Adaptogens are the classic tonic herbal medicine used to build vitality, increase stamina and help the body deal with stress. We all need some of that!
An adaptogen is defined as ‘a nontoxic substance and especially a plant extract that is held to increase the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning’
Let’s take that broad definition, flesh it out a tad and add the growing list of herbs that fit into the adaptogenic category.
According to Alexander Panossian in his paper Adaptogens, Tonic Herbs for Fatigue and Stress the formalised ‘idea’ of adaptogens came out of Russia during the second world war. Clearly all of these plants had been used traditionally well before the Russians became interested in them. The paper cites an original definition, unfortunately in Russian so I can’t confirm.
More from the same paper –
As originally defined, an adaptogen was a substance that had to:
- show some nonspecific effect, such as increasing bodily resistance to physically, chemically, or biologically noxious agents or factors
- have a normalizing influence on a pathologic state, independent of the nature of that state
- be innocuous and not disturb body function at a normal level.
Historically Russia again leads the way (in modern society) in exploration and integration of adaptogenic herbs. In the second half of the 20th century they studied both the chemistry and clinical application of three herbs, Eleutherococcus senticosus aka Siberian Ginseng, Rhodiola rosea and schisandra chinensis. They found them to have ‘stimulating, restorative, and anti stress effects’ as well as ‘unusually safe.’
The Many Different Adaptogens
Many herbs have been referred to in the literature as adaptogens or possessing adaptogenic properties. One paper lists 31 herbs and I can guarantee that if I looked a bit more that we could extend the list. Including the three herbs that the Russians were interested in a number of other are frequently listed as adaptogens. One paper, Increasing Vitality with Adaptogens covered 8 specific herbs
- Panax quinquefolium – American Ginseng
- Panax ginseng – Asian ginseng
- Eleutherococcus senticosus – Eleuthero
- Schisandra chinensis – Schisandra
- Withania somnifera – Ashwagandha
- Rhodiola rosea – Rhodiola
- Aralia spp. – Aralia
- Oplopanax horridum – Devil’s club
I think that the closing remarks from the same paper put it best
‘Stress is the root cause of many, if not most, of the ailments of modern humans. Adaptogens help individuals to cope with stress and are highly beneficial for most patients.’
Obviously there are many more herbs that can act as adaptogens, especially with such a broad definition. As I am so interested in these herbs for their effect at improving physical and mental stress I will be covering each of the herbs listed above in their own specific article. Hold tight till then.
How Can Adaptogens Help
The Russians may have started down the path of scientific enquiry into adaptogenic herbs but many more have followed. An excellent paper published in 2010 (by an undergrad no less!) outlines the popular adaptogenic herbs, their actions and the scientific research that has been done on them!
Some standout remarks include adaptogenic attributes such as:
- Improve physical and mental performance
- Antistress properties
- Increased endurance
- Increase mental performance and concentration
The author of the paper, Robert Provino, writes in his conclusion
‘Withania somnifera appears to be the most commonly used and extensively studied adaptogen followed closely by Panax ginseng and Eleutherococcus senticosus. Schisandra chinensis is an extensively used adaptogen in TCM. Other herbs used as adaptogens include Rhodiola rosea, Glycyrrhiza glabra, Bacopa monniera and Centella asiatica, with the latter two being more specific in improving memory.’
And finally finishes up with a similar thought to my own on herbal research by noting the ‘limited human clinical trials conducted to test the efficacy of adaptogens.’ That being said we still have a history of traditional herbal medicine plus all of the clinical success stories to guide us on our path in using these adaptogenic herbs. Hopefully the science will catch up soon!
If you have a herbal adaptogen that you use in your life let us know below