Will adaptogens destroy our ecology?

02 : 11 : 2018 Health : Wellness : Adaptogenic

Increasing global demand for adaptogens and Ayurvedic herbs is putting plant species under strain. It’s time for brands to step up with more sustainable harvesting practices.

The Lush Spa Experiment film by Mill+ The Lush Spa Experiment film by Mill+

While the healing properties of adaptogens may be beneficial on a personal level, their use is far less positive for the planet.

Rhiannon McGregor, Foresight writer, LS:N Global

Adaptogens. Hailed as a miracle cure by the beauty industry for their support of skin regeneration and lauded by the wellness industry for their stress-relieving properties, these adrenal-boosting herbs and mushrooms are suddenly cropping up everywhere.

At the time of writing, Google Trends analysis reveals that global interest in adaptogens has grown steadily since 2012, driven by wellness influencers like Gwyneth Paltrow who has shared recipes showing fans how to incorporate them into their daily diet. And while there is currently no official list of adaptogenic herbs, they are widely regarded as being aligned with the ancient practices of Ayurvedic medicine.

‘The incredible benefits of plants, which have been used for centuries in the East, are now being recognised in the West as a huge part of a healthy lifestyle,’ says Rosh Amarasekara, co-founder of ready-to-drink adaptogenic drinks brand humble warrior. ‘Eastern wisdom, from Ayurveda to Chinese medicine, underpins so much of the plant-based eating and drinking we are now seeing take centre stage.’

Yet, while the healing properties of adaptogens may be beneficial on a personal level, their use is far less positive for the planet. The way in which these herbs and mushrooms are harvested is having a major detrimental effect on the environment. ‘As the world demands more and more herbal and Ayurvedic medicines, plant populations are declining,’ says Julie Bernier, an Ayurvedic practitioner and founder of True Ayurveda. ‘As [early as] 2009, 300 of India’s medicinal plants were on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.’

With the destruction of natural habitats such a pertinent topic for consumers around the world, brands need to take the lead with sustainable practices and the education of consumers about these issues.

With wellness traditionally a very individual pursuit, it has become increasingly apparent that there is a contradiction in creating products that promote self-care but that simultaneously cause so much destruction. As demand for herbs such as guggulu and jatamansi increases, the industry has failed to scale up in a sustainable manner, which has an effect not only on the plants in question but also on the whole eco-system, affecting plants and animals alike.

And it’s not just plant-based adaptogens that are driving cause for concern. Mushrooms like chaga – linked with reducing inflammation, boosting immunity and supporting liver health – are being collected with blatant disregard for local ecology. As Paul Stamets, a leading mycologist and invention ambassador of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, explains, when foragers extract these mushrooms from the birch trees on which they grow, they typically hack at the tree with a machete or a hatchet, which can ultimately cause the tree to die.

With sustainable living and the destruction of natural habitats such a pertinent topic for consumers around the world, brands using adaptogens and promoting their benefits need to take the lead not only in demonstrating that they are long-term thinkers, but also educating consumers about these more complex issues. An example is US brand Moon Juice. Although founder Amanda Chantal Bacon has spoken about reformulating its popular Sex Dust because one of the ingredients, cistanche, was being over-harvested, the brand has missed an opportunity to educate and inform. It only vaguely alludes to its sustainable credentials on its website with nothing more than a banner image describing its products as ‘Potent and Pure, Native-Grown and Sustainably Farmed’.

For brands to really make a difference in this area, they must ensure that their practices or methods of sourcing are sustainable and planet-positive. But they should also embrace the opportunity to drive a new rhetoric focused on educating consumers about the need for a whole-system approach to wellness.

For more on why brands need to think more holistically about wellness, LS:N Global subscribers can explore our recent macrotrend Certified Wellness.