Think about the last time you felt stressed. Go ahead; we’ll wait. Chances are good you recalled an instance within the past 24 hours. Because, let’s be honest, nearly all of us feel at least a little bit frazzled, pretty darn regularly.

But people are sick of feeling this way. Years ago, being “crazy busy” or “totally spread thin” was a badge of honour. But now, people are desperately trying to regain their zen. Surveys show that workers are regularly choosing stress-defusing flexible work arrangements over higher salaries, meditation is slowly becoming mainstream and adaptogens are gaining traction among wellness devotees like Gwyneth Paltrow.

Never heard of adaptogens? You’re definitely not alone—but it’s not because it's a hot new product. Adaptogens have been used to treat people for thousands of years in China and India. However, the term wasn’t coined until 1947. It was then that pharmacologist N.V. Lazarev used the word to describe herbs and other natural products that when ingested, help increase the body’s resistance to psychological or physical stress, says Dr Andrew Weil. Studies show adaptogens work by reducing stress hormones such as cortisol, which go into overdrive not only when you have a last minute presentation at work, but also when you sustain an injury or become sick.

“Adaptogens, or tonics, are most commonly used for energy by people debilitated by illness or stress,” says Weil. There aren’t many human studies on adaptogens (funding for studies on Eastern medicine techniques tend to be scarce), but one clinical trial of people with anxiety found that the adaptogen ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, reduced people’s anxiety more effectively than psychotherapy.

Using adaptogens

A wide variety of adaptogens are available in many different forms, including capsules, powders, and liquids. Some of Weil’s preferred herbal tonics include ashwagandha, which can ease anxiety and fight insomnia (two things that make stress worse), according to a recent study in mice, and American ginseng, which may help ward off fatigue brought on by stress, according to an animal study.

Weil also frequently recommends adaptogenic mushroom tonics for their immune-enhancing and anti-inflammatory effects. Some of his favourites are reishi, cordyceps and maitake. “Each works differently, and results are usually better with a combination of mushrooms, as their effects are often synergistic,” he says.

Weil recommends you experiment to find which tonic and formulation work best for you. Look for standardised products and follow label instructions on dosing. Since adaptogens respond to each person's individual stressors, the effects may differ from person to person. And because the initial effects can be subtle, Weil recommends you use adaptogen daily for at least two months before assessing its overall value to your health.

Are there any risks?

Some adaptogens, such as astragalus, can increase bleeding and may be dangerous for people with blood disorders like anemia or deep venous thrombosis. The herb can also lower blood sugar could be risky for people taking diabetes medications. People with chronic conditions or who take medications should check with their doctor before taking adaptogens.

The bottom line

While animal studies have found that some adaptogens have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities that can protect against disease (something that puts the body under a great deal of stress), few studies have been done in humans. And the adaptogens that have been studied are often in the form of purified extracts—not whole herbs, which is how adaptogens are used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Even so, adaptogens are still regarded as safe to use.

So long as you are generally healthy, Weil recommends adaptogens as a way to counteract everyday stresses and improve well-being. While adaptogens might not be the cure-all that’s sometimes advertised, if you’re stressed out or if your body has been through a lot lately, you might want to try sipping some ashwagandha or cordyceps tea. You may find that they’re just the solution you’ve been looking for.

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