Writing as much as I do for health and wellness publications while living in fitness-forward, health-motivated New York City, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by all of the things I should be doing to optimize my wellness and reduce my stress… which sometimes leads to me doing, welp, none of them.
Add that feeling of failure with a few years of an entrepreneurial girl boss mentality (wave work-life balance goodbye!), and my stress levels have reached an all-time high.
So when I started seeing the self-proclaimed wellness warriors on my Instagram feed stockpiling their smoothies and pantry with “natural” anti-stress and anti-anxiety herbal supplements, I was intrigued.
Officially known as adaptogens, these botanical-based substances are purported to help the body “adapt” to emotional, mental, and physical stressors. And they’re popping up not only as powders, but in lattes, baked goods, and candy-flavored pastes. Some popular ones you may have heard of include:
- maca root
- holy basil
Licensed naturopathic doctor and functional medicine practitioner Brooke Kalanick, PhD, ND, MS, likes to describe adaptogens as “one of the best tools we have for restoring communication between the body and the brain and reducing stress.”
In fact, some research backs up these claims, suggesting that adaptogens do have the potential to reduce stress, improve attention, increase endurance, and fight fatigue.
So could these newly mainstream supplements help me keep up with my constantly dinging inbox and ever-growing to-do list (a massive feat in the 21st century, TBH)?
I decided to commit to adaptogens for 30 days. But first, I did a little research and chatted with Kalanick and a few other experts to figure out which adaptogens to start with.
Getting expert advice and picking which adaptogens to take
For my monthlong experiment, I decided to check out three of the most popular supplement companies I’d been hearing a lot about:
Care/of uses an online quiz with questions about anything from your specific type of stress to your exercise habits, then recommending supplements tailored to address your needs.
I indicated specifically that I was interested in taking herbs (they also offer vitamins and minerals) and was recommended ashwagandha and rhodiola. Kalanick confirms these are both great options for stress-relief.
In fact, according to a study published in Pharmaceuticals, fighting stress is definitely rhodiola’s main benefit. The study researchers say it can actually improve quality life.
Another review published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that rhodiola can help alleviate mental clutter.
But is blending adaptogens a good idea?
“Traditionally in the Ayurvedic practices, it’s all about mixtures. The sum is greater than its part. It’s synergistic,” Joel Einhorn, founder of Hanah Life, tells me. His recommended blend combines a few adaptogenic herbs with honey, ghee, and sesame oil.
Herbalist Agatha Noveille, author of “The Complete Guide to Adaptogens,” agrees, adding, “The use for many adaptogens includes the overall tonic or blending benefits that come when we take adaptogens together, but there are often specific uses associated with each individual herb. So, whether you take one or many, you’ll probably feel it.”
So, mixing is OK — but this habit isn’t exactly cheap.
A monthly supply of my ashwagandha-rhodiola combo from Care/of is $16, while a month supply of the Hanah One blend is $55. (Their blend also features turmeric, ashwagandha, cinnamon, honey, etc.).
I certainly don’t need any more expensive wellness habits (CrossFit and collagen, I’m looking at you), but fine... Adaptogens are cheaper than stress-induced health issues like type 2 diabetes, risk of heart attack and stroke, and weakened immune response, after all.
I went ahead and ordered a 30-day supply of both, figuring between me and my equally health-savvy roommate, they’d get taken.
Here’s how the month went
Normally, I start my day with a massive iced coffee from Starbucks or a make-at-home Bulletproof-inspired concoction. But since I don’t know how the adaptogens will react with caffeine, I fill my water bottle to the brim and swallow my adaptogen cocktail instead.
It’s just like taking vitamins. There’s no taste, no smells, and no weird aftertaste. (Einhorn had mentioned that before our interview, instead of an espresso shot, he’d taken an adaptogen mixture).
I fire up my computer, take a peek at my ridiculously long to-do list, and begin working my way through my inbox, waiting for my stress to dissipate. That’s how it works, right?
“Adaptogens aren’t like some anti-anxiety medications. You won’t take them and immediately notice less stress,” Einhorn tells me later.
“Adaptogens take a while to build up and work on the body, so take them for at least two to three weeks before thinking too much about the effect,” he says.
He also suggests that instead of taking the cocktail on an empty stomach, take them either with breakfast, with Bulletproof coffee, or that I try his formula for ashwagandha, which is combined with different fats and proteins to help with absorption. He also reassures me there’s no reason I can’t have coffee when I take them.
The next few weeks, I take Einhorn’s advice, either taking my Care/of pills with breakfast and buttery coffee or going for Hanah One’s on-the-go packets.
Instead of waiting immediately for a response, the way I did the first few days, I sit tight. Good things take time, I remind myself.
The end of the experiment
One early afternoon, three weeks into my experiment, I was cranking away in my home office when I realized I did feel like those Insta-celebs on my feed: less stressed and not sleepy.
When I chatted with Christian Baker, Athletic Greens’ nutrition and lifestyle expert, he tells me, “People taking adaptogens might also feel energetic throughout most of the day, especially periods in which they used to feel fatigued or focus intensely on a singular task for a long period of time.”
While I don’t feel as stress-free as I might be sipping kombucha on a beach somewhere exotic, my new almost calm is a total success.
In all honesty, I didn’t find that adaptogens gave me the same stress-busting intensity I get from exercising (one of the primary reasons I exercise). But if my stress levels were a consistent 8 or 9 out of 10 in the months leading up to my experiment, I was now definitely oscillating around a 5.
After a few days of enjoying my slightly reduced stress levels, I decide to take Einhorn’s advice: quit the adaptogens for a few days to see if they actually worked.
“My challenge for you is this,” he had said. “Listen to how your body feels on those days without them.”
At first, I felt no different with just one day without them, but after four herb-free days, my stress-o-meter was starting to tick. Whoa, these things really made a difference!
Like any good health fiend, I was worried they’re effectiveness meant they might be addictive. While they’re considered “a nontoxic substance” and variations of “safe” are literally written into the definition for adaptogen, I needed scientific proof.
According to Baker, you can have too much of a good thing. It’s also worth mentioning that a 2018 review published in the journal British Pharmacological Society noted that a number of common herbal supplements (including adaptogens) may interact with prescription medication and make them less effective.
Overall though, I do feel less stressed.
But I have to admit to myself: If I’m using the adaptogens to fight stress without addressing the root causes of my stress (too much work, not enough rest), I might be doing myself a disservice.
But I’ve got a busy and likely stressful month ahead, so I’m going to continue taking them. After that, I’ll reevaluate how they best fit into my life and bank account.
What are the basics someone should know before taking adaptogens?
Herbs have a role for many in self-care, and some of these listed have good research to support their use in some situations. However, the research on some of these adaptogens needs to be stronger before I can support their general use. For some herbs, there may be risks that we don’t yet understand. Adaptogens might be one way to combat the effects of stress, but they shouldn’t be your first or only approach. To really tackle and prevent stress, learn to deal with it in a productive manner.
From a medical perspective, here are three basic guidelines to healthy de-stressing:
- Change what’s stressing you out and let go of what isn’t worth your time or energy.
- Try changing how you feel about what’s stressing you out.
- Change your physical response to stress.
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Gabrielle Kassel is a rugby-playing, mud-running, protein-smoothie-blending, meal-prepping, CrossFitting, New York-based wellness writer. She’s become a morning person, tried the Whole30 challenge, and eaten, drank, brushed with, scrubbed with, and bathed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.