Before I start, okay, yes, this is another article on how much I love coffee. After doing the research for my article on collagen coffee, I started getting ads for adaptogenic coffee. This magical coffee would supposedly help me get control of my stress and reduce the associated caffeine crash. I was immediately interested. However, in all of my science training, I’d never heard the word “adaptogen” mentioned. If there were really a way I could be drinking coffee and not increasing my associated stress levels due to the caffeine boost, I was on board, but I just wanted to see if this was based on science or wishful thinking.
The plants we currently consider adaptogens have been documented in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for centuries. Use of plants like ashwagandha dates back to 3000 BC and has been commonly prepared as a “rayasana”, or an elixir that works in a general sense to improve human health and longevity.
The intersection of modern science and adaptogens began in the 1960s in the USSR. Soviet scientists worked to find biologically active, plant-derived substances that would help an organism survive during long periods of stress, specifically those brought on by physical or mental work (which is very on brand for the USSR in the 60s). Up until 1982, these studies were carried out by Soviet scientists, who published 1009 papers on these types of plants.
More recent research into adaptogens is concerned with the mechanisms by which certain herbal preparations might release chemical compounds that act in a similar manner to pharmaceuticals. Adaptogens are considered to be any compound that could get the body back to a better “balance” to maintain homeostasis—generally in times of stress.
There are many, many, proposed mechanisms by which adaptogens work. The most prominent theory suggests that adaptogens impact the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis for short). The HPA axis needs to function correctly in order for the body to respond appropriately to stress. It isn’t the easiest thing to explain briefly, but if you’re interested in understanding the process, this video explains it relatively quickly.
What is Adaptogen Coffee?
I’m focusing on adaptogen coffee here, mainly because there are SO MANY substances out there that have the potential to be considered adaptogens. The majority of adaptogen coffee contains either Ashwagandha or Lion’s Mane (a type of mushroom).
The suggested benefits of drinking adaptogen coffee are the following:
- Improve sleep
- Reduce anxiety
- No caffeine crash
- Boost immunity
I started off with Lion’s Mane, because what a cool name, right? But after (literally) hours of reading through PubMed, I didn’t find many studies on humans about the impact of Lion’s Mane mushrooms. This is one reason why I am particularly wary of claims that adaptogens have “anti-cancer” or “immuno-boosting” potential. While extracts from Lion’s Mane mushrooms might show everything from therapeutic anti-cancer potential and Alzheimer’s prevention in mice or in a petri dish, this doesn’t mean that the same effect will occur on humans.
I did find one study in Japan that showed reduced depressive and anxiety symptoms among those taking Lion’s Mane than the control group. It was a fairly small study, with a not-super-diverse population, but it is a start into investigating these substances in humans.
Ashwagandha proved to be far more interesting.
A 2012 study from the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine involved 64 adults with self-reported high levels of stress. The subjects were all between 18 and 54 years and had no psychiatric conditions (depression, anxiety, etc.) aside from stress. They were given either 300 mg of high-concentration Ashwagandha root extract or placebo. After 60 days, the levels of stress as analyzed by the Perceived Stress Scale in the Ashwagandha group changed by 44%, compared with only 5.5% in the placebo group.
What I find most interesting from this study is not the self-reported levels of stress, but the difference in serum cortisol levels. If you haven’t heard me whine about cortisol before, the tl;dr is that it is the hormone which controls (among many things), our fight/flight response and our stress reaction. The subjects had serum cortisol levels tested at Day 0 and Day 60. Those who were given Ashwagandha had a 27.9% reduction in serum cortisol, compared with 7.9% in the placebo group.
However, while these differences seem drastic, our cortisol levels can change drastically over a period of 30 minutes or so. When we first wake up, our cortisol levels can be a fraction of what they are by 9 am, and more than that, they can even vary from day to day based on whether or not we have upcoming stressful events. Since the study did not state if the cortisol samples were taken after the same interval post-waking up, it’s impossible to know if this difference is due to the benefits of Ashwagandha or a difference in the time for serum collection for each group.
That said, the study was double-blinded, and the reduction in stress levels is significant. Although it is possible that the two groups had serum samples taken at different times, the difference in self-reported stress is fairly convincing.
Does adaptogen coffee reduce stress?
While adaptogen coffee definitely does not seem appealing to me personally, overall, I don’t think that there is much harm in trying it, with a few caveats.
Although you should always, always, always talk to your doctor if you are prescribed a medication and plan on taking an herbal supplement, it is definitely not for you if you also take benzodiazepines or barbiturates (common anti-anxiety medications) as it can enhance the sedative effect.
There have been some reports of hepatotoxicity (liver damage) from individuals taking Ashwagandha-containing supplements, which is concerning, but unfortunately, not an isolated event as herbal supplements are not controlled under the Food and Drug Administration to the same extent that pharmaceuticals are.
The other thing to consider here…is the coffee! Even without a mushroom with a cool name, some evidence shows that coffee could actually mitigate the effects of anxiety and that there might be some kind of protective neurological effect of life-long coffee consumption that reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
If you’re really worried about the caffeine crash, the (less fun) advice is to drink less caffeine. Otherwise, you’re probably fine drinking your coffee as is, whether or not there’s mushrooms in it.