The word “adaptogen” is given to a unique group of plants and mushrooms that help the body respond to stress. This is a broad definition, as the body comes in contact with many kinds of stressors, be they immunological (from illness), physical (exercise), or neurological (demands of job or society, etc). Adding an adaptogen to your daily regimen can help attenuate this stress, thereby increasing energy, improving mood, deepening concentration, and improving metabolism. In essence, adaptogens seem to have an amphoteric effect on the body, meaning they are able to balance hormones and other chemicals in order to bring it back to homeostasis.
Adaptogens are thought to work by affecting the HPA axis, which is short for Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenal axis. Starting in the brain and ending in the adrenal cortex (which sits on the kidneys), the HPA axis controls a cascade of chemicals which regulate responses to stress. An important chemical triggered during this cascade is cortisol, which is released into the bloodstream to help the body respond to increased stress. Humans have adapted to deal with cortisol spikes, but in contemporary Western culture, humans are exposed to extended periods of stress, which demand cortisol be meted out on a long term basis. The body reacts to this long term exposure by using cortisol more frugally. This means the body is so used to releasing cortisol that the adrenals become less prone to release it and hoard the chemical. This can contribute to feelings of constant tiredness known as “adrenal fatigue”. (1)
Although many adaptogens work via modulating cortisol, there are a myriad of other bodily systems they help attenuate. There are three different types of adaptogens: those called “true” or primary adaptogens, who have a direct impact on the HPA axis, secondary adaptogens, which are those that do not directly affect the HPA axis, and tertiary adaptogens, which are those that support the action of the other two. Secondary adaptogens are those whose main qualities support the immune system, mainly downregulating inflammatory immune chemicals and supporting non-inflammatory immune chemicals. An example of a secondary adaptogen would be Astragalus membranicus, which increases Th1. Tertiary adaptogens are those which synergize the effects of primary and secondary adaptogens through their antioxidative properties. The tertiary group includes green tea and anthocyanins from berries and other fruit. (2)
Adaptogens can be stimulating or relaxing, but due to their amphoteric quality, the effects can differ from person to person. This is why most integrative practitioners encourage patients to try a few different adaptogens until they find one that works for them. In Traditional Chinese Medicine there are certain adaptogens with Yin (female) qualities and others with Yang (male) qualities, so dependent on whether someone is lacking Yin or Yang, adaptogens are used to nourish the quality that’s lacking. Many adaptogenic plants can be found in nature growing in harsh conditions, hence, they have “adapted” to their surroundings.
Adaptogens may need to be taken for an extended period of time before a significant result is obtained. However, some report immediate relief from fatigue or stress upon administration. Adaptogens can be taken in capsule form, pill form, and in some cases, liquid form. As herbs and supplements are not regulated by the FDA, make sure to consult with a holistic practitioner before making a purchase. The quality of the herbs can vary dramatically. There is no known toxicity for adaptogens, however, with any new herbal supplement, caution is advised. If you are on an immunosuppressive drug for an autoimmune disease or cancer treatment, it is recommended that you not take adaptogens. Consult with your healthcare practitioner.
Panax ginseng is the most commonly used adaptogenic herb, and has significant uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is considered to be a longevity herb and certain TCM practitioners will only prescribe the herb to the elderly, as they consider it to have life force attenuating properties. Scientifically, Panax, or Korean ginseng has been studied for its effects on energy, concentration and memory, cholesterol, blood pressure, metabolism, neurodegenerative disorders, and a myriad of other bodily conditions. (3)
Rhodiola modulates cortisol and improves concentration by reducing salivary cortisol levels. It was also found to improve mental and physical working capacity and in a few studies, to improve symptoms of depression. Another study found it to have an uplifting effect on patients who were already on a tricyclic antidepressant. (3)
Ashwagandha or Withania somnifera, is an herb commonly used in Ayurveda to improve vitality. In recent years it has been studied for its capacity to improve recovery time in weight training, increase muscle mass, and in reducing exercise-induced muscle damage. (4) There is significant evidence to suggest that Ashwagandha may also increase testosterone levels, reduce anxiety, increase sperm motility and concentration, and increase DHEA. Starting at age 40, DHEA, which is a sex hormone producing chemical, starts to decline. This mechanism may be the reason that Ashwagandha increases testosterone and thereby, vitality. (5)
Astragalus membranaceus, also known as huang qi, is an herb primarily used in China for a myriad of complaints. In TCM, it is believed to strengthen qi, or the body’s vital energy through its tonic properties. In the evidence-based world, it is considered to have immunological, cardio-protective, and renal protective properties, amongst many other uses. The adaptogenic effect of Astragalus membranicus can be seen in it’s anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory actions. Astragalus increases the body’s ability to manufacture SOD or superoxide dismutase, which is its main antioxidative chemical. This, in addition to the herb’s ability to maintain and possibly lengthen telomere length makes astragalus a strong contender for anti-aging possibilities. Telomere length is a genetic marker of aging. (6)
Schizandra chinensis, or the Five Tastes Herb (also widely used in TCM), gets its name as it is a berry whose taste runs the gamut from sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. Considered a primary adaptogen, Schizandra may be able to increase or decrease cortisol levels depending on the needs of the central nervous system. However, it also can improve concentration, has antiviral properties, is hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer agent, and is a powerful antioxidant. Schizandra’s powerful antioxidative and anti-cancer properties may lie in its ability to increase the body’s synthesis of glutathione, which is an endogenous antioxidant chemical. (7)
- Yance DR. Adaptogens in medical herbalism: elite herbs and natural compounds for mastering stress, aging, and chronic disease. New York: Simon and Schuster; 2013. pp. 103–107.
- Winston, D., & Kuhn, M. (2008) Herbal Therapy and Supplements A Scientific and Traditional Approach. (2nd ed.) Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins.