Stressed? Tired? Enter Adaptogens

Called “the Category of the Decade,” adaptogens are the herbal answer to the 2020s. Get up-to-date on the latest science and the challenges businesses need to start planning for now.

Illustrations of botanicals, adaptogens

The adaptogens market size was valued at more than $10 billion in 2022, and has projected CAGR of more than 6.5%, reports Gene Bruno, Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, NutraScience Labs. By 2032, the value is projected to climb to $19 billion. What’s driving the growth? A number of factors, with stress levels topping the list.

“Today, most natural product consumers are familiar with adaptogenic herbs,” says Dr. Michael Lelah, Chief Science Officer, NutriScience Innovations. “There has been a surge in awareness to consume novel and safer medicinal herbs that can be used to manage stress and the impact it has on other systems throughout the body.”

Chronic stress is related to weight gain, insomnia, immune dysfunction, anxiety, depression, impaired memory, gut dysbiosis, systemic inflammation, and other acute and chronic conditions, says Beth Lambert, CEO, Herbalist & Alchemist (H&A). “Stress isn’t going away, but adaptogens are uniquely suited to helping the body withstand its effects and regain balance.”

Diving into the data, Vishal Shah, Whole-Time Director, Nutriventia Limited, notes, “Adaptogens have seen dramatic growth in the last few years as stress significantly rose around the globe due to the pandemic and its aftermath, supply chain issues, and looming war. More than 75% of U.S. adults report symptoms of stress, according to the American Psychological Association 2022. Four in 10 people worldwide feel stressed, according to Gallup. In the U.S., supplements for mood and mental health have significantly increased, and adaptogens are rising as consumers now understand and seek out adaptogens. We are witnessing adaptogens cross into the mainstream market with ashwagandha, the gateway herb to adaptogens, experiencing growth in those mainstream channels.”

Bruce Brown, VP of Supplement for Kerry in North America, points to insights from Innova suggesting that food, beverage and nutraceutical manufacturers are “playing a part in tackling mental unease, with mood-boosting products ranging from those formulated and promoted to aid a general ‘feel good’ factor to those targeting more specific mood worries, such as anxiety, stress and poor sleep.” Furthermore, Brown says, consumers want to meet these goals as naturally as possible. “One of the effects of the pandemic was a renewed desire to return to natural and traditional ingredients, with many consumers turning to trusted ancient remedies as a response to the crisis. Globally, the number of launches of products with functional botanicals almost doubled between 2018 and 2020″ [Innova Market Insights, 2022].

Adding to the list of reasons people are reaching for adaptogens, Jamba Dunn, Founder & CEO, Rowdy Mermaid, points to growing interest in natural remedies and approaches to health and wellness, with adaptogens seen as a natural way to promote overall well-being. Adaptogens also are becoming more widely available in a variety of products, including teas, energy bars, kombucha, gummies, and supplements, Dunn says. This makes them a convenient option.

The surge in demand for adaptogens has pushed formulators to scale and innovate their offerings. Some of the innovations in the market, according to Shah:

Adaptogenic beverages: 35% of adaptogens in the market are in the form of beverages like tea, coffee, and energy drinks. The sober curious movement is a factor here as well. “Many benefits of adaptogens, such as relaxation and stress relief, are similar to some uses of alcoholic beverages,” Shah suggests. “This is why many adaptogenic beverages in the market are positioned as alternatives to alcohol. These are supposed to be evening relaxation drinks or stress relievers, which I think is a great offering.”

Synergistic adaptogens: “The overall demand for adaptogens has increased, and it is set to soar higher in the coming decade,” Shah reports. “However, the market is quite dynamic, and I believe adaptogens are yet to establish themselves as a niche. Since adaptogens are relatively new, many brands want to experiment with them and combine them with other offerings they have. This has given birth to synergistic adaptogens—adaptogens that can be combined with other ingredients to provide more benefits with a single product. The synergistic nature of some adaptogens gives formulators a chance to combine them with additional benefits such as immunity, digestion, or sleep.”

Adaptogens in skincare: “Some trials demonstrate the effect of adaptogens in skincare. Particularly, adaptogens such as ashwagandha, schisandra, and shilajit have shown to reduce inflammation, cellular damage, formation of sunburn cells, and increase collagen production.”

What exactly are adaptogens?

“The term ‘adaptogen’ has been overused and is often misunderstood,” laments Wilson Lau, President, Nuherbs. “It is not a concept that comes from traditional herbal medicine.”

Lambert agrees. “We’re seeing the term ‘adaptogens’ applied too broadly as the category has become more in demand, with the word overused and often misunderstood. It does not come from one of the ancient herbal healing modalities, but is a relatively modern term.”

Tracing back the history, Bill Chioffi, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, Nammex, says the term “adaptogen” was introduced by toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev in 1957; Lazarev found inspiration in the work of Hans Selye’s 1950 description of a theory on human reaction to stress called the General Adaptation Syndrome. Lau adds that the designation of “adaptogen” in reference to botanicals was developed in 1969 by Dr. Israel I. Brekhman, building on the idea Dr. Lazerev used when studying chemical substances to combat stress. By definition, adaptogens:

  1. are non-toxic in normal therapeutic doses.
  2. help the body cope with stress. (Produces a non-specific response in the body, an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, and biological agents.)
  3. have a balancing effect on body systems that have been altered by chronic stress. (An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.)

Though this definition has been set, confusion remains. “The current challenge for adaptogens is their vague definition,” says Brian Keenan ND, LAc, Education Manager, Ayush Herbs. “While initially adaptogens were related specifically to alleviating the stress response, they are now much more broadly considered to help the body in any situation that requires adaptation. The result is that you see herbs like valerian, a well known sleep-support herb, being called a ‘sleep adaptogen’ when really that’s a misuse of the term. Adaptogens should primarily be focused around two key factors: modulating the body’s stress response, and improving multiple systems simultaneously. I believe going forward we will likely see a continuation of this linguistic trend of more loosely using the word adaptogen.”

9 herbs have enough research be confirmed as adaptogens:

  • Ashwagandha
  • American Ginseng
  • Asian Ginseng
  • Cordyceps
  • Eleuthero
  • Rhaponticum
  • Rhodiola
  • Schisandra
  • Shilajit

Probable adaptogens have less conclusive research:

  • Holy Basil
  • Shatavari
  • Rou Cong Rong/Cistanche
  • Suo Yang/ Cynomorium
  • Morinda/Ba Ji Tian

“Another handful of herbs are possible adaptogens and may or may not turn out to be adaptogens when more research is done,” Lambert adds. This list includes the Chinese herb Dang Shen (Codonopsis), Manchurian Aralia, Prince Seng/Pseudostellaria, Reishi, Maca, Jiaogulan, Horny Goat Weed, and Guduchi.

“Other herbs,” Lambert continues, “are often mistakenly labeled as adaptogens but are actually restorative tonics. These include Amla, Goji Berry, Astragalus, and Processed Rehmannia. This last group of herbs simply do not meet the definition of an adaptogen.”

Bruno agrees that the inappropriate use of the term adaptogen is a concern. “I suspect that some herbs are being categorized as adaptogens simply because adaptogen is such a hot buzz word in the industry, and also due to a misunderstanding about the actual function of adaptogen. Some people think that an herb with many functions is an adaptogen, but that is not always the case.”

Lambert emphasizes the need to get this straight. “It’s important that the industry not confuse consumers by inaccurately using the term adaptogens. We all know that informed consumers are our best customers, so marketing and selling herbal products accurately labeled and correctly explained is essential. When marketing formulas designed to help the body find equilibrium in the face of stress, which probably contains adaptogens, probable and/or possible adaptogens, and restorative tonics, it’s not inaccurate to call it an adaptogenic formula, just don’t call all of the herbs it contains adaptogens.” More information can be found in the book Adaptogens Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief by H&A founder David Winston RH(AHG).

The need for education

Given that “adaptogen” is applied to plants that don’t fit the definition, Chioffi stresses: “Accurate, objective, science-based education is always a prudent approach to educating the public on the safe and effective use of natural products.”

Shah agrees. “According to Spoonshot, consumer interest in adaptogens grew by 55% in 2020. However, the challenge we face here is with the science. We know, in principle, what adaptogens do and how they work, but are consumers aware of the scientific literature available on the category? Brands must educate consumers on the required science to back their claims. This, coupled with creative marketing communication both online and offline, is the way forward for brands.”

At Rowdy Mermaid, Dunn says, the company has been offering Ayurveda-inspired adaptogenic recipes since 2013, and has spent a considerable amount of time educating consumers. “In 2022, adaptogens are widely accepted even if the general knowledge of what they are and how they work in the body is still not widely understood. More research is needed to fully understand the potential benefits of using adaptogens, but we try to provide current scientific studies and white papers on our website and in our marketing materials to keep consumers informed and educated on their powerful medicinal qualities.”

Also essential, Lau says, is to be sure what you are selling is actually an adaptogen and that there is an adequate dosage per serving in the product. “Noted herbalist David Winston RH(AHG) put it best on my podcast, Herbal Explorations, when he said that there are adaptogens which have similar benefits, but the skill is in choosing the right adaptogen to use because herbs have multiple activities. For example, both red and white Chinese ginseng are adaptogens, but their herbal properties are different, so depending on what effect you are seeking in addition to the adaptogenic benefit, you would choose accordingly.”

For further educational reading, Chioffi recommends Adaptogens: A Review of their History, Biological Activity, and Clinical Benefits, and Clinical Benefits by Alexander Panossian and Hildebert Wagner in HerbalGram issue #90, as well as Evolution of the adaptogenic concept from traditional use to medical systems: Pharmacology of stress‐ and aging‐related diseases by Alexander G. Panossian et al.

Emerging science & trends on adaptogens

“The biggest challenge for adaptogens is the science,” says Dr. Lelah. “There is a lot of science on ashwagandha, but then far less scientific support for the other adaptogens—there is a significant fall-off after ashwagandha.”

Of interest on the topic of ashwagandha, Bruno says, is recent study showing that ashwagandha is a safer option to hydroxychloroquine in the prevention of COVID-19. Study subjects received 500 mg of the ashwagandha extract twice daily.

Considered the “King of Adaptogens,” ashwagandha generates consumer interest due to its clinically substantiated benefits for stress, sleep, and vitality, adds Dr. Lelah. “Poor sleep quality is often closely correlated with stress and has become an increasing concern for many people; Non-Restorative Sleep (NRS) can lead to physical and cognitive fatigue, causing disruption beyond sleeping hours. A groundbreaking 2020 study demonstrated that ashwagandha (Shoden brand) led to statistically significant improvements in quantity and quality of sleep and improved quality of life parameters, leading to more energy, better mood and increased mental alertness.”

Dr. Kalyanam Nagabhushanam, President (R&D), Sabinsa Corporation, notes, “Considering the plurality of impact of stress, the customer faces the challenge of finding the correct choice of adaptogen. Sabinsa offers a judicious choice of herbal ingredients to suit the context.” Dr. Kalyanam says Shagandha, a root-only extract of ashwagandha Withania somnifera as per USP guidelines, is most suitable as a general all-purpose adaptogen. Sabinsa also offers the whole plant extract of ashwagandha. In addition, Sabinsa offers ingredients that complement known adaptogens in formulations. “For example, stress affects logical decision-making processes, impairing memory. Sabinsa’s Tinofolin, an extract of Tinospora cordifolia, demonstrated beneficial effects on logical memory in a clinical trial. The range of emotions that stress evokes in individuals are known to affect metabolic functions governing sugar and lipid levels. The remarkable Amla super fruit-derived excellent anti-oxidative Saberry recently showed comparable or even better effects than metformin in normalizing sugar and lipid levels as affirmed in a recent published comparative clinical trial. Sabinsa’s Shatavari extract based on the probable-adaptogen plant Asparagus racemosus is more suited to women in addressing stress related issues impacting on hormonal imbalance.”

Dr. Lelah also points to the trend in combining ingredients with apoptogenic qualities. “One such combination seeing a lot of interest is ashwagandha (Shoden) plus L-Theanine (Suntheanine). These ingredients work synergistically, crossing the blood-brain barrier and modulating GABA receptors to deliver nootropic benefits to reduce stress and feelings of anxiety—which are leading health concerns for today’s consumer.”

At Herbalist & Alchemist, thoughtful blends attract customers. Lambert points to some of the company’s most popular products: Energy Adapt combines gently stimulating adaptogens (Red Ginseng, Rhodiola, Holy Basil), with nootropics (Gotu Kola, Rosemary), nutritive tonics (Maca), and mood-lifting herbs (Mimosa bark, Rosemary, Holy Basil). Calm Adapt is made with Hydroalcoholic extracts of Ashwagandha root, Linden flower and leaf (Tilia sp.), Oat milky seed, Reishi mushroom and mycelium, and Schisandra berry, formulated for people who have difficulty relaxing. Daily Adapt is designed to enhance HPA Axis and SAS (sympatho-adrenal system) function, which influence and help regulate the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems, Lambert says. It is energizing without being overstimulating. And Immune Adapt is a Fu Zheng formula that strengthens the Chinese kidney, spleen and lung and thus tonifies the Qi, Blood and Jing, Lambert notes. It includes powdered extracts of Astragalus root, Eleuthero root, Reishi mushroom , Schisandra berry, Chinese Licorice root, Ligustrum berry, and Maitake mushroom in a vegetable-based capsule.

Another trend, says Dr. Lelah, is that brands and consumers are interested in lower doses and higher bioavailability adaptogens. “Developments in ashwagandha extraction technology now allow for higher concentrations of key with withanolide glycosides with concentrations up to 35% now commercially available. This high concentration in combination with new science supporting high bioavailability is allowing consumers to benefit from lower, more cost-effective dosing that is highly efficacious.”

Shah brings up the convenience factor as well. “Consider the example of ashwagandha. Bioactives from ashwagandha are believed to have a short half-life, as demonstrated by their consumption being recommended multiple times a day. Therefore, their benefits wear off quickly, and multiple daily doses always translate to lower consumer compliance. Brands can navigate this challenge by working with ingredients that address the issue. For example, Nutriventia’s formulation of ashwagandha—Prolanza—addresses this issue by providing long-acting, sustained-release of ashwagandha root bioactives that provide all-day stress management support with a single daily dose of 300 mg.”

Brown adds that consumers looking for natural stress solutions have more choice than ever. “They’re also more likely to do their homework and seek out products based on ingredients with scientifically substantiated benefits. Kerry’s research shows that over half (51%) of millennials and 45% of seniors do their own research into products and their ingredients. That’s one of the reasons for the popularity of ashwagandha – it’s one of the best-studied adaptogens, and has been shown to positively influence stress responses. Kerry’s Sensoril Ashwagandha has been studied in human clinical trials, and can help manage stress, regulate mood, and support healthy sleep , among other benefits.”

The other big reason to use ashwagandha is name recognition, Brown says, pointing to more findings from Innova: “Six in 10 consumers – across all age groups – have heard of it, making it one of the best-known ingredients for cognitive support.”

When recommending and educating on adaptogens, it’s also important to note that some are more stimulating than others. “For instance,” says Dr. Keenan, “Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng) is very stimulating and energy boosting whereas ashwagandha is far less of that direct stimulant energy. So we also see a split in the market about adaptogenic supplements that essentially get used as stimulants and coffee substitutes versus formulations that promote true balance and help the body restore itself so it can healthily continue on. As a naturopathic doctor, I have cautioned some clients against using stimulating adaptogens to push themselves beyond their limits for prolonged periods of time, which can sometimes happen. Eleuthro, or Siberian Ginseng, is often seen used in this manner.”

Science continues to reveal more about adaptogens. Chioffi points recent studies concluding that the individual molecules from adaptogens have great potential, though more human clinical trials are needed in order to fully understand their mechanism of action and determine their role in conjunction with the whole plant extracts. “Perhaps some of the most interesting work being done on adaptogens from our experience at Nammex is with veterinary research and research related to the gut microbiota.”

There must be more emphasis on the need for clinical studies and ongoing consumer education as the category evolves, stresses Dr. Lelah. “Educating the brands and ultimately the consumer on the science and benefits of these adaptogens falls on the ingredient developers and suppliers. There must be ongoing dialogue between ingredient developers and the brands they work with to understand and react to the evolving needs of the market both from a science and consumer needs standpoint. As this category continues to evolve, it is anticipated that there will be an increasing interest in new types of adaptogens with scientifically substantiated benefits. And while ashwagandha is probably the most well-known adaptogen on the market, there are other adaptogens seeing a lot of growth and increased consumer awareness.” One area to keep an eye on: the mushroom family. Says Dr. Lelah: “More studies are needed, but preliminary findings—plus fungi’s long history as a natural healer—are promising.”

What’s next for the adaptogens space?

“I see growth,” Bruno asserts. “The trends I previously cited reflect this, and given adaptogens’ stress-relieving effects—and the fact that most people are dealing with some level of stress and its negative impact on health—this category has no place to go but up. I also suspect that clever raw material companies will start offering delivery systems for adaptogens with great absorption.”

Chioffi notes similar. “Because stressors both exogenous and endogenous continue to increase their impact on human health and adaptogens address these in non-toxic and normalizing manners, we foresee more development with these natural products and their inclusion in a variety of delivery formats from beverages and foods to the more traditional dietary supplement deliveries. We also foresee the wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine and reverence for the power of Reishi mushroom being validated by its widespread, safe and effective use in foods, beverages, dietary supplements and cosmetic products.”

Also commenting on the CPG space, Dunn anticipates greater interest in mushrooms. Additionally, there has been a growing trend towards functional foods and beverages designed to provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition, and adaptogens will continue to be included in these. We could see a rise in the use of fermentation to unlock the bioavailability and improve the taste of functional ingredients. We also believe ashwagandha (currently used in our Blackberry Ashwagandha Sparkling Tonic with Adaptogens) is rapidly gaining popularity given published studies pointing to its stress-relieving properties, improving the quality of sleep, memory, cognition, and sexual health. Pop culture icons like Jennifer Lopez, Kourtney Kardashian, and numerous TikTok videos are raising the profile of ashwagandha and quickly moving into the mainstream!”

A caution of Lau: “The market for adaptogens is growing, but there are a couple of items that are used as adaptogens are under the stress of over harvesting versus the wild population, in particular Rhodiola. As AHPA has highlighted recently, Rhodiola has been added to the list of botanicals that CITES controls for international trade because they consider it in danger of over harvesting, and thus requiring proper permits to trade. This will greatly impact the supply chain. Only a small portion of this herb is cultivated and it requires multiple years to cultivate before it’s ready to harvest. I would be very mindful about this, and start thinking about the supply chain now. I know some herbalists are starting to reformulate products that contain Rhodiola to replace it with something that has similar activity but is not being over harvested. The CITES Plant Committee is also evaluating Boswellia to see if it meets the criteria for CITES listing.”

Quality is another area to watch. “Standardization of extracts by verifiable analytical methodology has direct bearing on reproducibility of the healthful effects of adaptogenic plants,” Dr. Kalyanam says. “There are some brands of medicinal herbs, especially the ever-popular ashwagandha, that purport to support several conditions of stress but their analytical characterizations are vague. Customers need products with predictable and reproducible outcomes of health benefits. Choosing a quality ingredient and delivering it is the right amount will give the consumer the benefits they desire and deserve. The quality of and the usability of the ingredient in different dosage forms will continue to drive market growth.”

Overall, the horizon for the adaptogens market is “vast, wide, and beautiful,” says Dr. Keenan. “Another important aspect of adaptogens is that they tend to be quite safe by nature of their ability to promote balance within the body’s systems. Moreover, the experience of mental stress and exhaustion continues to increase, making people turn towards novel ways to support themselves. Given how fast adaptogens provide their support and can be perceived by the user as providing support, many people are finally discovering how useful herbal products can be. By focusing on very balanced and nourishing adaptogenic formulas and avoiding adaptogenic formulas that promote extreme levels of energy in a burst, retailers and brands can be sure they are offering some of the best of what the herbal world has to offer in a society that needs botanicals now more than ever.”

With pandemics, wars, and increasingly busy lifestyles, says Shah, “I see demand for adaptogens soaring at an all-time high soon. Potential advancements in the science and technology platforms that brands in the space are currently working with are just two of the many changes I foresee for the category. I wouldn’t shy away from calling it the “‘Category of the Decade.’” WF

“Stress isn’t going away, but
adaptogens are uniquely suited to helping the body withstand its
effects and regain balance.” 

—Beth Lambert, Herbalist & Alchemist