The hottest buzzword in the health and wellness world for 2020 is “adaptogens.” But what exactly are they? Can they really help? And, if you want to try consuming them, which are the best, and what's the easiest way to eat them? Here are the answers:
What Are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are real foods -- including plants, herbs, roots, and spices -- that scientific studies suggest can help us calm down by hacking into our stress systems (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathoadrenal system) and de-activating their negative impacts gently and naturally. Adaptogens have been used for centuries in ancient Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese medicine, but they’re having a major renaissance in 2020 America because so many people now suffer from a kind of ‘permanent stress’ caused by the 24-hour work cycles of modern techno-centric life. “Adaptogens help your body handle stress,” says Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.
The way they do this is straightforward. When we face something stressful, we go through what’s known as General Adaptation Syndrome. This is a 3-part response that includes: 1. Alarm; 2. Resistance; and 3. Exhaustion. In the ancient world, when stressors were typically episodic (and not chronic) – like a lion chasing us – this worked well. But, in the modern world, stress is constant and so we are often left languishing in the third part of the response -- exhaustion – because the stressor never passes (ie; the ‘lion’ doesn’t go away) and so we are never able to ‘reset.’ Adaptogens enable our systems to stay in the resistance phase during waking periods and times that we need to focus, and this alleviates (or eliminates) the sense of daytime exhaustion that often goes hand-in-hand with long term stress.
Do Adaptogens Really Help Us Relax?
Science is divided on this answer. Believers argue that adaptogens show evidence of doing for human adrenal glands what exercise does for muscles. By gentling activating the adrenals, they train the human body to handle the effects of stress without becoming exhausted. They let us ‘resist’ instead of collapse into chronic tiredness. Other health experts don’t think the evidence is strong enough to prove their efficacy. (Controlled studies proving they work are scarce though anecdotal/non-controlled study evidence is widespread). But the good news for adaptogens is that because they are natural plant-based foods, nearly everyone agrees that they have no negative side effects and are completely healthy to consume. Better still, they often come along with other unanimously-agreed-upon benefits, like high levels of antioxidants.
What are the Top Five Adaptogens to try consuming for stress relief?
Every adaptogen is known for its own special and unique properties, but all are known to help relieve stress, improve cognitive focus and reduce anxiety. Because adaptogens are known to be powerful in small doses, they can be easily consumed throughout the day. In 2020, the most popular ways to absorb their stress-relieving properties are likely to be in protein bars, energy balls and boosting bites.
Here’s a list of the Top 5 Best Adaptogens to try in 2020:
Ashwagandha is a sprawling plant in the nightshade family, with green flowers that are small and bell-shaped, with orange-red fruit in their centers. It is cultivated primarily in India and has been used widely in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries due to its reputed calming influence (in fact, the Ashwagandha species name is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘sleepy,’ which is thought to have been so-named due to its relaxing effect). Ashwagandha is particularly well-known for reducing the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Not only does this make us calmer, but it’s also known to help with weight reduction because the overproduction of cortisol is a leading contributor to weight gain in middle age.
Because of its mild taste and powerful benefits, we are likely to see ashwagandha show up in all sorts of snack products in 2020, including balls, bites and protein bars.
- Lions’ Mane and Reishi Mushrooms
These two types of mushrooms are amongst the most popular and well-known adaptogens today. Historical knowledge of the health benefits of mushrooms dates back as far as 2,000 years in some Asian traditions. Indeed, Shen Nong, the “father” of Traditional Chinese Medicine, rated Reishi mushrooms specifically as the most effective medicinal plant on the planet due to the wide range of benefits he believed the mushrooms offered, including promoting vitality into old age. Both Lions’ Mane and Reishi are now often seen as ‘natural’ alternatives to ADHD style uppers in enhancing focus and cognition while reducing stress and distraction.
Mushroom protein powders are also a top trend for 2020 due to being a nutrient-dense plant protein source, and so we are likely to see adaptogenic mushrooms appear in the hottest flexitarian-focused protein bars that hit the market in 2020.
- Maca Root
Maca root is a Peruvian plant found originally in the Andes mountains that also goes by the charming nickname, “Peruvian Ginseng.” Maca is particularly well known for its purported benefit on vitality – including helping to improve energy levels without increasing stress and also improving fertility (which, in ancient times, went alongside ‘vitality’). Maca root proponents argue that its energizing benefits are particularly helpful in combating the type of stress that many modern Americans suffer from, which is chronic, by enhancing overall energy and combating the fatigue and lack of motivation known to come along with chronically elevated adrenal responses.
As a result of the above, Maca root promises to be one of the biggest 'hero' ingredient trends in the protein bar aisle in 2020.
- Holy Basil
This isn’t the basil you’ll find atop your favorite pizza. Instead, it grows mostly in tropical parts of India and has been used in ancient medicine for centuries to reduce adrenal fatigue and anxiety. It is also a great source of many vitamins – including A, C, Calcium, Zinc, and Iron. According to the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, holy basil possesses anti-anxiety properties that are both measurable and potentially comparable in some cases to western anti-depressants.
In 2020, look for holy basil in everything from teas and energy drinks to protein bars and bite-sized nutrition balls.
Turmeric is a flowering plant that is part of the ginger family. The part of turmeric that we eat is the roots, which are either consumed fresh or boiled and then dried. If dried, they are then able to be ground into the famous deep orange-yellow powder that we are accustomed to seeing in cooking. Turmeric has been used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and Siddha medicine for thousands of years. In those traditions, turmeric is prescribed for both reducing inflammation and relaxing the adrenal response.
Turmeric is starting to gain a reputation for being an all-around 'superfood' because of this, and so it is wise to expect all the hottest health food companies to incorporate it into food products in 2020. This will likely be especially true in protein bars, hot teas and other portable snacks (like chips) because they all will provide an easy way to consume turmeric (which has traditionally been only inside 'sit-down meals,' like curries) on-the-go in a modern way.