Adaptogens. Butter coffee. Essential oils. You can find them on websites ranging from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop to Alex Jones’s Infowars. Can they curb stress, fight fatigue, or make you sharper? Or do they just lighten your pocketbook?


Feeling run-down? Stressed? Anxious? Adaptogens to the rescue, say enthusiasts.

Ashwagandha, rhodiola, ginseng, and a variety of mushrooms like cordyceps, reishi, and chaga are on most lists of adaptogens—plants that supposedly help your body adapt to stress. (The lists vary because adaptogens aren’t clearly defined.)

“The charm of adaptogens is that they work with your needs specifically, adapting their function to your body’s needs,” explained Amanda Chantal Bacon to in May 2016. (Bacon is the founder of Moon Juice, one of the biggest brands of adaptogen supplements.)

Charming, indeed. But is there evidence that they work?

Ashwagandha and rhodiola are the most widely studied adaptogens in people.1,2 But based on the best evidence, there’s little reason to rush out to your nearest apothecary.

An 8-pack of adaptogen-enhanced water costs $40. There’s no good evidence that it will make you more balanced or clear.

“There’s more animal than human data on adaptogens,” says Rashmi Mullur, an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA with board certifications in endocrinology and integrative medicine. “There’s no strong, high-quality data in people. Most studies are small and of varying quality.”

In one of the better trials, 57 adults with mild to moderate depression were randomly assigned to a placebo, 50 milligrams of sertraline (the generic version of the antidepressant Zoloft), or 340 mg of rhodiola every day. After 12 weeks, symptoms of depression were no different between groups.3 (Some antidepressants only beat a placebo in people with severe depression.)

Do adaptogens combat stress and fatigue by “balancing hormones,” as some websites claim?

“Small studies in humans show that adaptogens like ashwagandha can lower cortisol, the hormone released in response to stress, in the morning,” Mullur explains.4 “But cortisol fluctuates throughout the day, so a single measurement doesn’t tell you much.”

What’s more, “the idea of balancing our hormones with a supplement is kind of silly,” she adds.

“Our bodies have incredibly nuanced mechanisms for balancing hormones. And hormones have different effects all over the body. If you take a supplement that affects a hormonal pathway, you have no way of controlling its effects. It could make your symptoms worse.”

What’s more, Mullur points out, fatigue or stress are rarely due to a hormonal imbalance. “I try to work with people to address the source and triggers of their stress. I’m not opposed to using supplements when we have data to support their use, but unless you do something to mitigate or adapt to the stress, just throwing herbal supplements into the mix can muddy the waters.”

And you could end up doing more harm than good. Ashwagandha, for example, may increase thyroid hormone levels, which could cause fatigue, anxiety, shortness of breath, and other problems.5

The Bottom Line: Claims that adaptogens fight fatigue, stress, or anxiety aren’t backed by good human evidence.

1J. Altern. Complement. Med. 20: 901, 2014.
2BMC Complement. Altern. Med. 12: 70, 2012.
3Phytomedicine 22: 394, 2015.
4Indian J. Psychol. Med. 34: 255, 2012.
5J. Ayurveda Integr. Med. 5: 241, 2014.

Hot buttered baloney

“Bulletproof Coffee is not your average latte,” declares Bulletproof’s website. “It’s a high-performance drink that has a massive impact on your energy and cognitive function.”

Bulletproof coffee (also called butter coffee) is meant to replace breakfast. The official Bulletproof recipe transforms a simple cup of joe into a nearly 500-calorie fat-laden drink by blending up to two tablespoons each of unsalted butter and medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil into 8 to 12 ounces of coffee. (Proponents recommend starting with one teaspoon of MCT oil and working your way up, since some people report that the oil leads to bloating, gas, and diarrhea.)

Don’t expect butter coffee to jump-start your brain.

That means no protein, fiber, healthy fat, carbs, fruits, or vegetables for breakfast. Just roughly two days’ worth of saturated fat. (The sat fats in MCTs raise LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, but not as much as the sat fats in butter do.)

Enthusiasts claim that it’s the ketones—which the liver makes when it breaks down MCTs—that keep you focused.

“Pair ketones with the slowly releasing caffeine and you can literally feel your brain turning on,” claims Bulletproof.

The brain usually runs on glucose, or blood sugar. “But when blood glucose levels are low, the brain can use ketones as an alternative fuel source,” says Jason Brandt, a neuropsychologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

For example, when researchers made 11 people with type 1 diabetes score poorly on tests of attention and memory by lowering their blood sugar, MCT oil reversed the decline.1

But are brains sharper when they burn ketones instead of glucose? No human studies have looked.

“The evidence to support the butter coffee trend is all anecdotal,” says Brandt.

The Bottom Line: There’s no evidence that replacing your breakfast with butter coffee “has a massive impact...on cognitive function,” as Bulletproof promises.

1Diabetes 58: 1237, 2009.

Scents nonsense

What can essential oils do for you? Use “sweet orange to quell anxiety,” “lavender to sleep better,” and “rosemary for better focus at work,” says

Essential oils are made by cold-pressing or steam-distilling plant material. They’re usually inhaled as part of “aromatherapy,” though some people recommend swallowing or rubbing them on your skin.

Some studies report subtle effects on anxiety, stress, or thinking ability, but “the quality of the trials is often deplorably low,” says Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter in Britain.

Essential oils may not be harmless.

So why do some people swear by essential oils? It may be the power of suggestion.

In one trial, 90 women inhaled lavender or neroli.1 Heart rates rose in those who were told that the scent they were smelling was stimulating, and dropped in those who were told that the scent was relaxing. It didn’t matter which scent they smelled.

Essential oils may not just be a waste of money. The National Capital Poison Control Center cautions that they may not be harmless.2

“For topical use, essential oils must be diluted,” says Ernst. “Even then, rashes and allergic reactions are possible. And they are not rare.”

Some oils are dangerous. For example, as little as one teaspoon of wintergreen oil has as much of its active ingredient (salicylate) as roughly 20 aspirins.3 And eucalyptus oil has caused seizures when inhaled, swallowed, applied to the skin, or used as nasal drops.4,5

The Bottom Line: “Aromatherapy is a bit of old-fashioned pampering,” says Ernst. “But therapeutic claims for essential oils are usually bogus. And don’t assume that the oils are harmless if you swallow or rub them on your skin.”

1Psychol. Rep. 94: 1127, 2004.
3Int. J. Pediatr. Otorhinolaryngol. 58: 229, 2001.
4Epilepsia Open 2: 350, 2017.
5Paediatr. Child Health 6: 80, 2001.

Photos: jchizhe (top), RFBSIP (bottom).