In Part One of this series, I cleared the air of some common misconceptions about those beloved adaptogens. Now, I’d like to set you up for seeing through some of the hype around wellness and alternative medicine lately. Part Two is meant to be a practical guide to evaluating advice, new products, and different health practices in the future.
I hope that what you take away from this piece isn’t advice for how to take adaptogens but rather how to examine the herbs and supplements that anyone—even an expert—says you need. As consumers and possessors of our bodies and wellbeing, there is power, responsibility, and opportunity in our consumption decisions.
What are we treating?
Adaptogens have been sold as a sort of stress-armor, which is vague and also contributes to their widespread appeal: who doesn’t experience stress? But, stress is a very general term. To name just a few, stressors may be environmental—pollution or noise—or situational, stemming from our careers or relationships. They may be physical—a result of daily exercise or manual labor—or psychological such as worry, grief, over-excitement, et cetera. Similar to the term “anxiety,” it’s helpful to heed overusing labels like “stress,” and, often to inquire more deeply into the nuances and particulars of your individual experience. When we’re looking for a cure, we have to seek the cause of the symptoms.
Once we’ve identified that cause, we have something to treat! The source of stress, for example, may be that you’re lifting heavy stuff all day and it’s hard on your physical body. Or, sensitivity to noise and a boisterous environment may be wreaking havoc on your nervous system. After determining the root cause, we can then seek out the appropriate herb, food, or lifestyle change as a remedy.
For physical-body stress, after minimizing what want to (e.g. is it consistent straining or just lots of good exercise?), I might recommend anti-inflammatory plants as well as herbs that relax the muscles. For an overwrought nervous-system, I might look into non-herbal options like earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones and meditation or breathwork before then nervines, which are herbs that specifically target the nervous-system.
Note that anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, and nervines, while all plant-based remedies are not adaptogens. Adaptogens have their place, but their place isn’t everywhere. Another loving reminder: “adaptogens” is not a synonym for “herbs.” (Recall from Part One of this series that adaptogens are just one small classification of medicinal plants.
What dose do you need?
Dosage matters! One of my greater concerns with the current adaptogens craze is that dose- and frequency-advice is largely missing from the conversation. Sprinkling some dust on a latte here and there is not likely to be very or even at all helpful. Using blends or drinking waters that contain trace amounts of the trendiest ingredients—because that’s all that’s needed to market something as adaptogenic—is pretty much pointless. At best, it’ll induce a placebo effect. At worst, we aren’t going to get the relief we seek and we’ll turn away from herbal remedies back to the drug store or habitual bandaids.
Dosage details can be really specific, varying per person and per herb just like it does in Western medicine. So, it’s important to either do some research and personal exploration, or find a good herbalist for some guidance.
Enthusiasm for plant-medicine is a good thing! However, just because something is a plant doesn’t mean that it’s impervious to pollution and contamination or nutrient scarcity, nor that it’s incapable of causing environmental burden. Enter the ever-popular Maca for instance: a humble turnip that’s causing cross-cultural theft due to increasing demand. This, in turn, is causing food shortages in its native land of Peru, which has effects that trickle out across agriculture and the economy.
We tend to forgive or even be attracted to unknowns about herbs because they’re exotic or ancient or from far-away places, but that’s worth realizing. I always recommend evaluating your herbs with the same criteria you apply to your food choices. Where does it come from? How is it grown, harvested, processed? Is it organic? Wild? And, ideally, though I respect that not everyone can or wants to prioritize this: is there a local source? If not, is there a local equivalent? For example, many herbs that grow in your state may have the same benefits as others on the other side of the world. My absolute favorites are those that are considered weeds or that are used as cover-crops in farming and would otherwise be mowed down and wasted.
Food is also medicine. We can often find fresh versions of popular “adaptogenic” mushrooms at farmers’ markets and should consider the humble plants that grow around us, such as dandelion. The latter has leaves that can be eaten fresh (bitter greens!) and a root that’s a liver-supportive supplement or tea, prebiotic fiber and when roasted, coffee alternative.
So, when stocking our herbal medicine cabinets, it’s important to note our personal and ethical priorities as well the price versus environmental impact, brandedness versus localness, and quality of purchases.
Much of the above is the how. My favorite place to go is to the why. Let’s ask ourselves this, and think twice about the answer. Make sure we feel good about it before we take the advice. And, let’s have some fun out here! Explore, learn, grow, self-inquire and find what works. That will always be a better route to wellbeing than whatever becomes the next big thing.
Some herb sources: Local: farmers markets, farms, herbalists, your co-op, and Etsy. Bulk: Mountain Rose Herbs, Frontier Co-op. Quality: Herb Pharm, Mountain Rose Herbs. Price: most of what’s on Amazon.