This article is the second of a series of articles about adaptogens. If you haven’t yet read part 1, you can find it here Adaptogens: Miracle plants or Myth? (Introduction)
According to the American Institute of Stress, in 2014, 77% of people in the US regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress with 33% of people feeling like they are living with extreme stress. Add on a catastrophic event like a global pandemic and the percentages are speculated to be much higher. Even though the above statistics originate from the US, stress is universal and affects everyone; somehow, somewhere, sometime.
Just as stress is unique to individuals, there is no single stress reduction strategy that is a panacea or cure-all. There are multiple stress coping strategies available, such as the use of prescription drugs, supplements, exercise, and multiple relaxation techniques. While these methods can and do provide benefits, results can be mixed, unsatisfactory, and unsustainable. Also, long-term use of prescription drugs can result in dependency and unwanted adverse effects.
Stress reduction is not a novel concept. During World War II, Russian scientists had an idea to devise a “super pill” that could reduce stress and fatigue, thereby improving mental and physical performance in the military. The interest in a “super pill” originated from special berries and seeds used by Nanai hunters. The Nanai hunters used these berries for a variety of functions, including as a tonic, to reduce thirst, hunger & exhaustion, and to improve night vision. That special berry is called Schisandra chinensis, and it was the study of this plant that fueled other discoveries and consequently introducing the concept of adaptogens (1).
Adaptogens are defined as compounds that increase the nonspecific resistance of an organism to stress and other environmental influences.
Even though knowledge about some of these plants dates back thousands of years to ancient Chinese and ayurvedic healing cultures, the Russian scientists studied these plants extensively and the term adaptogen was officially coined by Dr. Lazarev (a pioneering Soviet researcher) in 1962. Twenty years following this discovery (by 1982), over 1000 studies had been published in Russia alone, on the pharmacological and clinical efficacy of these plants.
More recently, the definition of adaptogens has been modified and redefined as pharmacotherapeutic herbal preparations that increase attention and endurance in fatigue and reduce stress-induced impairments and disorders related to the neuroendocrine and immune systems (1).
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
To understand how adaptogens work, Dr. Selye needs to be introduced. Dr. Selye is recognized as the “Father” of the field of stress research and gained global recognition for introducing the concept of stress in a medical context. In his research, he discovered the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).
The GAS is a progressive syndrome that describes the physiological changes the body goes through in response to stress. The three phases are the Alarm phase → Resistance phase → Exhaustion phase.
The alarm phase is the flight or fight response.
The resistance or adaptation phase is the initial period after the stressing event, as the body attempts to return to homeostasis. However, if the stressor remains, the body will stay in a state of alert, and stress hormones (like cortisol) will continue to be produced.
If the resistance stage continues for prolonged periods without breaks, we reach the exhaustion phase. The exhaustion phase is the result of chronic stress. This third stage is characterized by adrenal dysfunction. Here, the body’s “energy of adaptation” is used up and the resistance of the organism becomes exhausted. At the exhaustion phase, a person’s body is no longer equipped to fight stress, and as a result, they may experience the following;
- Burnt out
- Feeling unable to cope
Prolonged stress results in both predictable and unpredictable systemic effects that eventually lead to system dysfunction. So, if a person does not find ways to manage stress levels at this stage, they are at risk of developing diseases, infections, and other health conditions.
This is where adaptogens come in.
The general purpose of adaptogens is the reduction of stress responses in the resistance phase, thereby delaying or avoiding the exhaustion stage. According to Donald Yance (an internationally known master herbalist and nutritionist) in his book Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism, “Adaptogens help us live with greater mental and physical endurance and vitality while mitigating the cost of stressors and building up our reserves through enhancing our regenerative capacities”(4).
Dr. Brekhman in the 1960s refined formal definition of adaptogens which can be referred to as the three Ns:
- Normalize: Adaptogens have a balancing, normalizing effect on body functions, regardless of the origin of disruption or the direction of the homeostatic disturbance.
- Nonspecific: Adaptogens have a general, nonspecific action to improve resistance to all types of stress, including chemical, physical, and psychological.
- Nontoxic: Adaptogens are safe and have no significant side effects or contraindications.
Dr. Panossian (Head of R&D at the Swedish Herbal Institute and leading researcher in the field of adaptogens) and his colleagues in 1999, showed that adaptogens work by regulating two master control systems in the body; the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathoadrenal system (SAS). Liao et al, in their review article that examines contemporary studies on adaptogens, describe the mechanism of action of plant-originated adaptogens on the human body with the figure below.
Liao et al. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13020-018-0214-9
Plants in general and specifically adaptogenic plants are exposed to physical, chemical, and biological stressors in their environment. Unlike most animals, plants can’t physically “run away” from these stressors. As a result, certain plants have developed a mechanism to produce secondary molecules to allow them to respond appropriately and adapt to the perceived environmental stimuli. It is many of these secondary compounds within adaptogens that, when ingested as extracts by humans, increase our ability to withstand stress (4).
Adaptogens are further classified as primary and secondary adaptogens. For a plant to be considered a primary adaptogen, it must meet the following criteria
- Have solid scientific research validating their use as adaptogens
- Enhance “general resistance” of the entire body
- Act in a non-specific way, having a “normalizing effect” against all forms of stress
- Have an ability to maintain or restore homeostasis
- Safe and have no side effects, even with prolonged consumption.
Before moving forward, I must highlight that although these plants are defined as non-toxic and relatively harmless, that is not always the case in every situation. Adaptogens are not for everyone and people with certain medical conditions should avoid certain adaptogens. Before taking any type of herbal supplement, including adaptogens, please consult with your health care provider.
In part 3, I will go deeper into the scientific research available and in part 4, discuss the most commonly available adaptogens, warnings, precautions, and side effects, and finally, part 5 will cover, practical and safe ways to incorporate adaptogens daily, to improve health and well-being.
- Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Healing Arts Press, 2019.
- Liao, Lian-Ying, et al. “A Preliminary Review of Studies on Adaptogens: Comparison of Their Bioactivity in TCM with That of Ginseng-like Herbs Used Worldwide.” Chinese Medicine, vol. 13, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1186/s13020-018-0214-9.
- Panossian, Alexander, and Georg Wikman. “Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity.” Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 3,1 188-224. 19 Jan. 2010, doi:10.3390/ph3010188
- Yance, Donald R. Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism: Elite Herbs and Natural Compounds for Mastering Stress, Aging, and Chronic Disease. Healing Arts Press, 2013.