Natural herb products that supplement the body's ability to deal with stressors such as anxiety, fatigue, or trauma are called adaptogens. Although herbs identified as adaptogens may have their origin in various medicinal traditions, the concept of using an herb as an adaptogen has its origin in Western herbalism.
Adaptogens are not one small type or predetermined mixture of herbs, but a variety of plants that may be used alone or in combination with one another. It is thought that these whole herbs, when used alone or in combination, promote the balancing of the endocrine (hormone) system and boost the immune system. In this way, the herbs are thought to promote homeostasis, or a state of balance and stability, in the body.
Most adaptogens have been used for thousands of years in various traditions of Asian medical practices, such as Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The herbs that are used in contemporary Western herbalism are known to perform a variety of functions within these Asian healing systems. These functions include rasayanas (herbs or preparations that encourage health and longevity) in Ayurveda and qi tonics (herbs or preparations that correct imbalances of energy) in traditional Chinese medicine. Rasayanas and qi tonics are not the names of herbs or a specific herbal formula. Instead, they are categories of the type of action that the herb performs in the body.
In the 1940s, Dr. Nikolai Lazarev defined adaptogens in a way that made sense to Western systems of herbalism and medicine. Lazarev coined the term "adaptogen" to mean an agent that raises the body's ability to resist stress by countering undesired stressors, whether physical, chemical, emotional, or biological.
Today, adaptogens are administered by integrative practitioners and herbalists to patients facing difficult emotional or physical circumstances in order to prevent overtaxing of the body's energetic resources. Adaptogens are also used in sports medicine and sold on the internet to supposedly counter conditions such as aging and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Many articles on adaptogens have been published in peer reviewed medical journals. However, these articles tend to focus on a specific action of a particular chemical or herb, rather than on a whole herb or combination of herbs.
Intrigued by their long history of use in various systems of herbal medicine, researchers have recently turned to adaptogens as a possible treatment for patients experiencing high levels of emotional and physical stress.
In order to be considered an adaptogen, an herb must possess several qualities. First, the herb must be nontoxic to the patient at normal doses. Secondly, the herb should produce a response that allows the entire body to cope with stress; this response involves multiple organ systems. Finally, the herb should help the body to return to a state of homeostasis regardless of how the person's normal functioning has changed in response to stress. In other words, adaptogens may tone down hyperfunctioning systems or they may boost hypofunctioning systems in the body.
Adaptogens are thought to normalize the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, an intricate system of direct and indirect feedback mechanisms that regulate, most notably, the body's reaction to stress. The HPA axis also plays a major part in the immune system, the process of digestion, energy usage, mood, and sexuality. The HPA is controlled by hormones, the same chemicals that tend to be altered when the body experiences stress.
A 2003 study published by Bhattacharya et al. tested the adaptogenic properties of rats subjected to chronic stress in the form of a foot shock for 21 days. The animals were supplemented with Withania somnifera, an Ayurvedic herb classified as rasayana. The animals who received the adaptogenic supplement showed smaller changes in plasma corticosterone levels and gastric ulcerations.
A 1999 study conducted by Panossian et al. investigated the effects of administering two adaptogens to a group of athletes subjected to physical exercise induced stress. The experimental group was given standardized extracts of Schizandra chinesis and Bryonia alba. As compared to the control group, the experimental group showed lower salivary nitric oxide and cortisol levels in saliva after heavy physical exercise.
There is no one set formula for adaptogens. Rather, herbalists might prepare a combination of herbs for a patient depending on a particular patient's unique stressors and physical circumstances. Other qualities of herbs identified as adaptogens may be taken into account during the selection process. For instance, a patient experiencing constipation as well as a high level of emotional stress at the same time would be given a formula to treat both of these symptoms simultaneously.
Some people choose to purchase tinctures and pills marketed as adaptogens over the internet. However, these products are not usually designed to address all of the symptoms a patient may be experiencing, and should not be used without consulting a qualified healthcare provider.
A number of herbs are used as adaptogens. Though most of these herbs originate from Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, some herbs from Western herbalism are included as well. These herbs include: American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), amla (Emblica officinalis), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus), cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis), Dang Shen (Codonopsis pilosula), eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia), He Shou Wu (Polygonum multiflorum), jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Lycium (Lycium chinensis), maca (Lepidium meyenii), Prince Seng (Pseudostellaria heterophylla), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), rhaponticum (Rhaponticum carthamoides or Stemmacantha carthamoides), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), shatavari (Asparagus racemosus), shilajit (Ashphaltum bitumen), and suma (Pfaffia paniculata).
The herbs and plants classified as adaptogens are thought to contain a variety of chemicals that may help the body cope with stress including: beta-sitosterol, cucurbitacins, dammarane triterpene saponins, flavan glycosides, flavonoids, glucopyranosides, hydroxylated fatty acids, lignans, octadecadienoic acid, oxylipins, phenylpropanes, phytoecdysteroids, phytosterols, prenylated flavonoids, schizandrin, sesamin, syringaresinol, triterpenoid saponins, and turkesterone.
Research determining the exact way that an herb or its constituents behave as adaptogens is currently limited. For this reason, adaptogenic supplements derived from the whole plant, rather than isolated chemicals, are usually taken. Adaptogens may be given in combination with one another.
The information in this monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. Information is based on review of scientific research data, historical practice patterns, and clinical experience. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions.