What Are Adaptogens?
The word adaptogen refers to the non-specific, endocrine-regulating, immune-modulating effects of certain plants that increase a person’s ability to maintain optimal balance in the face of physical or emotional stress. These botanical agents provide the perfect antidote for deficiencies in vitality created by the demands of modern life.
Though the term adaptogen may be relatively new, the knowledge of herbs with adaptogenic qualities dates back to hundreds and thousands of years. This term was formulated by the Russian toxicologist Nikolay V. Lazarev at the end of the 1950s. (1) He used it to define the ability to increase the non-specific resistance to stress. Later on, Brekhman and Dardimov (2) expanded Lazarev’s research and concluded that a compound should be considered an adaptogen when it meets the following three criteria:
- Non-toxic: They cause minimal negative disturbances in the body’s physiological functions.
- Generalized action: These herbs are non-specific and increase the organism’s resistance to a broad spectrum of adverse biological, chemical, and physical factors.
- Normalizing and balancing: They must have a normalizing effect on the body, helping to restore balance and homeostasis.
Alexander Panossian and Georg Wikman added a more up-to-date definition, stating that adaptogens have been classified as herbal preparations that can increase resistance to stress and fatigue. (3)
Fatigue, also known as weariness, exhaustion, or lethargy, is a common health complaint that may be generally defined as a feeling of lack of energy. However, fatigue can be of a physical or mental nature. Physical fatigue is the inability to continue functioning at an average level of performance, while mental fatigue may manifest in the form of decreased attention or reduced ability to concentrate. This is where adaptogens come into play. Extracts from adaptogenic plants enhance stress resistance and increase concentration, performance, and endurance during fatigue. (4)
Adaptogens’ most significant selling point is that they’re unusually safe for long-term use, with no possible side effects. As a result, they may be used both in self-care situations as a stimulant or tonic in fatigue and medical situations as treatments prescribed by physicians.
Mechanisms of Action
The key to understanding adaptogens is their role in establishing and maintaining adaptive homeostasis by building the body’s natural resistance to stressors, which may be physical, chemical, biological, or psychological. Adaptogens function like stress vaccines to activate the body’s defense system and metabolic rate, reversing the adverse physical effects of stress and restoring the body’s balance and health.
If the immune system is not functioning correctly by overreacting or underreacting to challenges, adaptogens help restore the proper immune response. Likewise, if the brain chemistry is unbalanced, adaptogens can restore the balance, having profound effects on cognitive function, memory, and mood.
But the power of adaptogens goes far beyond the immune system. They can also correct the imbalances in cellular division cycles that cause cells to divide uncontrollably, eventually causing cancer. Also, adaptogens can prevent or postpone chronic diseases associated with aging, keeping the body in balance and preventing the body’s functions from deteriorating.
But how do they do that?
The mechanisms of action are related to the regulation of the stress system and associated with the biochemical adaption of cells and living organisms to stress.
Stress is a defense response of an organism to external factors, which stimulates the formation of endogenous activating messengers such as catecholamines, prostaglandins, nitric oxide (NO), etc. These messengers, in turn, activate the organisms’ energy and other resources inducing diseases.
This process is the “switch-on” system involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and various meditators at the cellular and system level. Counteracting these switch-on signals is the stress limiting “switch-off” system, which protects cells and the whole organism from overacting to activating messengers. In addition, this system includes some essential enzymes and mediators of intra-and extra-cellular communications at the cellular level. (5)
When the stress system is in the normal state, the activities of the switch-on and switch-off systems are in balance at a certain level of equilibrium. However, in adaptation to a stressor, the reactivity decreases due to increased mediators levels. Adaptogens can thus be defined as agents which reduce the damaging effects of various stressors by reducing the reactivity of the host defense system.
So, the primary site of action of adaptogens is the HPA axis, where the key mediators are tropic hormones, and the secondary sites of activity are the liver and components of the immune and cardiovascular systems.
Adaptogens decrease stress-induced cortisol secretion, and high cortisol levels are associated with depression, fatigue, and impaired cognitive function. (6) Adaptogens also regulate the activity of glucocorticoid receptors (GR), the receptor to which cortisol and other glucocorticoids bind to exert their actions and influence cortisol secretion through feedback regulation. (7)
In short, adaptogens help stimulate the production of proteins that interact with enzymes in our body to release cortisol effectively when we need it; as soon as we don’t need it, it helps the enzymes kick in to stop the production of cortisol. This immediate decrease in cortisol improves bone and muscle function and regulates the liver and pancreas. Furthermore, by controlling the stress in our systems through adaptogens, we can better regulate other bodily functions that have stress attached to them.
The Best Herbal Adaptogens:
Many plants were described as adaptogens, but they lack evidence-based reports of efficacy. On the other hand, a few adaptogenic extracts were studied in placebo-controlled, double-blind human trials. They have been proven effective in enhancing stress resistance, combating mental and physical fatigue, and increasing concentration and cognitive performance. (8)
Here are the best four adaptogenic plants.
1. Panax Ginseng
Panax Ginseng has been widely studied. While Asian cultures have used Ginseng for thousands of years for conditions such as fatigue, mental stress, and supporting longevity, modern clinical studies focused on using Ginseng in cancer prevention, blood sugar regulation, and fatigue. (9)
2. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola Rosea is an antioxidant-rich plant that has energy-enhancing and fatigue-fighting properties. It regulates the neuroendocrine stress response, mitigates the detrimental effects of stress, reduces stress-induced mental and physical fatigue, and promotes cognitive function. It’s also been shown to be beneficial for brain function and concentration. (10)
3. Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus Senticosus)
True to its adaptogen nature, Eleuthero can protect the body from various stresses as an antioxidant. As a result, it boosts energy, metabolism, and physical performance. It also has a positive effect on cardiovascular health. (11)
4. Schisandra Chinensis
Schisandra plays a role in central nervous system health. It increases neurotransmitters in the central nervous system, a critical aspect that affects digestion, heart rate, muscle movement, and more. Also, Schisandra supports mental and physical performance. (12)
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(8)Understanding adaptogenic activity: specificity of the pharmacological action of adaptogens and other phytochemicals - Panossian - 2017 - Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences - Wiley Online Library
(12)Current knowledge of Schisandra Chinensis (Turcz.) Baill. (Chinese magnolia vine) as a medicinal plant species: a review on the bioactive components, pharmacological properties, analytical and biotechnological studies (nih.gov)