Could adaptogens light the botanical health claims darkness?

“Adaptogens are phytochemicals, which are believed to stabilize physiological processes and encourage homeostasis in the body.” -Integrative Medicine (Fourth Edition), 2018.

Clinical data has been building for a couple of decades around the role botanical adaptogens can play in immunity, stress management, brain health and more – yet few authorized adaptogen-based health claims exist around the world.

Vertical farming-led botanical standardization may have something to say about that.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BOTANICAL CLAIMS (OR NOT)

While the data is not as conclusive as that which exists for some vitamins and minerals, are consumers being short-changed by such a mismatch between science and regulated marketing when it comes to botanicals?

Or is the inability of existing regulatory regimes to adequately classify clinically or traditionally backed but often holistic health benefits of herbal extracts, itself an irrelevance in an age of internet-empowered, information-rich consumers?

Studies like this 2019 Italian survey show consumers aren’t overly interested in authorized on-label health claims and can struggle to understand the often scientific terminology employed in those claims that do exist.

Health claim statements should be, the researchers concluded, provided simply and clearly, avoiding the use of complex scientific terminology.”

All too frequently, this is not the case.

If herbal supplement sales are anything to go by – a global market worth $30 billion and growing at 6%+ a year, according to the analyst Research and Markets – it seems overly technical claims or the widespread absence of authorized botanical health claims around the world is not a problem for most people interested in optimizing their health via botanical supplements.

Adaptogens like ginseng and reishi mushroom extracts are playing a potent role in this equation despite the regulator lag.

Research and Markets forecasts 11+% growth for the global ginseng market it predicts will be worth $12bn+ by 2027 – estimates the analyst said had been revised upwards after ginseng’s adaptogenic immunity benefits saw sales surge globally during the Coronavirus pandemic.

WHAT ARE ADAPTOGENS ?

In phytotherapy terms, adaptogens are a category of plants that can potently help the human body adapt to a range of stressors like fatigue or stress itself.

Adaptogens are benefitting from the tools of modern science to build on centuries of use in the traditional medicine cultures in places like China, Japan and India – not to mention millions of years of botanical evolution in adaptogenic plants as diverse as ginseng, ashwagandha, rhodiola, astragalus, eleuthero, turmeric, ginger, liquorice, bilberry, elderberry, bacopa, goji, holy basil, maca, schisandra, cordyceps, reishi, maitake and lion’s mane.

As this kind of knowledge has grown, adaptogens have moved from lab bench to retail shelf and into the public consciousness.

“Even though it has historic origins, adaptogen is kind of a new term in the way it is being promoted these days,” Emma Schofield, associate director of global food science at analyst Mintel told us at the 2021 Food Ingredients Europe show in Frankfurt, Germany. “Many ingredients are now promoted as having adaptogenic properties.” 

“As a term it has potential to gain a lot of attention although there are challenges around approved health claims. For instance, it is easier to use the term and link it to conditions like stress or immunity in the US than in Europe because the regulatory framework will allow that in the US. It is getting some traction on social media.”

The term ‘adaptogens’ has around 267,000 mentions on Instagram as of December 2021.

Adaptogenic powerhouse: a complex matrix of phytochemicals

Adaptogenic plants contain a variety of compounds such as the rare ginsenosides found in some ginseng varieties.

These compounds help ginseng survive in the wild – and it is these rare ginsenoside forms that lend botanicals like Panax ginseng their health-giving properties in the human body.

Just as these rare ginsenosides function best alongside other botanical compounds in the ginseng plant, it is also so in the human body, and especially the human brain.

That’s why full spectrum or totum botanicals that preserve a plant’s natural composition – including prebiotic polysaccharides that help convert common ginsenosides into more bioavailable rare ginsenosides and other bioactive compounds –  provide the most potent adaptogenic effects health-wise.

How do adaptogens work?

A scan of PubMed reveals more than 200 adaptogen trials and reviews that have shown effects ranging from stress relief to improved sleep, boosted immunity, neuroprotection, anti-fatigue and more.

This data shows that one of the main adaptogenic actions is influencing synaptic activity.

Synapses are the sites in your brain where neurons communicate. The more they are used the stronger they become, a concept known as synaptic plasticity which is important for learning and memory.

Full totum adaptogens have been shown to enhance synaptic plasticity, thereby decreasing vulnerability to neurodegeneration and its associated stresses. They modulate 75 protein expression genes that have a role in stress response in the neuroendocrine immune system.

One of the things chronic stress does is lower dopamine and serotonin levels by damaging their receptor sites. It impacts the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for learning abilities, decision making, judgment, social interaction, impulse control and empathy. Some call it the brain’s HQ.

In this sense adaptogens can help raise dopamine and serotonin levels and even beat addictions.

And it’s not just the brain. The nerve loop surrounding our intestines can also be damaged by chronic stress, as research investigating the gut-brain axis is showing.

Adaptogens have a prominent role to play in these and other emerging fields of research.

THE BOTANICAL HEALTH CLAIMS CONUNDRUM

While it is clear many consumers have an ambiguous appreciation of health claims, their approval can still have positive effects on botanical science and the broader botanicals sector.

Authorized health claims validate research efforts and affirm the validity of certain nutrients and products to function as healthful foods and food supplements.

Yet for many scientific agencies like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), only pharmaceutical-style clinical trial protocols are deemed sufficient to back food and food supplement health claims regardless of what kind of nutrient is involved – and in many cases this kind of data simply does not exist for complex, multi-compound herbal extracts like ginseng.

This can lead to a medicalized approach to botanicals, where compounds are isolated with the intention of having products approved under medicinal law, with all the complicated issues around dosage, safety and restricted distribution via medical prescriptions that go with that.

This approach is common among regulators globally yet goes very much against what traditional and modern science has taught us about the value of full-totum botanicals to human health.

On hold: EU herbal health claims

It is this dilemma that informs the EU’s position on more than 1500 health claim submissions for herbal extracts that have been on hold for more than a decade as regulators have stumbled on how to treat evidence such as traditional use data.

In the EU’s strict health claims system, only a handful of authorized botanical health claims exist since the nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR) began taking effect in 2008.

In this limbo of on-hold claims, authorization powers have remained with the EU’s 27 member states, creating a confusing patchwork that makes cross-border trade complicated when it comes to labelling and other marketing materials.

Foods versus medicines

Such ambiguity is used by some to advocate for adaptogens and other botanical extracts to be regulated as medicines, or simply as a more potent development avenue in the eyes of some researchers.

For instance, a meta-analysis of major adaptogens conducted by Bulgarian and French researchers published in Nutrients in August 2021, backed medicinal outcomes.

“Studies examining the benefits of using extracts of Rhodiola rosea, Eleutherococcus senticosus, Panax ginseng, Schisandra chinensis and Rhaponticum carthamoides are a limited in number,” they wrote.

“However, there are potentials for the inclusion of the extracts of these plants in medicinal products aimed at treating chronic fatigue, cognitive impairment, as well as boosting immune defenses.”

Katia Merten-Lentz, partner at law firm Keller and Heckman, put it this way in a FoodNavigator article last year: “The border between botanical food products and medicinal products, in particular traditional herbal medicinal products, is very thin. The choice of claims that accompany such products is consequently of particular importance.”

A review of how plant-based evidence could and should be applied by the NHCR is underway, but in the meantime the EU Court of Justice has suggested in at least two rulings that the EU’s on-hold status is legally dubious.

Way forward: Full-spectrum botanical standardization?

BOTALYS believes the kind of full-totum, botanical      standardization that is only possible with cultivar, nutritional input and climate-controlled vertical farming, could be a vital driver in resolving this market muddying, regulatory deadlock.

If regulators aren’t going to shift from the pharma-style requirements to back botanical health claims, then the ball is being thrown to those farmers who can deliver the kind of clinical standardization regulatory agencies like EFSA are demanding.

Watch this space because BOTALYS is intensively engaged in this clinical work as part of its ongoing everyday mission to bring the most pristine and environmentally-friendly adaptogens to the world.