As adaptogens become trendier, there can be a muddying of the lines in terms of what qualifies as an adaptogen, which can lead to consumer confusion. The by-the-book definition:“Traditionally referred to as tonics or rejuvenators, adaptogens have been used extensively in ancient healing practices,” shares Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, BS, MS, Sr. Director of Research & Development, Bluebonnet Nutrition Corporation. The term was first coined in 1947 to describe a plant that helps one adapt to stressful circumstances.
In the 1960s, the definition was refined. In order to formally qualify as an adaptogen, a natural substance must:
- Be safe, nontoxic, and non-habit forming;
- Have a non-specific effect on the body: they must help a variety of bodily systems and help the body defend against a variety of stressors including physical, chemical, and biological factors;
- Help normalize system functions and maintain a state of homeostasis, or overall balance
And today? “As with many new trendy terms, indeed, definitions blur,” says Eng. To help consumers navigate, she encourages retailers to focus on the root word of adaptogen: “adapt.” “Here, being clear as to what it is—and what it is not—is important. An adaptogen is a substance, primarily a botanical, that helps promote and maintain homeostasis.” That, she adds, is another word that retailers can also emphasize to help consumers understand the category.
“It is imperative that retailers educate themselves as to what is and is not adaptogen,” maintains Winston. “The term is widely used and misused in the literature, by some herb/supplement companies, and online. As I discuss in my book, Adaptogens Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief [2nd edition Healing Arts Press 2019], there are only eight to nine herbs that are well researched adaptogens. This includes Asian and American Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Schisandra, Eleuthero, Rhodiola, Cordyceps, and Rhaponticum. Many people continue to use the original definition of an adaptogen created in 1969 by Dr I. Brekhman. In the 52 years since, a great deal of research has elucidated their mechanisms of action and what they actually do, so we now have a much better sense of which herbs clearly fit the term adaptogen.”
Another five or six herbs, Winston says, are “probable adaptogens.” The research is less robust for these herbs, he notes, but it points to them being adaptogenic. His list of probable adaptogens includes Shatavari, Holy Basil, Cynomorium, and Cistanche. And then there are “possible adaptogens.” That list is significantly larger, he says, but more evidence is needed.
Gil acknowledges that “there is plenty of room for confusion here as the market latches onto an emerging trend, labeling almost anything as an ‘adaptogen,’ but it is a clear category. He recommends Winston’s book, calling it “the adaptogen bible.”
The biggest misconception about adaptogens? That all of them cause similar effects in the body, says Lily Holmberg, Gaia Herbs Education Manager. “In fact, adaptogenic herbs can work in either direction: upregulating or down-regulating metabolic processes as needed on a person-by-person basis. Some adaptogens (such as Asian Ginseng, Rhodiola, and Eleuthero)stimulate the body, enhancing mental performance, and physical stamina.” Others—she names Reishi, Ashwagandha,
Astragalus, and Holy Basil—can help calm the body and soothe the adrenals for a relaxing effect.
“Adaptogens are not a one-size-fits-all group of herbs,” Winston says. In addition to stimulating and calming adaptogens, he says there are warming or cooling adaptogens, moistening or drying adaptogens, and nourishing adaptogens, or combination of adaptogens, as well as companion herbs (nervines, nootropics, restorative tonics) often used with adaptogens.
Retailers, says Holmberg, “can provide signage and/or other in-store materials identifying adaptogenic herbs and even go so far as to classify these specific herbs as ‘stimulating’ or ‘calming’ agents in order to help consumers from inadvertently purchasing the incorrect type of adaptogenic herb to support their specific health concerns.”
For Myers, focusing on the benefits is the key. “Rather than ponder which herbs belong in what category, I focus more on proven effects on stress, fatigue, physical recovery, and other aspects relating to energy, focus, and reducing feelings of burnout. That said, there are herbs that can be considered adaptogens that some people might not have viewed through that lens in the past. For example, andrographis is often thought of as an immune boosting or liver-healing herb—and it is—but it also has enough adaptogenic characteristics for energy and stress that it is also considered an adaptogen. So I think that retailers can define adaptogens briefly on the display itself, and to have a well-stocked portfolio of product literature and articles—we at Terry Naturally are always happy to help—can reassure customers who have heard about the benefits of adaptogens.”
Focusing on Science & Standards
While experts continue to offer differing viewpoints, one thing is essential: Stock high-quality brands using study-proven ingredients. “Along with fully meeting the standards of this ingredient category, it is equally important to have the necessary research to support an ingredient’s functionality as an adaptogen,” says Stacey Daigle, Director of Inside Sales and Marketing, NutriScience Innovations, LLC. “Consumers rely upon the brands and retailers that they purchase from to vet the ingredients they offer, and increasingly seek ingredients backed by actual science. It is important that brands and retailers choose adaptogens backed by science that will provide effective results for consumers; this not only preserves the reputation of their brand(s) but also consumer trust in the adaptogen category. Retailers should provide education to consumers on this growing category, enabling them to make a well informed decision to choose an effective product to meet their needs.”
Adam M. Goodman, VP Sales, Korea Ginseng Corporation (KGC), as well as President of the NPA East Board of Directors, agrees. “As with anything, what’s really important is for retailers to first be educated. They are the gatekeeper to the consumers. It’s important to vet the information you are receiving and not just take it on face value. Then retailers can convey that vetted information to the consumer. If you don’t have the first, then you won’t have the second. This is also important for distribution partners. They help educate the retailers. We make sure our distribution partners understand the information, and that there is science and data that can be filtered down the supply chain to the consumer. Ask questions. Do your own research.”
Gil adds, “As retailers move toward cleaner shelves and a leaner floor staff, collaborating with trustworthy brands to help educate consumers will play a key role in providing the consumer with reliable information. One way Organic India is working to contribute to this challenge is through the use of QR codes on packaging and merchandising displays, so that anyone with a smartphone can immediately access information, and have questions answered on the spot in retail aisles.”
For this category to flourish, says Bruce Brown, MPH, MA, President, Natreon, there are two main areas of focus: 1) honor the history and knowledge of traditional use that has been safe and successful for thousands of years and 2) ensure the adaptogens are clinically studied using today’s standards and utilize the science based on a truly holistic approach to improving human health. “Natreon’s commitment to traditional use and rigorous scientific studies provide the building blocks that support the growing adaptogen market.”
Supply Chain Update
2020 was a year of supply chain disruptions, marred by adulteration concerns. How has that impacted the adaptogens category? “The overall supply chain for adaptogens has increased substantially in 2020, especially for the most popular herbs, including Ashwagandha, Astragalus, and the adaptogenic mushrooms Cordyceps and Reishi,” says Chase Millhollen, Gaia Herbs’ Global Sourcing Manager. At Gaia Herbs, Millhollen continues, the adaptogenic herbs supply chain is stable, even with the sudden and ongoing increase in demand for these ingredients since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
A few lessons that Gaia would share with the industry:
- Don’t compromise on quality. “Be willing to go out of stock on items when you cannot find herbal ingredients that meet your quality standards versus relaxing standards.”
- Build long-term relationships with key suppliers. “This will give your company priority status for ingredients when there is a sudden increase in demand, which will
allow you to keep your products on the shelf.”
- Trust but verify. “Even though Gaia Herbs has established long-term relationships with our suppliers, we still screen and test every botanical ingredient used in our products, every time.” Results are then shared with consumers on meetyourherbs.com, a traceability platform. “These types of stringent protocols allow companies to avoid any adulterated ingredients and ensure that their customers are still receiving the highest quality herbal products.”
- Take care of your customers. “In some cases, Gaia Herbs has had to pay premiums in order to get ingredients on time and when needed to keep our products on the shelf. We have not passed these higher ingredient costs onto our customers. We have absorbed the cost difference in ingredients as it was more important to keep these products in the hands of our customers at a time when they are critically needed.”
Regarding adulteration, Millhollen notes that the “unusually high demand for herbs has led to adulteration and/or decrease in the quality of herbs and reduction of standards—corners being cut, wrong species being sold, crops harvested early with poor medicinal quality.”
Adulteration is unfortunately somewhat common, laments Winston. “Retailers need to know their brands, and their depth of knowledge such as if they are knowledgeable about documented therapeutic uses for a specific species.” Important to know, per Winston:
- “Sustainability and quality are linked, so find out where companies are sourcing their herbs, and what practices are followed.”
- “Ask details about how they test their herbs for identity and purity. As they say in the computer world ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ so it is imperative that the intended herb be used in all products, as well as the correct dose and extraction techniques.”
“We have just been through an extraordinary year with record demand for herbal products,” Winston continues. “Our long-time suppliers worked with us to keep us stocked with high-quality herbs. The demand, when at its highest last spring and early summer, put great pressure on growers and wildcrafters. But demand has eased off from the peaks, fortunately. For the next year the main area of supply chain concern will be projecting volume for growers and keeping buying commitments. The growth cycle for botanicals can be a few months (flowers) up to many years (roots, barks). Spikes in growth can lead to very difficult planting decisions for farmers who need to make a good right livelihood but don’t want to get stuck with unsold crops if the market does not hold out. Clear, honest conversations with suppliers will keep the supply chain responsive to changes.”
Majeed also stresses this point: “In addition to their customary product vetting, retailers should be asking the brands they stock if they have had supply chain issues, and what extra testing they have done on ingredients if they bought from new suppliers.” To counteract the fluctuations in the supply chain, he says, “Sabinsa has a strong, direct connection with the primary suppliers of raw materials for most of our ingredients, and we have partners in the transportation system to support the timely supply of our goods from farm to customer. We have a highly motivated quality assurance team that assures the high quality of the raw materials and the final products. So going into the pandemic we were in a strong position.”
There were plenty of challenges, of course. “One of the problems created by the pandemic has been bottle-necks along the supply chain,” Majeed says. “Transportation was impacted severely in the early months across the globe, resulting in slowed movement of raw materials, processed ingredients, finished products, and packaging, and higher shipping costs. This was happening when demand for herbs and supplements was at an all-time high. We had our warehouses throughout the world fully stocked, and were able to get an additional large shipment of Curcumin C3 Complex on one of the last flights out of India before the country shut down, so our customers were kept well supplied. Some manufacturers had to buy ingredients from suppliers they had not vetted, so that was concerning.”
In addition to verification that both the strength and identity of ingredients have been tested, NutriScience’s Daigle advises retailers to look for additional quality certifications. “Shoden Ashwagandha is Non-GMO Project Verified and all lots of Shoden are identity tested using High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), which verifies both identity and potency. There can be various intricacies in testing standardized ingredients from botanical sources; reputable ingredient suppliers will have detailed, researched methods of analysis that can produce consistent results to verify the identity and strength of their ingredient.” Daigle adds that NutriScience along with its manufacturing partner Arjuna Natural have taken the necessary steps to ensure that the supply chain is traceable from the farm to NutriScience’s warehouse and there is ample material available to meet growing demand.
Goodman’s message to everyone in the supply chain: “Know where your stuff is coming from. As with anything, even if it is not an adaptogen, you can have a good product or a bad product. As questions of manufacturers and get them to provide you with the necessary information.” In terms of KGC, he adds, “We haven’t had the supply chain issues that you typically associate with what’s going on in the marketplace. And we planned and forecasted, taking the market situation into account and introduced the products with success—but that success far outstripped our forecast, so we have had minor problems. These are good problems to have, and we’ve been able to fill the vast majority of our orders.”