THERE ARE moments in life when someone you know—a significant other, a doting parent or a very intuitive friend—hands you something you are in desperate need of, even if you aren’t aware of it.
That person was my editor, who, on a busy Wednesday afternoon, sent me an email with an idea for this column.
“This ‘adaptogen’ thing intrigues me,” she wrote. It’s possible I was a little behind in the way of Ayurvedic medicine because up until then, I had never heard of adaptogens. And it’s possible that I, too, was intrigued from the get-go. I won’t go into details as to why I had that reaction, but let’s just say it had a lot to do with a game I was playing on the internet—a game called “Let’s just see how many graduate-school-application requirements I can look at before I drive myself stir-crazy.”
Adaptogens, I quickly learned, are herbs that help the body’s ability to cope with stress.They’ve been used as treatments for thousands of years in China and India but have recently become a hot topic among self-care circles here closer to home. They work by regulating our HPA axis—or in other, longer words, our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis—which is the body’s central stress-response system. With all sorts of medicinal properties and uses for things like energy, immunity, blood pressure and sex drive, adaptogens really do pack a punch. Some herbs are “heating,” meaning they rev up certain bodily functions, and some are “cooling,” working to tone them down—all in an effort to bring everything to a state of balance, to “center.”
Not too long into my internet research, I discovered Moon Juice, a California-based purveyor of natural products and adaptogens in powder form, which it markets as “dust.” The brand was launched by a health guru and an advocate of plant-based everything with a very carnivorous name, Amanda Chantal Bacon. When she opened the doors to the first Moon Juice store in 2011, she joined the wellness-obsessed Gwyneth Paltrows of the world. In fact, there’s a mention of Gwyneth infusing Moon Juice’s dust in her morning smoothies on Goop, her health and lifestyle platform. If it’s good enough for the rosy-cheeked, glowy-skinned Gwyneth, it’s good enough for me.
I scanned the products on Moon Juice’s website. “Brain Dust,” which comes in a box of 12 sachets, immediately caught my attention. A bundle of seven ingredients, including lion’s mane, maca, astragalus and rhodiola, Brain Dust is described as “an adaptogenic blend of enlightening super-herbs and super-mushrooms that help combat the effects of stress to align you with the cosmic flow for great achievement.” I threw caution to the wind and added it to my cart. For 12 days, I’d become a guinea pig, adaptogens my grass hay. Throughout the process, I would consult with experts—Dr. Brenda Powell, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, and Dr. Amrit Devgun, a naturopathic doctor and applied Ayurvedic practitioner at Northwestern Health Clinic Bloomington in Minnesota—and weave their input and expertise into my experience.
A few days after I’d hit the checkout button, my Brain Dust arrived in the mail, and I got cracking on my smoothie. I scooped out chunks of a soft and juicy mango, threw an overripe banana into the mix and topped it off with a bit of milk and water. Next, the star ingredient: the dust. As soon as I tore open the packet, a short and explosive puff of mustard-yellow dust hit me in the face. I broke into a hysterical coughing fit. (OK, so this wasn’t the best start.) I sprinkled the powder in and hit the vroom, vroom button.
Even with the syrupy sweetness of the mango and bananas, I can say this for sure: My concoction didn’t taste great. It was very soil-like, very harsh and medicinal—what I would imagine licking a tree would taste like, albeit without the threat of splinters. To combat the bitter aftertaste, I decided to change up my smoothie formula. Knowing that acidity works well to neutralize bitterness, I reworked the recipe to include orange juice and frozen strawberries. The bitterness still lingered in the background but was definitely something I could train my taste buds to ignore.
Now that I had the recipe down pat, it was time to enjoy the laser-sharp focus I’d bought for $35. I listened intently for any whisper of a change. Finally, a week into my experiment, I began to notice something. It wasn’t anything drastic or life-changing. I just had a more relaxed air about me, a very Scarlett O’Hara-esque, I’ll-think-about-it-tomorrow attitude about things.
The adaptogens were working in a small and quiet way. As much as I was thrilled that my experiment was yielding results, I wondered if, perhaps, some of it was heightened or exaggerated by my brain—that I was seeing changes because I really truly wanted to. I brought this concern up to Dr. Powell during a phone interview. “I think the mind-body effect is a big component,” she said. “There are [scientific studies] that demonstrate how your brain can make you well. Your brain can make you sick, for sure. We know that. Being stressed can give you ulcers, insomnia and all these other things. You can harness the brain to feel well. That’s going to be a part of any ritual in taking a capsule that we believe in.”
In a separate conversation, Dr. Devgun pointed out another important aspect of a successful experience: the quality of the product itself. “We’ve got to make sure that they’re of good quality,” she said. “There’s all sorts of products out there, and it’s hard to keep up with everything. Some of it is very gimmicky. Sometimes, an effect might not be noticed because of the quality.”
Because herbs can vary in potency, quantity is another factor to consider. Take too little of something, and you might not notice anything. Take too much, and you might have a brush with some unwanted side effects (which is why Dr. Devgun recommends consulting with an expert on dosage instead of blindly joining in on the trend and assuming that one size fits all).
There are other things to consider, too, like eating a clean and mindful diet, giving ourselves some downtime to unwind, practicing meditation—all in conjunction with lacing our food and drink with adaptogens.
“Are we thinking of some of those things?” Dr. Devgun asked. “Cause if we’re not, and if we’re only thinking about adaptogens, then we’re no further ahead. All we’re doing is taking a green pill. That’s what I call it, meaning it’s an herbal pill instead of a pharmaceutical pill, but it’s no different. We’re just trying to treat the symptoms, but we’re not getting to the cause.”
Is it possible that I would’ve noticed far more significant results if my dosage was tinkered with and fine-tuned to fit my needs, age and lifestyle? Maybe—perhaps, most likely. But even so, after chatting with Dr. Powell and Dr. Devgun, I understood that my worries wouldn’t just evaporate. True to their name, adaptogens are there to merely help you adapt. They are supplements, after all. “The only caution is, you can’t rely on these herbs to solve all your problems,” Dr. Powell says. “You still have to deal with getting rid of your stressors.”
All right, graduate-school requirements, fees and deadlines. Let’s do this.
IN DUST WE TRUST
Adaptogens recommended by Dr. Devgun, and what to use them for
If you’ve heard anything about adaptogens, you’ve probably heard of ashwagandha. There’s very little this well-rounded multitasker isn’t used for. Reducing blood sugar? Check. Depression? Check. Inflammation and cholesterol? Check and check. “That’s one of my favorite adaptogens because it’s a general tonic for a lot of people,” Dr. Devgun says. “It usually helps decrease the levels of cortisol significantly, especially for people who have chronic stress. I also use it for anxiety or attention deficit.”
The next time you find yourself stuck at home with a runny nose and a wad of tissues, feed your cold with an astragalus-infused soup or cuppa. The ancient Chinese root has immunity-enhancing properties that work to get you back on your feet. “Astragalus is for those people who have a maladaptive stress response that’s manifesting in the immune system,” Dr. Devgun says. “It’s a really good herb for blood-cell count, so for people undergoing chemotherapy and chemotherapy-related fatigue, astragalus would be wonderful for that.”
“Siberian Ginseng is a very popular one,” Dr. Devgun says. “I like to give it to people who have orthostatic hypotension.” In other words, it regulates blood pressure, which comes in handy if you belong to a class of people who tend to get a little woozy after standing up from sitting or lying down.
Often used to relieve inflammation and irritation, borage is an adrenal stimulator that works to restore the health of the adrenal glands. “Some of this gets to be a little confusing because you think, Well, I don’t know which herb to use,” Dr. Devgun says. “I look for other symptoms that are taking place within that person. For someone with adrenal insufficiency of some kind, or if they have a lot of dermatitis, eczema or skin inflammation, borage is really good for that because it’s a blood purifier.”
Maca has been gaining cred as an aphrodisiac lately, and for good reason. Because of its hormone-balancing abilities, it’s often used to stoke the fires in the bedroom. “I use maca whenever there’s a sexual dysfunction, especially with post-menopausal women having fatigue and lacking libido,” Dr. Devgun says. “It could be pretty potent. Maca could increase the levels of dopamine in our bodies. Dopamine in the brain helps with focus, drive—not just sexual drive, but drive in general—stamina and endurance. [Maca is] a really good herb.”
Known to have antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects, rhodiola is well-suited to eat-work-sleep personalities with buzzing brains who can’t seem to get some good-quality shuteye. But be careful, Dr. Devgun says. “There’s something called the paradoxical effect. What that means is, if you take too low of a dose, it could actually sometimes cause anxiety.”