Building Resilience with Adaptogens

Described as “an inoculation against mental and physical stressors,” experts discuss how adaptogens can help us handle what’s to come in 2021.

As the stress of 2020 bleeds in 2021, we could all use a helping hand to deal with anxiety. Increasingly, consumers are discovering that adaptogens can lend that helping hand. “These herbs are a safe, economical addition to a healthy lifestyle and contribute to overall well-being, making them a particularly welcome addition given the stresses we’ve collectively faced in 2020,” says Miguel Gil, CEO, Organic India, noting that consumers are looking for an assist in areas where adaptogens can be beneficial, such as sleep, digestion, mood, cognitive function, and immune support. “A global pandemic sent the world scurrying to find tools to adapt to unprecedented change in the form of lockdowns and immune system threats—the uncertainty of these times has brought stress upon stress, both chronic and acute, many times in the form of illness. To adapt to these challenges, stress management in modern times is a necessity, but in 2020 it’s become even more critical, and ‘resilience’ is a new wellness target.”

Taking an adaptogen, says David Winston RH(AHG), Founder and President, Herbalist & Alchemist, “is a little like getting a vaccine in that adaptogens prime the body to respond more effectively and appropriately to acute or chronic stress.” Noting similar, Cheryl Myers, Chief of Scientific Affairs and Education at EuroPharma, Inc., says, “It’s not that adaptogens ‘reduce’ stress so much as they help us have healthier physiological responses to stressful situations and the way they manifest themselves in the mind and body. In other words, they inoculate the body and mind to mental and physical stressors, helping us become more resilient and strong in the face of challenges.”

The reason adaptogens can have such a profound effect on overall health, Winston says, is that they re-regulate the HPA axis (the interface between our endocrine, nervous system, immune system, reproductive systems, GI tract, and cardiovascular system) and/or SAS (sympatho-adrenal system; deals with acute stress and our “fight or flight mechanism”). Adaptogens also up-regulate stress modulating molecular chaperones, he adds, and inhibit stress-induced cortisol production. But, Winston stresses, “Adaptogens are not panaceas and are not a substitute for adequate good quality sleep, a nutritious diet, regular exercise and healthy lifestyle choices.” And as always, consumers should consult with a healthcare provider.

That said, taking the right adaptogen can deliver benefits. The positive effects, according to Om Mushroom Superfood’s Co-founders Steve Farrar, Mycologist, and Sandra Carter, Ph.D., generally include the following interrelated health benefits:

• Minimization of fatigue coupled with improved focus and endurance in the face of fatigue
• Support for detoxification processes
• Support for a balanced mood and outlook on life
• Support for managing a healthy weight
• “Anti-aging” properties
• Immune support

Emphasising the last point, Shaheen Majeed, President Worldwide, Sabinsa, notes, “Adaptogens can improve the overall health of the individual by supporting the body in balancing itself, including immune function, in the face of stress…Adaptogens are in demand precisely because they give the body psychological as well as physiological strength. Stress is uncomfortable, and also undermines immune function, so more consumers are turning to adaptogens to cope and stay healthy.”

That’s the beauty of this category, says Annie Eng, CEO, HP Ingredients (HPI). “Strong immunity, vitality, and overall wellbeing has shot into the spotlight. Early signs are showing that those individuals who do adopt adaptogens and other healthy lifestyle supplements and habits are enjoying the feeling, and will continue this natural approach after the threat of the pandemic is over.” HPI offers LJ100, which has been shown to reduce cortisol, says Eng. “The results of this, studies show, are improvements in immune health, body composition (along with diet and exercise), mood, endurance, virility and libido.”

Category Growth at a Glance

2020 was projected to have steady growth for the supplement industry overall, notes Bluebonnet’s Sugarek MacDonald, citing Nutrition Business Journal’s Supplement Business Report, “but it was unprecedented that this category of goods would have the highest growth year since 1997, with a 12.1% increase. The global pandemic has raised wellness awareness and the importance of good nutrition and dietary supplements beyond our imagination. Historically—such as during the 2008/2009 recession—supplements have been a bright spot in economic downturn times, with growth increasing to its highest levels. With lost jobs comes a loss of health insurance, and consumers looked to optimize their health via nutrition to avoid going to their health practitioner. Layer in a global health pandemic, it is the perfect storm for the supplement category growth.”

Defining Adaptogens
As adaptogens become trendier, there can be a muddying of the lines in terms of what qualifies as an adaptogen, which can lead to consumer confusion. The by-the-book definition:“Traditionally referred to as tonics or rejuvenators, adaptogens have been used extensively in ancient healing practices,” shares Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, BS, MS, Sr. Director of Research & Development, Bluebonnet Nutrition Corporation. The term was first coined in 1947 to describe a plant that helps one adapt to stressful circumstances.

In the 1960s, the definition was refined. In order to formally qualify as an adaptogen, a natural substance must:

  1. Be safe, nontoxic, and non-habit forming;
  2. Have a non-specific effect on the body: they must help a variety of bodily systems and help the body defend against a variety of stressors including physical, chemical, and biological factors;
  3. Help normalize system functions and maintain a state of homeostasis, or overall balance

And today? “As with many new trendy terms, indeed, definitions blur,” says Eng. To help consumers navigate, she encourages retailers to focus on the root word of adaptogen: “adapt.” “Here, being clear as to what it is—and what it is not—is important. An adaptogen is a substance, primarily a botanical, that helps promote and maintain homeostasis.” That, she adds, is another word that retailers can also emphasize to help consumers understand the category.

“It is imperative that retailers educate themselves as to what is and is not adaptogen,” maintains Winston. “The term is widely used and misused in the literature, by some herb/supplement companies, and online. As I discuss in my book, Adaptogens Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief [2nd edition Healing Arts Press 2019], there are only eight to nine herbs that are well researched adaptogens. This includes Asian and American Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Schisandra, Eleuthero, Rhodiola, Cordyceps, and Rhaponticum. Many people continue to use the original definition of an adaptogen created in 1969 by Dr I. Brekhman. In the 52 years since, a great deal of research has elucidated their mechanisms of action and what they actually do, so we now have a much better sense of which herbs clearly fit the term adaptogen.”

Another five or six herbs, Winston says, are “probable adaptogens.” The research is less robust for these herbs, he notes, but it points to them being adaptogenic. His list of probable adaptogens includes Shatavari, Holy Basil, Cynomorium, and Cistanche. And then there are “possible adaptogens.” That list is significantly larger, he says, but more evidence is needed.

Gil acknowledges that “there is plenty of room for confusion here as the market latches onto an emerging trend, labeling almost anything as an ‘adaptogen,’ but it is a clear category. He recommends Winston’s book, calling it “the adaptogen bible.”

The biggest misconception about adaptogens? That all of them cause similar effects in the body, says Lily Holmberg, Gaia Herbs Education Manager. “In fact, adaptogenic herbs can work in either direction: upregulating or down-regulating metabolic processes as needed on a person-by-person basis. Some adaptogens (such as Asian Ginseng, Rhodiola, and Eleuthero)stimulate the body, enhancing mental performance, and physical stamina.” Others—she names Reishi, Ashwagandha,
Astragalus, and Holy Basil—can help calm the body and soothe the adrenals for a relaxing effect.

“Adaptogens are not a one-size-fits-all group of herbs,” Winston says. In addition to stimulating and calming adaptogens, he says there are warming or cooling adaptogens, moistening or drying adaptogens, and nourishing adaptogens, or combination of adaptogens, as well as companion herbs (nervines, nootropics, restorative tonics) often used with adaptogens.

Retailers, says Holmberg, “can provide signage and/or other in-store materials identifying adaptogenic herbs and even go so far as to classify these specific herbs as ‘stimulating’ or ‘calming’ agents in order to help consumers from inadvertently purchasing the incorrect type of adaptogenic herb to support their specific health concerns.”

For Myers, focusing on the benefits is the key. “Rather than ponder which herbs belong in what category, I focus more on proven effects on stress, fatigue, physical recovery, and other aspects relating to energy, focus, and reducing feelings of burnout. That said, there are herbs that can be considered adaptogens that some people might not have viewed through that lens in the past. For example, andrographis is often thought of as an immune boosting or liver-healing herb—and it is—but it also has enough adaptogenic characteristics for energy and stress that it is also considered an adaptogen. So I think that retailers can define adaptogens briefly on the display itself, and to have a well-stocked portfolio of product literature and articles—we at Terry Naturally are always happy to help—can reassure customers who have heard about the benefits of adaptogens.”

Focusing on Science & Standards
While experts continue to offer differing viewpoints, one thing is essential: Stock high-quality brands using study-proven ingredients. “Along with fully meeting the standards of this ingredient category, it is equally important to have the necessary research to support an ingredient’s functionality as an adaptogen,” says Stacey Daigle, Director of Inside Sales and Marketing, NutriScience Innovations, LLC. “Consumers rely upon the brands and retailers that they purchase from to vet the ingredients they offer, and increasingly seek ingredients backed by actual science. It is important that brands and retailers choose adaptogens backed by science that will provide effective results for consumers; this not only preserves the reputation of their brand(s) but also consumer trust in the adaptogen category. Retailers should provide education to consumers on this growing category, enabling them to make a well informed decision to choose an effective product to meet their needs.”

Adam M. Goodman, VP Sales, Korea Ginseng Corporation (KGC), as well as President of the NPA East Board of Directors, agrees. “As with anything, what’s really important is for retailers to first be educated. They are the gatekeeper to the consumers. It’s important to vet the information you are receiving and not just take it on face value. Then retailers can convey that vetted information to the consumer. If you don’t have the first, then you won’t have the second. This is also important for distribution partners. They help educate the retailers. We make sure our distribution partners understand the information, and that there is science and data that can be filtered down the supply chain to the consumer. Ask questions. Do your own research.”

Gil adds, “As retailers move toward cleaner shelves and a leaner floor staff, collaborating with trustworthy brands to help educate consumers will play a key role in providing the consumer with reliable information. One way Organic India is working to contribute to this challenge is through the use of QR codes on packaging and merchandising displays, so that anyone with a smartphone can immediately access information, and have questions answered on the spot in retail aisles.”

For this category to flourish, says Bruce Brown, MPH, MA, President, Natreon, there are two main areas of focus: 1) honor the history and knowledge of traditional use that has been safe and successful for thousands of years and 2) ensure the adaptogens are clinically studied using today’s standards and utilize the science based on a truly holistic approach to improving human health. “Natreon’s commitment to traditional use and rigorous scientific studies provide the building blocks that support the growing adaptogen market.”

Supply Chain Update
2020 was a year of supply chain disruptions, marred by adulteration concerns. How has that impacted the adaptogens category? “The overall supply chain for adaptogens has increased substantially in 2020, especially for the most popular herbs, including Ashwagandha, Astragalus, and the adaptogenic mushrooms Cordyceps and Reishi,” says Chase Millhollen, Gaia Herbs’ Global Sourcing Manager. At Gaia Herbs, Millhollen continues, the adaptogenic herbs supply chain is stable, even with the sudden and ongoing increase in demand for these ingredients since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

A few lessons that Gaia would share with the industry:

  • Don’t compromise on quality. “Be willing to go out of stock on items when you cannot find herbal ingredients that meet your quality standards versus relaxing standards.”
  • Build long-term relationships with key suppliers. “This will give your company priority status for ingredients when there is a sudden increase in demand, which will
    allow you to keep your products on the shelf.”
  • Trust but verify. “Even though Gaia Herbs has established long-term relationships with our suppliers, we still screen and test every botanical ingredient used in our products, every time.” Results are then shared with consumers on meetyourherbs.com, a traceability platform. “These types of stringent protocols allow companies to avoid any adulterated ingredients and ensure that their customers are still receiving the highest quality herbal products.”
  • Take care of your customers. “In some cases, Gaia Herbs has had to pay premiums in order to get ingredients on time and when needed to keep our products on the shelf. We have not passed these higher ingredient costs onto our customers. We have absorbed the cost difference in ingredients as it was more important to keep these products in the hands of our customers at a time when they are critically needed.”

Regarding adulteration, Millhollen notes that the “unusually high demand for herbs has led to adulteration and/or decrease in the quality of herbs and reduction of standards—corners being cut, wrong species being sold, crops harvested early with poor medicinal quality.”

Adulteration is unfortunately somewhat common, laments Winston. “Retailers need to know their brands, and their depth of knowledge such as if they are knowledgeable about documented therapeutic uses for a specific species.” Important to know, per Winston:

  • “Sustainability and quality are linked, so find out where companies are sourcing their herbs, and what practices are followed.”
  • “Ask details about how they test their herbs for identity and purity. As they say in the computer world ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ so it is imperative that the intended herb be used in all products, as well as the correct dose and extraction techniques.”

“We have just been through an extraordinary year with record demand for herbal products,” Winston continues. “Our long-time suppliers worked with us to keep us stocked with high-quality herbs. The demand, when at its highest last spring and early summer, put great pressure on growers and wildcrafters. But demand has eased off from the peaks, fortunately. For the next year the main area of supply chain concern will be projecting volume for growers and keeping buying commitments. The growth cycle for botanicals can be a few months (flowers) up to many years (roots, barks). Spikes in growth can lead to very difficult planting decisions for farmers who need to make a good right livelihood but don’t want to get stuck with unsold crops if the market does not hold out. Clear, honest conversations with suppliers will keep the supply chain responsive to changes.”

Majeed also stresses this point: “In addition to their customary product vetting, retailers should be asking the brands they stock if they have had supply chain issues, and what extra testing they have done on ingredients if they bought from new suppliers.” To counteract the fluctuations in the supply chain, he says, “Sabinsa has a strong, direct connection with the primary suppliers of raw materials for most of our ingredients, and we have partners in the transportation system to support the timely supply of our goods from farm to customer. We have a highly motivated quality assurance team that assures the high quality of the raw materials and the final products. So going into the pandemic we were in a strong position.”

There were plenty of challenges, of course. “One of the problems created by the pandemic has been bottle-necks along the supply chain,” Majeed says. “Transportation was impacted severely in the early months across the globe, resulting in slowed movement of raw materials, processed ingredients, finished products, and packaging, and higher shipping costs. This was happening when demand for herbs and supplements was at an all-time high. We had our warehouses throughout the world fully stocked, and were able to get an additional large shipment of Curcumin C3 Complex on one of the last flights out of India before the country shut down, so our customers were kept well supplied. Some manufacturers had to buy ingredients from suppliers they had not vetted, so that was concerning.”

In addition to verification that both the strength and identity of ingredients have been tested, NutriScience’s Daigle advises retailers to look for additional quality certifications. “Shoden Ashwagandha is Non-GMO Project Verified and all lots of Shoden are identity tested using High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), which verifies both identity and potency. There can be various intricacies in testing standardized ingredients from botanical sources; reputable ingredient suppliers will have detailed, researched methods of analysis that can produce consistent results to verify the identity and strength of their ingredient.” Daigle adds that NutriScience along with its manufacturing partner Arjuna Natural have taken the necessary steps to ensure that the supply chain is traceable from the farm to NutriScience’s warehouse and there is ample material available to meet growing demand.

Goodman’s message to everyone in the supply chain: “Know where your stuff is coming from. As with anything, even if it is not an adaptogen, you can have a good product or a bad product. As questions of manufacturers and get them to provide you with the necessary information.” In terms of KGC, he adds, “We haven’t had the supply chain issues that you typically associate with what’s going on in the marketplace. And we planned and forecasted, taking the market situation into account and introduced the products with success—but that success far outstripped our forecast, so we have had minor problems. These are good problems to have, and we’ve been able to fill the vast majority of our orders.”

Exploring the Adaptogens Market
From the proven to the probable, experts discuss the benefits of adaptogens and remedies that offer adaptogenic properties. A standout of 2020 (though it’s been used in Ayurvedic preparations since the Vedic era, dating back 3,000-4,000 years): Ashwagandha. “In Ayurveda,” Majeed says, “ashwagandha is classified as a Rasayana, meaning ‘rejuvenating tonic.’ Traditionally it was widely used by people of all ages for a range of imbalances. In Ayurveda, this herb has been used for mood support and to treat anxiety. It has anxiolytic activity, relieving stress and anxiety and is an immunomodulator, which can help in mood swings.”

Sugarek MacDonald points to science showing that ashwagandha root works on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. “It has been shown to restore receptor sensitivity to the effects of cortisol and adrenal hormones, thereby decreasing these hormones’ circulating levels and improving an individual’s resistance towards stress. Stress has been found to reduce the immune system’s ability to fight infections significantly, and clinical trials suggest that Ashwagandha root can help strengthen the immune system.”

Sabinsa offers Shagandha, derived from the roots of ashwagandha, standardized to contain 2.5% withanolides. “Because an herb is more subject to adulteration when in high demand, Sabinsa built in some protection for its customers,” Majeed shares. “Our Ashwagandha Root Extract 2.5% USP is assured to comply with the U.S. Pharmacopoeia-National Formulary (USP-NF) monograph, which was confirmed through testing by Botanical specialist Alkemist Labs.”

America’s Finest, Inc., has ashwagandha with BioPerine, a Sabinsa offering to enhance bioavailability.

Also on the ingredient side, Daigle reports that Shoden Ashwagandha has been clinically studied for anxiety, stress, sleep-related conditions, and immune health, and that it is known to improve cognitive focus, fatigue, and sports performance. A recent sleep study with Shoden showed a 42% increase in restorative sleep, with participants reporting improved mood scores (by 48%), rested and refreshed state scores (by 76%), and mental alertness scores (by 71%) based on analysis of individual questions. An earlier study on anxiety, Daigle adds, showed a significant reduction in cortisol levels (by 23%) and reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. “This broad range of benefits allows brands to develop effective formulas to meet the demands of today’s consumers looking to manage their health during these trying times.”

Natreon offers three potent adaptogens, says Brown: Sensoril Ashwagandha, PrimaVie Shilajit, and Capros Amla. “Natreon’s adaptogens are clinically studied, utilized in a truly holistic practice of Ayurveda, with a focus on understanding how each plant affects the full person.”

Gaia Herbs lists ashwagandha as one of its top-selling single adaptogenic herbs. And a top-selling blend, Holmberg adds, is Adrenal Health Daily Support formula, which contains ashwagandha, rhodiola, Holy Basil, and Schisandra.

Ashwagandha root also is a key ingredient in Herbalist & Alchemist’s Calm Adapt. The formula, with Hydroalcoholic extracts of Ashwagandha root, Linden flower and leaf, Oat milky seed, Reishi mushroom and mycelium, and Schisandra berry, “is appropriate for high-strung people who cannot seem to relax,” says Winston. “It helps provide a serene, calm mindset; reducing anxiety, agitation, irritability, nervousness and anger. At the same time it improves sleep quality and mental focus, and reduces inflammation, stress and headaches.”

Also offering a formula with ashwagandha, Europharma combines the herb with rhodiola in Adaptra. “As the name implies, this formula helps a person adapt to stressful conditions rather than feel drained by them,” Myers says. “I like Adaptra on the days that I have a full schedule because it helps keep me focused and increases my stamina without feeling wired or jumpy. Both of the herbs in Adaptra have been intensively clinically studied. Ashwagandha alone has shown remarkable stress and cortisol reducing capabilities, decreasing anxiety by 69%, reducing severe depression symptoms by 79%, and decreasing social dysfunction by 68%–and those are just some of its attributes!”

Another prized adaptogen, Korean Red Ginseng, is getting a new twist at KGC. “What we’ve done with the introduction of the KoreSelect sku is combine ginseng with other synergistic ingredients for formulas that are more tailored to the needs of the individual,” Goodman says. “For example, KoreSelect Immune combines ginseng with European black elderberry. With this line we take the base of ginseng and offer much more tailored products to the consumer.” The line also includes KoreSelect Energy, KoreSelect Stamina, KoreSelect Balance, and KoreSelect Wellness.

Also offering red ginseng, Europharma has HRG80 Red Ginseng Energy in capsule and chewable forms. “Red ginseng (Panax ginseng) is a familiar herb that has been known to traditional practitioners and their patients for thousands of years, and it is one of the world’s oldest and most powerful adaptogens for bolstering daily physical and mental energy, a healthy libido, and resilience in the face of stress,” says Myers.

Taking a closer look at rhodiola, Myers notes that research has shown “remarkable” results. “One clinical study focused on fatigue associated with night duty for young physicians showed an improvement for total mental performance. Other research, on college students, found that the rhodiola group saw improvements in mental fatigue, overall fitness and well-being, and even higher final exam grades.”

Herbalist & Alchemist offers rhodiola in several formulas, including Energy Adapt as well as Daily Adapt, which also contains Eleuthero, Schisandra, and American Ginseng, along with nervines or nootropics. “This formula is designed to enhance HPA Axis and SAS function, which influence and help regulate endocrine, nervous system and immune function,” says Winston, adding that the blend improves stamina, mental clarity, and work performance while helping to maintain vitality, immune function and physical performance.

From Ayurvedic traditions comes Indian Holy Basil (Tulsi). “Tulsi, in Ayurveda, is classified as ‘rasayana,’ which means ‘lengthening of lifespan,’” says Majeed. “A member of the mint family, it is a revitalizer and mood elevator. Studies have found that this herb is helpful in fighting anxiety, depression, stress, and it effectively regulates stress hormone levels.”

At Organic India, which offers herbal “Tulsi Teas” for stress relief, immune, and respiratory support, Tulsi Original is still a top 10 seller after more than a decade, but another product is gaining in popularity: “Tulsi Ashwagandha herbal tea is seeing incredibly fast growth,” says Gil, “in no small part due to the rising awareness of the benefits of Ashwagandha and the ease and ritual of getting one’s herbs through a familiar format such as a cup of tea.”

Select mushrooms classify as adaptogens or have adaptogenic properties as well. “In the mushroom world, Reishi, Shiitake, Cordyceps, Chaga, and Maitake are the species that generally get the most recognition for adaptogenic activity,” say Om’s Farrar and Carter. Reishi supports immunity and relaxation, as well as a long list of other benefits, they say. “Shiitake, Cordyceps, Chaga and Maitake also provide adaptogenic benefits via similar modes of action but each mushroom species does present unique benefits relating to the specific active ingredients produced by each species.”

Key Takeaway
“Since consumers only realize benefits from products made with quality ingredients delivered in therapeutic amounts,” Majeed says, “well-sourced and formulated products are more likely to result in repeat purchases.” WF