Brands are betting on adaptogens and nootropics to supercharge our wellbeing

"Functional" brands are tapping into ingredients like ashwagandha to reduce stress and enhance our state of mind.

Non Verbal makes "functional" chocolate made with organic Ecuadorian cacao and Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs. (Photo: Non Verbal)


These days, it’s not enough for a soda, snack or alcohol-free beverage brand to make products that simply look good and taste good - they have to serve a functional purpose, too.

We now have chocolate bars that reduce stress levels thanks to Non Verbal, Mud\Wtr’s mushroom powders that give users energy but not a caffeine crash, and Magic Mind’s herbal shots that can – it says – make you simultaneously more productive and more relaxed.

There’s also Neuro, a chewing gum that has a mind-focusing effect, Recess, a brand that sells “mood enhancing” sodas and hydration products laced with ingredients like ginseng, hemp and lemon balm, and many more brands in Thingtesting's directory serving up stress-busting products. Today, we added yet another: the newly launched “functional tea” brand Steep & Mellow.

The ingredients that these products feature – such as ashwagandha, maca and reishi mushrooms – are not at all new. The umbrella term "adaptogens" was coined in the late 1960s, but they have long been used in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine.

Adaptogenic ingredients have been shown to help regulate stress hormones. The term "nootropics," meanwhile, refers specifically to ingredients that enhance cognitive function, such as boosting concentration or improving focus. Nootropics include stimulants like caffeine and L-theanine, which is found in green tea.

Behind the adaptogen boom

Promises to reduce stress and enhance "presence" are finding popularity among stressed-out millennials and Gen Zers, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic.

In 2020, sleep supplements containing ashwagandha (said to reduce anxiety) saw a 3,995% increase in sales, data from wellness-focused technology company SPINS shows. Meanwhile, according to Andrea Hernández's Snaxshot newsletter, products containing medicinal mushrooms have seen as much as an 800% year-over-year increase in sales (depending on the type of mushroom).

Tonya Papanikolov, a holistic nutritionist, founded her mushroom tincture brand Rainbo in 2019. She has been using adaptogens for almost two decades. She experienced their benefits first-hand during an intense period of workplace-related stress in 2011.

Rainbo works with a mushroom farmer in Canada to develop its formulas and grow the specific varieties it needs – reishi, lion’s mane, turkey’s tail and royal sun, to give a few examples.

The promise of adaptogens

While Papanikolov credits mushrooms and other adaptogenic ingredients with helping her get through “one of the most challenging periods” of her life, she warns that it’s not realistic to expect a supplement alone to provide a cure for stress.

She says consumers interested in trying these ingredients should do their research and make sure they have the right expectations for what they can do.

“Mushrooms and herbs have hit the zeitgeist, and so sometimes people are jumping on board without really knowing what they need,” she explains, adding that the effects of adaptogens are subtle and cumulative, and not immediate like having a cup of coffee or an alcoholic drink. “Nothing is going to be a panacea. It can’t be [that you] take these adaptogens and continue with your unhealthy lifestyle and working 70 hours a week.”

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