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Ancient medicine, new trends | Data Driven

There’s nothing that the West loves more than ripping off other cultures and passing it off as a wellness trend. Adaptogens are its latest victim. 

You’ve probably seen them on an influencer’s page: special mushroom powders or exceedingly expensive tonics purported to cure all illnesses and give you that model-esque, aesthetic lifestyle that’s barely possible for the average American. They’re often marketed as natural medicines or even alternatives. 

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Adaptogens are classified as herbs or plants hypothesized to interact with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, otherwise known as a body’s stress response system, according to UCLA Health. A HPA axis links how one perceives stress to how the body reacts to it, often releasing glucocorticoid hormones to deal with short-term stressors. 

Adaptogens can be helpful, but there’s a myriad of problems with the way that they’re being portrayed in pop culture. 

The first and most obvious is the commodification and capitalization of traditional Eastern and Indian medicines by the white-saturated wellness circles. The modern, western version of adaptogenics — like Bella Hadid’s adaptogen drink line Kin Euphorics, which features trippy ‘70s designs and glowing mantras — is a bit different than how many of these supplements were conceived in more ancient times. 

I’ve also found that many of these trendy new products don’t reference or pay homage to the cultures they take from. 

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to draw from the practices of other cultures, but the fancy health guru lifestyle that’s marketed with adaptogens speaks to systemic racism — the kind of racism that only appreciates one’s culture if it can profit off of it. 

What I also find misleading about the adaptogen trend is just how much these brands promise to deliver despite the shortage of research and lack of regulation on them, according to the New York Times.

There have been some clinical studies on certain adaptogens like ashwagandha that have proven to have positive effects. But, other adaptogens, such as Siberian ginseng, have had very little research done on them, or have only been researched in animals and not humans. 

Furthermore, adaptogens are not regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration. That means there can be huge variances across brands or products and labels can be extremely misleading. 

I cannot emphasize enough how much freedom brands have when they are unregulated by the FDA. Just because something can be sold does not mean all of its claims have been fact-checked by the government, and it certainly does not mean that the product actually has to work in the way that it suggests. Placebo effects can be very powerful. 

Plus, some adaptogens have been proven to negatively affect prescription medications like antidepressants or anticonvulsants. More research is needed, certainly, but that’s part of the problem with a lack of regulation on trendy, over-the-counter “health” products: it’s not always known how certain products will interact with each other or what the side effects will be. 

I am glad, though, that there is some ongoing research and reviews of the negative effects of adaptogens. A lack of regulation means that sometimes you fall into the echo chamber of hearing how good a product is without also knowing the full story. Even established medications like Advil can have severe, unwanted side effects, so no product is perfect. 

All in all, adaptogens probably won’t hurt, and they might even help. But, as consumers, I think we need to be skeptical anytime we see a cure-all ingredient oversaturating our Instagram feeds. There is a huge gap between how things are marketed vs how well things actually work to improve our health.

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