The term “adaptogen” was coined by Nikolai Vasiyevich Lazarev back in 1947, who worked in toxicology and pharmacology.
While most things identified in nature or as drugs help increase or decrease certain functions within the body, adaptogens are non-specific remedies “that increase resistance to a broad spectrum of harmful factors (stressors) of different physical, chemical and biological natures”.
A more recent definition has also been used: “new class of metabolic regulators (of a natural origin) which increase the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors and to avoid damage from such factors.”
More specifically adaptogens were found to decrease sensitivity to stressors, resulting in stress protection, which led to a longer phase of resistance. Basically, they helped the body to function at a better state of homeostasis.
For an herb to be considered an adaptogen it has to meet three criteria. These were defined in 1969 by Brekhman and Dardymov. I’ve reworded them to make it easier to memorize with the 3 N’s.
- Nontoxic – It must be suitable for consumption by everyone even at large doses.
- Non-Specific – The benefits can’t just target one “problem” in the body.
- Normalizing – Regardless of what the cause may be or where in the body, an adaptogen will support getting better increasing or decreasing functions as needed.
One of the hypothesized reasons for adaptogen’s effects is that they work on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the Sympathoadrenal System (SAS). They help to regulate the connected nervous, endocrine, immune and other systems in the body.
More recent research points to adaptogens working at the cellular level. A cell within the human body (and all living things) can be in one of four states:
- Balance (homeostasis)
- Functioning under stressful conditions (threatened homeostasis)
- The state of adaptation to stress (homeostasis with a higher level of equilibrium)
- Apoptosis (dying)
The adaptogens activate stress-induced self-defense mechanisms in the cell, which cause them to adapt. Researchers likened them to a stress vaccine, but we’re not big on vaccines so a different, more applicable analogy is useful. Adaptogens help cells much like a muscle being exercised. Thus, they become better able to handle the other stressors that occur.
Thus, if they can help your cells to handle stress better, they can function better, and produce less collateral damage like in free radicals. This may be brought on by the activation of heat shock proteins which protect mitochondria from damage.
This will help with certain types of cell damage, but my guess is that more research will show more details and how adaptogens may mean less cell aging in all seven forms.
What has been discovered so far is that adaptogenic compounds in plants are made of either complex phenols or triterpenoids. Examples of these are:
These compounds have been found to have different actions.
From Wikipedia “The mechanism of action of adaptogens has been hard to rationalize.” The only reason it is hard for Western science is because they’re trapped in a paradigm where of “one drug, one function”. For best effects of adaptogens, you do not want an isolated compound but the whole plant or a whole plant extract. This preserves the “intelligence” of the plant with its many active constituents. This is why some studies point to a stimulating effect on the immune systems with Cordyceps while others show modulation.
Western science desires to know the effects of everything, but the human body and natural substances have proven to be a lot more complicated than we may grasp. This leaves room for the wisdom of ancient cultures regarding herbs as well as your own experience in using them, rather than only looking at double blind studies and research.
Ginseng is the most well known adaptogenic herb in the world. (Note that these adaptogenic effects only come to be in mature ginsengs, though most of the products on the market are inferior, young ginsengs.) But ginseng is far from the only one. Some others include Rhodiola, Codonopsis, eleuthero, schizandra, ashwagandha, holy basil or tulsi, cordyceps, maral root, gynostemma, shilajit and more.
As you can see from this list there are adaptogens in all different herbal systems and cultures. The Ayurvedic system uses the term rasayana to described the adaptogenic effects of promoting physical and mental health, extending longevity and improving the defense of the body.
The effects of adaptogens have been fairly well studied in both animal and human models. In Russia over 1500 studies were published in the 60’s to the 80’s on the effects of adaptogens.
A combination of Rhodiola, Eleuthero and Schisandra was found to increase the lifespan of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, in a dose-dependent manner. That means the more they had of the adaptogens the longer life they lived. You can find a lot more of the specific research in the recommended reading below.
Except in rare cases, almost no side effects are reported with adaptogens. They do not cause dependency or addiction. They do not impair mental function as do many drugs. They’re not stimulating like stimulants. The only time they have a stimulating effect is against a background of physical or mental fatigue.
This isn’t to say that all adaptogens are the same. In general, they all help the body to adapt to stress, but the specifics of each herb in how they do that can have different effects. To get the best all-around adaptogenic effects, it is best to take several different adaptogenic herbs, like in the new Spartan Formula.
- Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes
- Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity
- Plant adaptogens III. Earlier and more recent aspects and concepts on their mode of action