The potential health benefits of adaptogens

Adaptogens are a select group of herbs, roots and some mushrooms that support the body’s natural ability to deal with stress.

History of Adaptogens

 Originating from the Greek word “adapto,” the term adaptogen is applied to plants that produce special substances, allowing them to evolve under significant conditions of environmental stress. 

The medicinal practice of using these herbs and roots can be traced back to 3000 B.C., in Ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions but the first to study them were former Soviet Union research scientists Nicolai Lazarev and Israel Brekhman.

They were pharmacologist during World War II, and their role was to help keep soldiers awake while they were in the trenches. They were using drugs to keep the soldiers awake, but they noticed the substances were taking a significant toll on the health of the soldiers.

When the war was finished, Brekhman continued his research finding natural substances that could enhance performance without harming the human body and the idea of using herbal medicinal plants to increase stamina and survival in harmful environment was developed.

He introduced the new concept of “adaptogens” to describe compounds which could increase “the state of non-specific resistance” in stress.

Their research found that adaptogens work by normalizing the body’s functions under stress, and daily consumption improves mental and physical performance while reducing fatigue.

This concept was based on the physician-scientist Dr. Hans Selye’s theory of stress and general adaptation syndrome, which have three phases: alarm phase, phase of resistance and phase of exhaustion (1).

(1) Adaptogens increase the state of non-specific resistance in stress and decrease sensitivity to stressors, which results in stress protection, and prolong the phase of resistance (stimulatory effect). Instead of exhaustion, a higher level of equilibrium (the homeostasis) is attained the heterostasis. The higher it is, the better the adaptation to stress. Thus, the stimulating and anti-fatigue effect of adaptogens has been documented in both in animals and in humans. 

Brekhman’s dream was to bring adaptogens to the mass public instead of just elite athletes and the space program. Unfortunately, he had to be very careful when revealing his body of work because he was still employed by the Soviet government and they had a clamp on this technology. The Soviet Union was a closed society and the government was trying to keep these as their own state secret.

One of the first bringing adaptogens to the Western world was Jim Coover. He was one of the first people to travel to Vladivostok, a closed-off city where military and submarine bases forbad Westerners to visit with the intent of learning from Brekhman, meeting some of his scientists, and bringing this technology to the rest of the world and thankfully he was able to accomplish that.

So what are adaptogens?

They are called adaptogens because of their unique ability to “adapt” their function according to the specific needs of the body. They help the body resist stressors of all kinds, whether physical, chemical, biological, emotional, or environmental. So they reduce the effects of stress, whether the source is psychological, physiological, noise, temperature, etc.

They have a normalizing (amphoteric) effect on the body, helping to restore normal physiologic function that has been altered by stress.

Each adaptogen has a slightly different function and characteristics, some are stimulating, some calming, some warming, some cooling, some moistening, and some drying. Because different species of plants have different chemical makeups, some may also have additional specific uses but on the whole, “adaptogens help your body handle stress,” says Dr. Brenda Powell, co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. “They’re meant to bring us back to the middle.”

Per example, if we exercise, it’s a stress on our body. But as we continue to train and exercise, our body becomes better at dealing with the stress of it. When we take adaptogens, meanwhile, it’s like we’re training our body to handle the effects of stress.

Or if the immune system is depressed, adaptogens enhance the immune response. If the immune system is overactive—for instance with allergies—adaptogens help re-regulate the immune response, decreasing overactivity.

How do they work?

Adaptogens work interacting with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls endocrine function, as well as the nervous system and some immune function, and the sympathoadrenal system, which is our fight or flight response.

Adaptogens may tweak hormone production and physiological responses to stress to ensure that your body—from your mind to your immune system to your energy levels—functions as it should.

In a 2010 study by the Swedish Herbal Institute Research & Development, researchers concluded that “Adaptogens have a significant, beneficial and specific effect on stress-induced symptoms under fatigue.” The study showed that “the most convincing evidence of the efficacy of adaptogens were found in studies related to its effects on cognitive function and mental performance, and on its efficacy in asthenia and depression.”

Recently, Dr. Panossian (the world’s foremost authority on adaptogens) found that they also work on a cellular level to prevent cortisol (the major stress hormone)-induced mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria are the “engines of our cells,” and when they no longer function appropriately, this can contribute to conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. By up-regulating particular proteins and peptides within the body, adaptogens help keep the mitochondria properly functioning even when under chronic stress conditions.

But many of the benefits of adaptogens take time to accumulate, warns Dr Teiraona Low Dog a well-known western doctor who specializes in herbal medicine:

“Many of these plants, when they’re taken over a period of time, they really do help people manage their stress more effectively. People will have more energy. They’ll sleep better… They’re intended to be taken over a longer period of time. Their effects are more gentle and subtle, but very powerful.”

Today they can be found in drinks, teas, tinctures, tonics and powders.

How many adaptogens exist?

There are dozens of plants, growing in some of the world’s harshest environments, that fall under the adaptogen category.

Here are some of the most common adaptogens:

Do adaptogens have side effects?

It depends on several factors. Adaptogens are nontoxic in normal therapeutic doses. But as any plant, can be allergenic or cause gastrointestinal distress for some people, but there’s little evidence to suggest that adaptogens have serious side effects or cause health problems.

Some adaptogens are stimulating (red ginseng, white Asian ginseng, rhodiola), some are calming (schisandra, ashwagandha, reishi, cordyceps). Some are moistening (American ginseng, codonopsis, shatavari); some are drying (rhodiola, schisandra). 

The idea is to learn about adaptogens and figure out which one—or which combination—fits you.

But before deciding to add one to your routine, always better to consult with your doctor specially if you are taking medication. It is possible that some adaptogens could interfere with prescription medications and are not recommended for people with certain conditions. 

Remember: Taking adaptogens can help you function better if you have short-term situations when you are not getting enough sleep, or your diet is not what is should be but adaptogens are not replacements for a healthy lifestyle. Adequate and good quality sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, stress reduction techniques, and healthy lifestyle choices are foundational. Using adaptogens long-term and continuing to live an unhealthy life just delays the inevitable crash.

*This article has informational purposes only, even if this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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