Herbs, minerals and ‘superfoods’ have all gained popularity in recent years, especially on the 'gram, touting benefits like improved mental stamina, physical endurance, immune health, stress relief and more. From single-use supplements like those from Sun Potion to blended products like the trendy, celeb-endorsed Moon Juice 'dusts' and Four Sigmatic ‘elixirs’, many of these products are referred to as adaptogenic, meant to help you achieve a physiological balance known as homeostasis.
What the heck is an adaptogen?
An adaptogen is a substance—usually an herb, fungus or mineral—that protects the body from the negative effects of stress. Though they are not consistently studied, it’s generally agreed that they must be A.) non-toxic to the body, B.) offer widespread, nonspecific support, and C.) have an overall normalizing effect on the body and its functions. They are thought to work in concert with the body’s adrenal system, helping it to regulate the release of stress hormones and return the body to equilibrium faster after stressful events.
In plain English, adaptogens are meant to improve your overall sense of health and wellness by helping you to chill the eff out.
How does stress affect the body?
Prolonged or chronic stress leads to elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which can mess with your mood and memory, lower your immune function, increase your blood pressure, make you gain weight, and a whole host of other unhealthy effects. Left untreated, chronic stress can actually lower your life expectancy, and that’s no joke!
Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight response to stress, and it’s important to note that there are both good and bad forms of stress, like excitement versus fear. Once cortisol is released in the body, it can be released through activity, such as exercise; however, if stress is constant or has no outlet, it can lead to a buildup of cortisol over time.
Cortisol can seriously screw with bodily functions that would be nonessential in a fight-or-flight situation, such as immune response, digestive function and reproductive processes. This can put you at increased risk for both mental and physical health problems. Think of it like your body’s natural alarm system—it’s healthy and good that it goes off, but do you really want to live with it blaring all the time?
Cool, so where to start?
Holy Basil, a.k.a. Tulsi, has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries against disease, and is often taken as herbal tea, or eaten fresh in cooked meals. Thought to have immune-stimulating and nervine, memory-supporting properties, it’s also available as a wonderful-smelling essential oil.
Ashwagandha is an invigorating root that’s thought to have a wide range of benefits, from supporting the immune system, balancing hormones and improving brain function. (Sign us up!) Because it’s been shown in some studies to affect thyroid function, it’s not good for those with overactive thyroid.
Cordyceps are a kind of fungus which colonizes on caterpillars, popular in traditional Chinese medicine, though most of what’s available today is cultivated on soy, not cute little bugs. Thought to increase libido, cardiovascular health and even fertility, Cordyceps could help you get out of a persistent sexual rut. You can find this good stuff in Zenbunni’s Mystic Mocha chocolate bar, or try Reishi and Chaga, mushrooms with similar properties.
Maca is a Peruvian root vegetable that’s gaining steam as a potential adaptogen, thought to increase libido and hormonal health in both men and women. Maca is commonly eaten as a veggie in Peru, but is generally only available in dried/powdered form everywhere else.
Rhodiola, native to cold, Northern climates, was originally studied by the Soviets for its antidepressant and nerve tonic qualities. Used to increase mental stamina and physical endurance, it’s also thought to support immune health.
Schizandra berries are high in antioxidants, which can help fight free radical damage and lower inflammatory responses. Free radicals are bad news for your health because they turn on and off certain genes, which can cause cellular damage and speed up the ageing process. (Psst, there's some in Zenbunni’s Rose and Schizandra chocolate bar!)
Astralagus root, also called milkvetch, can be used in many ways, from treating common colds and allergies to boosting liver function and immune health. Its antioxidant properties are also the subject of research, as well as its interaction with other herbs and medications, which isn’t well understood.
Panax ginseng, or Asian ginseng, is sourced from both the roots and leaves of the plant. It’s been used as a 'vitality tonic' for centuries, and preliminary clinical research has show that it may positively effect memory, fatigue, menopausal symptoms and more.
Shilajit is a sticky, tar-like substance found in the Himalayan, Tibetan and Caucasus mountains, among other places. Reported to contain over four dozen minerals in ionic form, it’s used in Ayurveda and although the name means ‘mountain tar’, Shilajit is thought to be vegetable in origin. This brownish-black, pasty substance is solid at cool temperatures but dissolves easily in water, and softens when warmed or rubbed between the fingers.
Ho Shou Wu comes from a flowering plant native to China, and historically has been used to prevent premature aging and increase both reproductive function and sex drive. It has a pleasant flavor, like malted chocolate, and is also rumored to improve skin, hair and nails (bonus!)
OK, but do adaptogens really *work*?
Real talk, a little exercise, hanging with friends, listening to music or having regular orgasms can all be as effective as adaptogens when it comes to reducing stress, and increasing your sense of wellness. And we all know that less stress = better sex! But if you’re looking for a boost, we say there’s absolutely no harm in trying some of these, because the aphrodisiac effect is not to be underestimated!
Adaptogens can be taken as capsules, tinctures, powders to be mixed into smoothies or even cooked meals, teas – there’s no ‘right’ way to take them, it’s totally up to you. Like any supplement, you should take them under the guidance of a health practitioner, because herbal products are not evaluated by the FDA and may interact with prescription medications or pre-existing conditions.