As our culture pivots towards more natural remedies to maladies traditionally treated with pharmaceuticals, IVs and surgical procedures, the concept of wellness is becoming about more than just healthy vital stats. Holistic health and a sustainable quality of life are becoming a collective priority, which has led clinical medicine to begin to eye homeopathic medicine as more than just the village mystic. In fact, Western medicine is slowly learning that it has never been the smartest person in the room.
The World Wildlife Fund suggest that there are somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 plant species used for medicinal purposes worldwide. However, there are only 9 well-documented adaptogens, which makes them the rarest class of all medicinal plants. These bioactive plants, along with a complementary, more common group called nootropics, are what clinical medical research is counting on for the future of a more nature-sourced approach to mainstream medicine.
What Makes a Plant an Adaptogen?
Adaptogens are a class of plants that are said to boost overall resistance to stressors – both environmental and internal. History, use and research suggests adaptogens work in a non-specific way to help the body adapt to and overcome adverse situations, whether it’s distress, fatigue, brain fog, poor physical condition, etc.
Ginseng, ashwagandha, holy basil and maca root are some of the most well-known adaptogens. On differing levels of clinical research, history and real-life application, each has a body of support for its beneficial effects on resilience and quality of life.
The term “adaptogen” didn’t appear in academic literature until 1957, when a Russian scientist used it to describe compounds that boost the “state of non-specific resistance” to stress. And a modern adaptogen movement was born.
Adaptogens Have Been Used for How Many Years?
Obviously we didn’t just happen upon 9 new magical plants in the mid-20th century – modern medicine is good, but it’s not that good, and we wouldn’t be surprised if Asclepius struck someone down for even thinking so. The first adaptogen use we know of is a specific adaptogen – ashwagandha – evidence of which dates from 5000-6000 YBP. Which is way before Asclepius came on the scene, so does he even have a right to be mad?
Ashwagandha has been used in Indian and Chinese Ayurvedic medicine since people were writing in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit, the name means “smells of a horse.” This moniker was chosen because the root smells weird and because consuming ashwagandha was said to give you the power of a horse.
Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine are based in herbal pastes, tonics, teas, and other drinks. This subfield is referred to as Rasayana, which means “rejuvenator.” The immunity drinks were most often a mix of several herbs (we’d assume there are a few adaptogens and nootropics amongst the list), but ashwagandha offered such an array of medicinal uses that it was one of the few adaptogens used alone as its own herbal remedy.
China wasn’t far behind in discovering the potential of adaptogens. Around 5000-5600 YBP, expeditions into Siberia introduced reishi, an adaptogenic mushroom that was quickly hoarded by the royal family. It is also believed that around this time emperor Huang Di made medicinal tonics with ginseng.
The earliest Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia we have dates to about 2200 YPB. It classifies over 350 medicinal herbs, including adaptogens like ginseng, holy basil and ashwagandha. From here, via medical and historical texts, you can almost watch the “roots” of adaptogens grow to reach cultures across multiple continents:
- Greece, 77 CE: Dioscorides writes De Materia Medica, which classifies 600 medically-useful herbs, several adaptogens among them, including rhodiola and licorice. Yes; licorice. Gross, but true.
- China, 220 CE: The Traditional Chinese Medical Text, Shennong Herbal, lists 262 medicinal plants used in TCM, including ginseng and reishi.
- China, 495 CE: Shaolin monks use adaptogens to aid with meditation.
- Northwest Europe, Viking Period: Rhodiola is used to boost strength and endurance in war.
- Siberia, 1000 CE: The Khanty use the adaptogen chaga drink to detox the body and as a paste for sores.
- Russia, 1100 CE: Tsar Vladimir Monomakh claims regular consumption of an adaptogen drink cured his lip cancer.
Since textual evidence for the use of adaptogens in Middle Ages Europe isn’t really there, we’re assume these valuable medicinal herbs were forgotten along with a ton of other important stuff after the Dark Ages. It was a time of chaos and disease. Who knows.
Let’s jump to the 20th century.
The Modern History of Adaptogens
Research into adaptogens started in secret labs deep in the former Soviet Union in 1947 at the start of the Cold War Era. The goal was to identify medicines which could increase the strength and resistance of Soviet soldiers, including the early cosmonauts.
The first plant adaptogen they identified was Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), originally identified in Traditional Chinese Medicine thousands of years before. However, it was deemed too expensive to use among all members of the military force, due to the overharvesting and overconsumption of both Asian and American ginseng.
The Russians did stumble upon a distant relative of the Panax ginsengs that offered similar benefits: Siberian ginseng, also referred to as eleuthero. While it is in a different botanical family and interacts with the body via different compounds, Siberian ginseng tonics showed promising results, spurring the inception of clinical research on this ginseng-substitute as an adaptogen. In tandem, the search for synthetic compounds that could act like plant adaptogens began, but would end in failure two decades later.
However, Siberian ginseng stayed on the scene, because it’s awesome. Russia, in its quest to replace hard-to-find true ginsengs, began clinical trials in the late ‘50s. By the late ‘70s, 3+ million Russians used Siberian ginseng supplements, including elite athletes preparing for the Olympics.
The struggle to identify synthetic adaptogenic compounds didn’t fail because the definition was too difficult. Rather, marrying the wisdom of traditional medicine and the complexity of nature was yet impossible. Still is today; like how we’re still working to decipher Minoan Linear A even though we’ve got 3 other versions of it that are easy to read. Do we know some words? Yes. Do we know how it works? Nah.
This article is starting to lean pretty Greek…
The reason adaptogenic mechanisms are now medically referred to as “non-specific” is because, while we made up cool names for adaptogenic, nootropic and other bioactive compounds, we’re still not sure exactly how they help the body fight stress and perform better. We’re just pretty sure that they do because we keep finding evidence to suggest as much.
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Adaptogens: Diamonds in the Rough of Medicinal Herbs
We’ve got all these old medical books with 300+ plants and herbs that offer health benefits, so why are there less than 10 known adaptogens? Because the definition of an adaptogen is among the most difficult to achieve, not only in terms of traditional medicine but in medicine altogether. To qualify as an adaptogen the substance must:
- Be non-toxic and have no negative effects
- Produce a broad state of resistance to physical, emotional and environmental stressors
- Have an overall ‘normalizing’ effect on the body allowing it to restore normal physiologic functions that have been altered by stress
In a world where most medicines start with the word “anti“ (i.e. anti-biotics, anti-depressants, anti-hypertensives), adaptogens are the rare “pro-normalizers”. And the reason there are only 9 of them is because helping the body restore normalcy is more difficult to achieve than you may think.
Do you know how many systems are working together all the time just to help you breathe and move; it’s a lot easier to find bioactive compounds that stop one or two bad things, as opposed to compounds that regulate and promote proper systems functions so they don’t get messed up in the first place. Western medicine is mitigation-based. Traditional folk medicines, and specifically adaptogens, are about prevention and support.
How Do Adaptogens Work?
Research suggests that adaptogens improve the communication pathway between the two master control systems for stress:
(1) the group of brain structures directing stress-related neurochemical communication and
(2) the gland signaling system that triggers release of stress-related hormones/neurotransmitters.
That’s just a fancy way of saying that adaptogens enhance the cross-talk between the body/mind connection to resist the impact of stress.
Nikolai Lazarav, who coined the term “adaptogen” in the ‘40s and officially published the term in the ‘50’s, was the first to explore this effect on the body clinically. His study on adaptogens was based in Selye’s Theory of Stress and General Adaptation Syndrome.
This theoretical body classifies the body’s stress response in 3 stages: alarm, resistance, exhaustion. Adaptogens are thought to reduce alarm, support resistance, and resist exhaustion. Clinical trials on adaptogens like ashwagandha suggest they may have the ability to intervene in these stress phases:
- Alarm: Lower activity in the brain's stress adaptation axis. Also thought to lower the activity of the central nervous system, producing a calming effect.
- Resistance: Regulate stress responses by controlling levels of pro-stress chemicals and the adverse byproducts they create. This can reduce the effort of the immune system on managing the stress, freeing up more immunocompetent cells for fighting the actual stressor.
- Exhaustion: Optimize the body’s use of oxygen, improving VO2 Max and, in turn, promoting respiratory and muscle health. Anti-inflammatory effects have also been observed.
This all adds up to helping the body adapt to how it deals with stress. Instead of a figurative roller coaster of reaction, resistance and fatigue, adaptogens help to produce a slightly-heightened but plateaued response to the stressor. The idea is to keep more energy than what stress takes away.
Why Take Adaptogens for Overall Wellbeing?
Stress has far-reaching effects on the body, and although the impact of stress has been clearly defined over the last 100 years, it is only now being identified as a major influence on overall long-term health.
To put it simply – chronic stress increases inflammation, which is the hallmark of nearly every health complaint – from migraines to muscle pains. Since inflammation can make most things worse, adaptogens have the potential to make many things…better.
Stress doesn’t just make you angsty; both acute and chronic stress can:
- Raise the activity of the cardiovascular system to an unhealthy level, increasing blood pressure and heart rate while also raising levels of stress hormones. This leads to long-term vascular and heart damage, increasing risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Start the snowball effect that is the endocrine system’s response to stress. The brain's stress response axis signals the pituitary gland to secrete fight-or-flight hormones. In acute times of stress, they're useful; they boost your body’s energy and immune response to threats. However, chronic above-baseline stress levels fatigue your immunocompetent cells, hampering your body’s response to bacteria and viruses, and slowing healing time from injuries.
- Change the balance of bacteria in your gastrointestinal system and cause digestive issues, including like bloating and difficulty swallowing food. It may also cause lack of appetite or a propensity to binge eat, heartburn, acid reflux, constipation, diverticulitis, and makes you more susceptible to chronic low-grade GI infections.
- Keep your musculoskeletal system on-guard (read: tense), triggering stress disorders, chronic pain syndromes and even autoimmune disorders.
- Put the respiratory system in alarm mode, causing shortness of breath, rapid breathing, airway constrictions, and even trigger asthma attacks in non-asthmatics.
- Affect how the central nervous system responds to stress psychologically. Acute and chronic stress in early life can actually reshape neural pathways as the body creates new ways to compensate that are less than functional.
- Fatigues the autonomic nervous system, both SNS and PNS. Having the autonomic nervous system constantly overactive puts undue wear and tear on the body. The issue with your CNS and ANS being in a constant stress response is that it sends everything else in your body out of whack.
- Lowers libido and fertility.
- Damages your DNA, specifically T-cells and cell telomeres, causing cell death and increasing risk of cancer.
Scary, right? But that also means if taking a daily blend of adaptogens supports inner homeostasis and stress resilience, theoretically, it’s also protecting you from a veritable cornucopia of other health issues, some of which are potentially fatal.
How to Safely Incorporate Adaptogens in Your Daily Routine
Unlike conventional pharmaceutical therapies, which can have a laundry list of side-effects and risks, adaptogens are known to be non-toxic and work best over time and with consistent use. Medical literature seems to agree with traditional use, which describes adaptogens as ‘tonic’ in nature, acting to strengthen wellness and promote vitality with compounding effects over time. This is perhaps most evident in the plant adaptogen ashwagandha.
The last several decades of clinical research suggests that ashwagandha may be the most impressive adaptogen available and shows promise of improving several aspects of the human condition. Ashwagandha has the potential to:
- Support thyroid health, normal weight and metabolism
- Reduce the impact of stress and feelings of unease
- Fortify mood and mental energy
- Promote energy without causing a hangover effect
- Promote deep, restorative recovery at night
- Aid in cognitive performance and memory retention
- Sustain muscle mass, promote exercise performance and normal cardiovascular health
As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 6000 years of applied wisdom suggests consuming daily adaptogen drinks containing herbs like ginseng, holy basil and ashwagandha support long-term health and overall wellness; why not find an every-day green powder supplement that hones in on that millennias-old tradition?
Other Well-Researched Adaptogens
Besides ashwagandha, what else have we got going on in the world of modern medical research on the potential of adaptogenic herbs? The list is short (remember; we only know of 9 total) but most certainly impressive:
- American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
- Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)
- Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum)
- Rhaponticum (Rhaponticum carthamoides)
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
- Saffron (Crocus sativus)
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
- Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
An interesting feature of adaptogens are that they each have their own specialty. For example, holy basil is known for its ability to support against stress, but it has also indicated potential to fortify immune function, promote peace of mind and quell heightened emotional reactivity.
Similarly, saffron has been well documented for its potential to reduce restlessness and unease, but has also been shown to promote hormonal balance and short-term memory.
These two examples contrast well with Siberian ginseng, which is used worldwide to promote muscle development, exercise performance and oxygen levels.
Although adaptogens are rare in botanical medicine, their medicinal qualities seem to be myriad. In fact, some of the most exciting fields of medical research today involve adaptogens. And with each newly-published study comes an addition to their list of observed health benefits.