptogen? According to a 2008 study by the European Medicines Agency, the term “adaptogen” was first coined in 1947 by N.V. Lazarev to refer to substances which claimed to increase “non-specific” resistance to adverse influences to organism and stress, where “stress” is a state of threatened homeostasis or balance.

About 20 years later, the general pharmacodynamic characteristics of an adaptogenic substance were established:

a) An adaptogen is almost non-toxic to the recipient
b) An adaptogen tends to be non-specific in its pharmacological properties and acts by increasing the resistance of the organism to a broad spectrum of adverse biological, chemical, and physical factors
c) An adaptogen tends to be a regulator having a normalizing effect on the various organ systems of the recipient organism;

The skeptic’s perspective
You might have noticed that the definitions are loose at all levels. Adaptogens are almost non-toxic, they tend to be regulators, and they increase resistance to stress in specifically “non-specific” ways. Aren’t common and inexpensive items like tea, chocolate, and vegetables also non-toxic substances that seem to defend against stress? Taking the skeptic’s perspective, “adaptogen” seems like a term appropriated by marketers to convince millennials to spend steep sums to ease their characteristic high stress levels.

Our perspective
Like the definition of “adaptogen” itself, there is no clear answer as to whether these substances are effective and worth paying a premium for. We’re glad for anything that we can reasonably incorporate into our lives to manage stress and “adverse biological, chemical, and physical factors,” but labeling an ingredient an adaptogen doesn’t guarantee its effectiveness. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sham either.

If you want to be fully-informed, you’ll have to look into the effectiveness of the specific adaptogenic ingredients themselves. CBD is considered an adaptogen, and like we’ve discussed in past articles, there’s research to support the claim that it can reduce stress and anxiety levels, among other things. On the other hand, we’d make an educated guess that cordyceps, an adaptogenic fungus traditionally harvested from the backs of mountain caterpillars, have probably not been rigorously tested on enough subjects for statistically significant results.

And don’t forget the power of the placebo effect
That all being said, there’s a wealth of research validating the power of psychosomatic effects, the placebo and nocebo effects among the most recognizable of the bunch. This Harvard Men’s Health Watch article provides examples of placebos having the same level of effectiveness as traditional medical treatments. So it’s possible that if you believe in it just enough, that fungus off of a caterpillar’s back will chase away your stress dreams after all.