From Maca to Reishi: What You Need to Know About Adaptogens

From Maca to Reishi: The Health Benefits of Adaptogens

By now, nutrient-dense superfoods like kale, sweet potatoes and blueberries are permanent staples in your meals. But why stop there? There’s a new class of antioxidant-rich herbal supplements that promise to give everything from your immune system to your energy levels a kick. We’re talking about adaptogens.

Kimberly Snyder, C.N., and New York Times best-selling author of The Beauty Detox Solution, says adaptogens are derived from herbs and plants and help increase our resistance to stress, anxiety and fatigue. But how exactly? When the body’s under stress, it produces the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which then increase heart rate and blood sugar in the name of fighting the stressor. Experience chronic stress, though, and the body may have trouble reclaiming its normal state (think: chronic inflammation and adrenal fatigue).

While more research is needed, some experts believe adaptogens have the ability to do just that: stabilize blood sugar and mitigate stress. “Quite literally, adaptogens assist the body to “adapt” to physical and mental stress in various ways, so they are powerful inclusions into your diet for health and beauty,” Snyder says.

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Just Add… Adaptogens?

Originating from Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic practices, adaptogens are now finding their way into smoothies, tonics, elixirs and more. The good news: Most adaptogens are available in powder or capsule form, so you won’t need to make a mess of your food processor. They’re not cheap, though: Expect to pay $12 to $50 per eight-ounce bag or anywhere from $1 to $2 for a fancy smoothie bar “booster.”

Tasneem Bhatia, MD, a board-certified physician specializing in integrative medicine and founder of CentreSpringMD, recommends gradually adding them into your diet to help your body adjust to them. “Many patients have different responses to adaptogens. I usually start one at a time at half the [recommended] dose to begin with.”

Also note: Because dietary supplements and powders aren’t regulated by the FDA, be sure to read the ingredients of products containing adaptogens carefully and consult with your doctor or nutritionist first. Dr. Bhatia recommends checking out

Before you consider digging in, here’s the need-to-know on five of the most popular adaptogens.

5 Adaptogen Powders and How to Use Them

1. Reishi
Also known as the “mushroom of immortality,” reishi is a Chinese herbal mushroom that comes in six different types. The most potent variety, red reishi, is used for its immune-boosting properties. Dr. Bhatia says that reishi helps increase the production and activity of white blood cells, which makes it great for boosting the immune system. Red reishi is primarily composed of complex carbohydrates called water-soluble polysaccharides. According to a 2009 study in the journal Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry, the polysaccharides in reishi mushrooms help promote longevity. It has also been used to help treat viral infections, like the flu, anxiety, high blood pressure, hepatitis, insomnia and asthma, Snyder adds.

How to use it: Reishi has a bitter taste, but many teas or soups can help mask its flavor. Snyder’s favorite: a green tea latte made with raw coconut nectar or honey and hot almond milk.

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2. Pearl
Yes, the same kind that’s in your earrings and necklaces. Crushed pearl powder is an adaptogenic source of amino acids and minerals that promises glowing skin, healthy hair and stronger nails, Snyder says. Just ask beauty manufacturers, who use pearl as an active ingredient in many face highlighters and blushes for the glossy finish it lends. Pearl also helps promote bone and cell building, says Snyder, who also recommends this adaptogen for new moms who are breastfeeding. “When you breastfeed, your baby is depleting you of [many essential] minerals, and pearl helps replenish them.”

How to use it: Pearl is mild in taste and won’t leave you with a ton of bitterness. You may find it a little sweet with a hint of chocolate flavor. You can add it like a protein powder to a morning smoothie (check out these 25 easy recipes!) or include it in the dry ingredients when baking.

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3. Maca
You’ve probably seen maca powder come up in recipes for smoothies and acai bowls. This star adaptogen derives from a native Peruvian plant (it looks a lot like a potato) and is a good source of calcium, vitamin C, amino acids, phytonutrients and healthy fatty acids. A December 2009 report in the German medical journal Research in Complementary Medicine shows that maca may help relieve tension and anxiety while boosting your energy and mood. Because it’s hard to digest in its raw form, it’s sold as a powder and can be added to smoothies, yogurt, acai bowls, baked goods and energy bars. There are three types of maca powders: yellow, red and black. Red maca is the sweetest and mildest tasting. Yellow maca is the least sweet, and black maca is somewhere in between.

How to use it: Dr. Bhatia likes adding maca to applesauce to help mask its flavor. You can also include it in chia seed pudding, smoothies, parfaits, acai bowls, baked goods and energy bars.

4. Ho Shou Wu (or He Shou Wu)
This Chinese tonic herb (also known as Fo Ti) derives from a flowering plant native to central and eastern China. While research on the herb is limited, it has been used historically in herbal medicine to prevent premature aging, restore hair color, and treat lower back pain and dizziness. Snyder recommends Ho Shou Wu for people who suffer from a lack of libido because it can help with reproductive function and sex drive. Dr. Bhatia says that it can also help improve how liver-balancing hormones work.

How to use it: Ho Shou Wu has a creamy and nutty flavor, so it’s a great addition to tea, coffee, soup or smoothies. Many Chinese markets also have the actual herb available that you can boil into a tea.

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5. Mesquite
You might know mesquite from sweet barbecue sauces and the marinades of smoked meats. Its nutty, slightly sweet caramel flavor lends itself well to a variety of foods. But unlike simple sugars and syrups, mesquite is low glycemic and is a good source of protein, fiber and the amino acid, lysine, which produces youth-boosting collagen for your skin, Snyder explains. This ancient power is ground from a bean-like pod that grows mostly in dry, desert-like climates in South America and the southwest.

How to use it: You can add mesquite powder to raw energy snack balls or bars, desserts and baked goods, or toss it in smoothies and shakes. Feeling festive? Sprinkle it on parfaits and puddings for a hint of sweetness.

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