What are Adaptogens?

Adaptogen herb & spice health food selection.

We all experience stress from time to time. However, in the last few years, global events, including a pandemic, have produced more stress than ever.

Stress is detrimental to mental and physical health and plays a role in poor health outcomes, from anxiety disorders and depression to heart disease and cancer. With rising stress levels, there is an urgent need for solutions to prevent stress and its many harmful effects.

Luckily, a potential solution has been gaining popularity: adaptogens.

History

Given the need for mental and physical endurance on the battleground, World War II (WWII) gave rise to research exploring substances that could enhance mental and physical performance.

After WWII ended, Soviet Union scientists coined the term adaptogen to describe endurance-enhancing substances, often naturally sourced, that had “non-specific” resistance to the body’s stress response.

These scientists started researching adaptogens with a few plants, such as Siberian ginseng and Schisandra. However, over the last, the adaptogen category has expanded to include over 70 plants and mushrooms and other natural substances.

Definition

While many definitions of “adaptogen” exist, you can think of an adaptogen as a natural, often plant-based medicine that helps protect your body from stress-induced damage and promotes mental and physical well-being.

But not all plants are adaptogens. There are 3 qualities a plant or other natural substance (e.g., mushroom) must possess to be classified as one. In no particular order:

1. It must be non-toxic, meaning it must have no harmful effects on the person taking it

2. It must promote physiological stability, meaning it must restore some kind of imbalance in the body

3. It must be non-specific, meaning it must work against all types of stressors.

Mechanism

A growing body of research is being conducted to fully understand how adaptogens work to promote mental and physical well-being. One theory with substantial evidence is that adaptogens work by exerting their effects mainly on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), also known as the “stress axis”. This is a system of brain regions that regulates the body’s stress response and releases the stress hormone called cortisol.

Typically, cortisol is useful in helping prepare the body for a stressful event. However, with chronic stress or other underlying conditions, the HPA axis can become disordered, leading to soaring cortisol levels, which are associated with deteriorating health.

While this stress axis theory is scientifically supported, further research is certainly needed to fully understand how adaptogens work.

Clinical evidence

In 2010, researchers collected results from over 20 clinical studies on adaptogens and their effects on mental and physical well-being. They produced a tabulated summary showing that adaptogens have a wide range of effects, such as

  • Reducing mental and physical fatigue
  • Improving cognitive performance in areas of attention, learning, and memory
  • Regulating the stress response by decreasing cortisol levels and sympathetic nervous system activity (which increases our heart rate, breathing rate, and more during stress)
  • Relieving symptoms of depression, such as low mood and insomnia
  • Improving physical energy and performance.

Examples

Now that you know a bit more about adaptogens, here are some of the most well-researched examples:

  • Panax ginseng
  • Ashwagandha
  • Cordyceps
  • Siberian Ginseng
  • Holy Basil
  • Rhodiola
  • Schisandra

Please note that this is not a complete list. As mentioned previously, over 70 types of plants and other natural substances are classified as adaptogens, with more being discovered as research continues.

Visit the Nara Plant Library to discover more information about these herbs and mushrooms, such as their clinical evidence, how they work, and how to take them safely.

Please note that this article does not contain medical advice. For serious health concerns, please consult a healthcare professional.