WTF Are Adaptogens? (And How Do You Use Them?)

We chatted with a functional medicine doc to figure out what the hype around adaptogens is all about.

Remember when Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon recorded her daily diet for Elle and the entire internet lost its damn mind? To remind you, her diet consisted of a lot of “tonics” and juices spiked with ingredients like he shou wou and a trillion other things that left readers walking away from their computers scratching their heads and muttering, “He shou whaaa?”

But now, a couple of years later — thanks, no doubt, in large to Bacon’s line of adaptogen-loaded “dusts,”a medley of herbs to throw in your morning latte to do everything from improve your skin (Beauty Dust) to your sex life (Sex Dust) — adaptogens like he shou wou, ashwagandha and more, used in ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for ages, are suddenly mainstream: Instagram-famous girls ‘round the globe post stories of their adaptogen-spiked matcha lattes every morning, you can find Bacon’s Moon Dusts in local shops like VESTIGE and Moon + Arrow, and adaptogenic recipe roundups are all over Pinterest.

But if you’re still wondering, um, what the heck adaptogens actually are, you’re not alone. But not to fear, friends! We chatted with functional medicine physician Dr. Heather Moday, of Rittenhouse’s Moday Center for Functional and Integrative Medicine, to get the lowdown on what adaptogens are and how to use them. Read up below.

So first, WTF are adaptogens, anyway? Well, as Moday explains, “Basically, they’re plants. Most of the time, it’s some kind of botanical herb. They’re used to help people adapt to mental or physical stress.” And they have to fit three criteria, she says: be safe and non-toxic to the body; support the body in a broad manner, affecting different systems; and they have to be balancing to the body. And that whole balance thing is what makes adaptogens really interesting. As Moday says, you can think of adaptogens like a thermostat. Rather than a medicine like, say, Benadryl, which will affect you based on the dose you take, adaptogens adapt (get it?) to fit the needs of your body and bring you into balance, targeting needs that range from hormonal to immunity-related, like a thermostat.

So, how can you decide if you should start flirting with the world of adaptogens? Well, Moday says, “Pretty much almost anyone can use these herbs without adverse affect. There are some stipulations for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.” So if you’re not in that camp, you can dive into the adaptogen aisle (but, as with anything, if you’re concerned about an adaptogen interfering with any meds you’re already on, consult your doc).

So, where to start? Well, Moday points out that different adaptogens target different needs. For instance, the popular pick of ashwagandha is good for balancing hormones and adrenal dysfunction (this can lead to fatigue), and helps in the realm of stress. Then the well-known panax ginseng is touted for being invigorating, aiding stamina. Rhodiola rosea, a popular player in Moday’s practice, helps to target stress, brain fog and depression and improve focus, Moday says. Moday describes Maca, another popular adaptogen, as a “hormonal tonic” of sorts, helping with libido and energy. Holy Basil is another popular pick (I spotted a whole line of teas featuring it at MOM’s the other day) that helps with stress.

Adaptogens can be taken in all sorts of different forms: powdered and thrown into smoothies or recipes, in a capsule, or dropped into a drink in extract form. The amount to take will change from form to form, but the package will always offer the recommended amount to consume. But, Moday says, whatever form you go with, make sure you’re getting it from a reliable source. Adaptogens aren’t regulated by the FDA, so the company you buy from is key. She suggests looking for company’s that do third-party testing and recommends Gaia herbs as a trust-worthy place to start.

So, how long do you have to wait to see if an adaptogen is actually, um, doing anything? Well, as Moday says, “It’s not caffeine.” Meaning: Adaptogens aren’t a quick fix — you have to be patient. It could take a few weeks of taking an adaptogen before you notice a change. She also notes that it’s good to take a break from them every now and then to let your body reset.

Okay, so now that you know what adaptogens actually are, you can make an educated decision on whether to spring for that Moon Dust (we won’t ask you which one) the next time it catches your eye.

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