Gist: What are adaptogens, and are they really the secret to stress relief?

With a bevy of attractive, shiny options, you can choose between established practices-therapists and an array of prescription pills-and more esoteric stuff like meditation, tapping, and yoga. The newest in the latter category: adaptogens, a group of (supposedly) stress-fighting plants that are showing up in today’s trendiest teas, coffees, and snack foods.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens (a hard-to-pin-down category that even the dictionary defines only as “plant extracts that increase the body’s ability to resist stress”) come from obscure and god-awful-tasting plants, roots, fruits, and fungi that survive in harsh conditions, making scientists believe they help humans do the same. They’re sold for a too-high price with too-gorgeous packaging in too-precious web stores like Moon Juice and Goop. They have exotic, spelling-bee-finals names-including ashwagandha, rhodiola, reishi, Panax ginseng, and Cordyceps-and promise to take you back to your center and make you feel normal again, no matter what’s going on.

Such vague and sweeping declarations typically send our BS detectors into threat level midnight. But some nonquacky experts are finding glimpses of truth in the far-out claims.

Brenda Powell, M.D., director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, for example, often recommends adaptogens when people with anxiety and depression aren’t sure they want to take pharmaceuticals. “Adaptogens can help lessen the physical reaction you have from stress,” she says.

It works like this: When stress strikes, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex system that controls your stress response, fires a surge of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol. In the long term, this can cause chronic inflammation, the problem that’s now linked to so many of the top-killing diseases of our time, says Roy Chengappa, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh who has researched adaptogens.

A daily dose of adaptogens, the theory goes, may help your cells turn on their stress-protecting mechanisms. That increases your HPA axis’s stress threshold, meaning you may be able to take on more stress, or that the same level of stress will have less of an impact, says Dr. Powell. Think of it as tuning the engine of a car: If the car used to overheat around 70 mph, you can make it so that 90 is the new overheating point and 70 is an easy drive.

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