What Are Adaptogens, Exactly?

A staple in Ayurvedic and Chinese healing, spot these ancient ingredients in candy, TikToks, and your next matcha latte.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

In the morning, I blend my mango-and-berry smoothie breakfast bowl with powdered ashwagandha, and later, at tea time, I’m dunking an herbal tea bag loaded with the goodness of ginseng in hot water. My dessert might be infused with turmeric, and my coffee isn’t coffee at all, but a combination of chaga and cordyceps.

I’m not alone in my adaptogenic use, either. According to a report submitted by Global Market Insights Inc, the adaptogens market was valued at $8.5 billion in 2020, and is expected to reach around $14 billion by 2027.

Adaptogens are a modern movement with ancient roots. Believed to have stress-relieving and other beneficial properties, adaptogenic ingredients include mushrooms and other plants, and have been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese healing for millennia. They’re now found in the U.S. in packaged snacks and teas, in myriad TikToks, and on nearly every beauty website.

Don’t get these ingredients confused with superfoods, though there is some overlap. All edible adaptogens are superfoods, but not all superfoods are adaptogens. For instance, fennel seeds are a superfood, but not an adaptogen; while ingredients such as turmeric, holy basil, chaga, goji berry, and cinnamon are both.

Understanding Adaptogens

“Adaptogens are a unique class of herbal plants and mushrooms filled with complex compounds that help our body adapt and increase resistance to stress,” says Sumitra Daswani, a holistic health practitioner and founder of Born From The Earth.

Daswani, who grew up between the U.S. Virgin Islands and Jamaica, first became acquainted with adaptogens such as noni that were local to her in the Caribbean. When she moved to India in 2017, she began to explore others.

Adaptogens have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic and Chinese healing to stimulate the body’s stress-protective functions. They’re believed to help bring the body back to homeostasis, or internal stability. As a concept, adaptogens have existed for millennia, but the term was introduced in 1947 by the Soviet scientist Pyotr Petrovich Lazarev.

“They increase resistance to physical, chemical, biological, and psychological stressors,” says Daswani. “To be classified as a true adaptogen, a plant must help the body cope with stress, not be harmful to the body, and enable the body to return to balance.”

Today, adaptogenic ingredients can be found in everything from gummies, protein powders, capsules, teas, coffees, and cocktails. In every region in the world, people use local and far-flung adaptogenic ingredients in various ways, including the Chinese or the Siberian ginseng, Indian ashwagandha, Russian leuzea, Scandinavian rhodiola rosea, and so on.

A Guide to Adaptogenic Ingredients

Some of the most widely used adaptogenic ingredients are believed to have distinct healing properties.

Ashwagandha: In Sanskrit, the name of this herb translates to “smell of the horse,” as ashwagandha is believed to provide powerful boosts of energy to the mind and body. Health-practitioner-approved doses of ashwagandha powder can be added to smoothie bowls, hot milk, and even baked goods.

Chaga: A mushroom that grows on birch trees, chaga is rich in antioxidants and is often used in tea or coffee as a health supplement. It’s said to reduce oxidative stress, or the imbalance between bodily antioxidants and free radicals.

Cordyceps: Known for their anti-aging properties, cordyceps are fungi that grow on a certain type of caterpillar. A host of health benefits applied to cordyceps include aiding fatigue to relieving cough and flu symptoms. In all applications, it’s best to consult a health professional.

Ginseng: Sometimes referred to as a miracle ingredient, ginseng has antioxidants and anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s used widely in a number of Asian cultures, and its powder can be found in herbal teas, drink mixes, gummies and candies.

Turmeric: The curcumin in this root is known to benefit everything from infections, inflammations, skin, to boost immunity. Turmeric is an Indian wonder ingredient that is a kitchen staple across the country. Try it in stir frys, bliss balls, or spooned into a golden latte.

How to Use Adaptogenic Ingredients

In the last decade, ingredients such as ashwagandha and turmeric have been touted as a one-shot cure for stress. While they may provide temporary support, these are not long-term stress solutions, Daswani says.

The method in which we use adaptogens is crucial. Popping an ashwagandha pill to improve sleep without considering overall health, diet, or personal constitution can create issues rather than healing, she says, “like experiencing acne due to the increased testosterone.”

Anyone who wants to use adaptogenic ingredients for health should seek expert guidance, Daswani says. Traditionally, the types, frequency, and amounts of adaptogens someone would take were customized to that individual, so “there is a need to consult health professionals.”

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Sonal Ved is a Thrillist contributor and the author of Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes Celebrating India’s Regional Cuisine and Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? Her work has appeared in leading publications such as The Guardian, Saveur and Food52 among others.