Three years ago, wellness entrepreneur Nadine Joseph wasn't spending her days doing what you might expect of someone who founded their own line of herbal supplements. She was neither sorting bulk bags of mushrooms on her kitchen counter, nor hopping on the phone with customers to discuss their intimate health concerns. Instead, Joseph was working in a laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., studying the effects of stress on the brain.
In her work as a neuroscientist, Joseph examined the ways in which everyday stressors impact not just our cognitive abilities, but our bodies overall. It was also a subject she was intimately familiar with outside the lab.
"For a period of three years, I was living an unsustainably stressful lifestyle," says Joseph, who founded Seattle-based, science-backed wellness brand Peak and Valley in 2018. Joseph was exhausted in every sense, becoming agitated over the smallest of triggers. At one point, she even worked overnight as a helper to someone with cerebral palsy, and when her shift ended, went straight back to the lab. It was an anatomical call for help.
"If you were to look at what was going on in my body with a biological microscope, you'd see that my adrenal glands couldn't keep up with the constant stress I was experiencing," she says. "They were functioning below the necessary level. When my body was saying, 'Hey, emit some more cortisol!' My glands were like, 'Oh, we actually don't have that much cortisol left.'"
Joseph ended up at the doctor's office where she was prescribed a cocktail of medication that included a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI). These commonly-prescribed antidepressants, like Lexapro, Prozac or Zoloft, work by increasing levels of serotonin within the brain. Joseph is affirming of medication: "It's definitely a personal choice, whether or not you want to go on them," she stresses.
But when it came to her own treatment options, she grew wary of the side effects that are theorized to be associated with SSRIs. (Frequent examples include mild headaches, nausea and decreased libido). So she began wafting through biomedical-research database PubMed in search of an alternative with which she was more comfortable. [Editor's note: Always consult your physician before adjusting prescribed medical treatments.] Months later, she stumbled upon adaptogens. "I still remember the article I read," she adds. "It was just one of those things where I became immediately fascinated because of how unique the category is."
This select group of herbs, roots and even some mushrooms supports the body's natural ability to process stress. And because each person responds to stressors in categorically different ways, adaptogens quite literally "adapt" their function based on the specific needs of the body, be they physical, chemical or biological. They're also side effect-free, which was of particular interest to Joseph at the time.
Armed with her scientific background, Joseph began researching adaptogenic elements, like ashwagandha and reishi mushrooms, eventually ordering ingredients to create her own blends. But the more she learned about adaptogens on a biological level, the more concerned she became about the quality, or lack thereof, of what was then on the market.
"I wasn't excited about the options I had," she remembers. "So instead of going with traditional commercial companies, I ended up ordering from farms. I didn't have a high salary — I'm a broke researcher — and I was ordering these big bags of mushrooms and herbs and roots, seeing what I can blend together to make it easier for myself to consume."
When Joseph talks about quality, she's referring to something called beta-glucans, or complex sugars that make adaptogens' actual healing qualities possible. The higher the quality of the adaptogen, the higher the percentage of beta-glucan concentration — and the more impactful the adaptogen is as a whole.
There are a number of factors that go into creating high beta-glucan content, one of which is where the adaptogen itself is physically grown. Take mushrooms, like the aforementioned reishi, or fungi like chaga, cordyceps and lion's mane. "They can be grown either on grain or on wood," explains Joseph. "In nature, they're grown on wood. But what you see with a lot of American companies is that, just because of limitations we have with land, they're not grown on wood. This leads to really low beta-glucan content."
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Joseph's $38 blends, which can be stirred into cozy beverages, baked into desserts or added to a morning smoothie, were different. Her first, Balance My Stress, features reishi extract, eleuthero root, ashwagandha and cocoa, and not only helps protect against stress, but also works to decrease fatigue, protect the immune system and improve blood flow. "It balanced out the way I experienced stress. I had better sleep at night. Things became a lot manageable," she says.
Her second blend, too, was a personal passion project. After years of painful eczema, she created Nurture My Skin, which includes inflammation-fighting turmeric, hydrating rosehip and circulatory Dong Quai root. She says it reduced her eczema by roughly 90%. And for blend number three, Nourish My Brain, Joseph incorporated medicinal mushroom extracts with herbs and roots to boost memory ability and focus. It quickly became an MVP during her long days in the lab. She began wondering: If her blends had improved her own life so dramatically, would she really want to keep them a secret?
"When I was satisfied with the standards I had put in place, I started sharing them with my friends and family," says Joseph. "They experienced a lot of positive effects, especially my mom. One day I looked at all of this stuff in my kitchen and was like, 'I should probably create a company with this. I think I could do a lot of good sharing this with people.'"
In September 2018, Joseph left her demanding research job to work on Peak and Valley full-time, launching the brand with her three blends that same December. Today, Peak and Valley has remained small, and intentionally so, but has grown to include new retail partners and wholesale stockists: 43 of them (at press time) and counting. In August, that group expanded to include Nordstrom, which now carries Peak and Valley at seven of its in-store pop-up shops across the U.S., as well as at Nordstrom.com.
In 2020, it's not unusual for a luxury department-store chain to be selling wellness powders made from medicinal plants. This is not simply because the U.S. is in the thick of a mental health crisis that the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated on a grand scale. Anxiety disorders, for example, already affect an estimated 18% of American adults. Certain adaptogens work to combat anxiety symptoms not as a silver bullet, but supplementally over time. For that, Joseph is her own perfect case study.
She'll also be the first person to tell you that the market in which Peak and Valley sits has an undeniable diversity, inclusivity and accessibility problem: Luxury shoppers with financial means and geographic accessibility are not the only consumers who could benefit from adaptogens. "One big, big problem with the wellness industry is that it really just caters to caucasian women with a disposable income. "That's seen in every single marketing message," says Joseph, who designed Peak and Valley's jars herself and included a woman of color on every single one of them. "I'm a woman of color in the wellness space, and it's pretty frustrating to see that minorities in general just aren't being represented in an industry that's supposed to be about self-care and mindfulness."
This is especially problematic — and appropriative — when considering the communities and traditions that have been using adaptogenic ingredients for thousands of years. "Another step toward diversification in this space is just respecting these Eastern self-care practices and herbal medicines that we're incorporating into Western wellness," she says.
In celebrating adaptogens like the ones Peak and Valley is using, it's necessary to credit both Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old system of natural healing with its origins in the Vedic culture of India, as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which aims to restore the body's natural harmony between the opposing forces of yin and yang. "A lot of these practices come from people of color," adds Joseph. "They're going through this process where people of color are slowly phased out of it."
To truly diversify the wellness industry, Joseph suggests her colleagues look to their supply chains: Are those who have been using your ingredients for a much longer time than you have actually visible within this space? Do your farmers and suppliers have space to tell their side of how they use their medicine? And at the absolute very, very least, are those individuals being compensated fairly not just for their services, but also their millennia of knowledge?
Still, Joseph is energized by the diversification she sees in the space. There's power in numbers, and with category leaders like Joseph, there's also an example that's already been set. "We're going to see these medicinal herbs incorporated into every aspect of our way of life," she says. "I was talking with someone just a few months ago who's planning on incorporating adaptogens into an ice cream! I'm just excited to see what the future holds because I never could have anticipated it being so widespread."