Getting to know adaptogens

What are they and is there any evidence that they are useful?
Published February 12, 2019

Our world is undeniably a stressful one. Fatigue, anxiety, and poor physical health are just some of the effects chronic stress can lead to; muscle tension, respiratory problems, cardiovascular issues, and gastrointestinal distress can also be symptoms of prolonged exposure to stress. What if you could build up a resilience to physical and mental stress using adaptogens, a group of plants used to gently provoke balance throughout your entire body?


Adaptogens 101


The term “adaptogen” refers to a class of non-toxic roots and herbs which are used medicinally to restore balance in the body and mind. Once ingested, adaptogens administer micro-stressors to one or more systems in the body, including the endocrine and gastrointestinal system as well as the central nervous system (also known as the CNS.)


How do adaptogens work?


Adaptogenic plants target the adrenal glands (two small glands that are located just above the kidney.) What’s so important about the adrenal glands? They’re responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction your body has when exposed to stress. Similar to the mechanisms behind exposure therapy, the stress caused by adaptogens on the adrenal glands causes certain bodily systems to adapt, strengthen, and become more resilient.


A brief history of adaptogens


The use of non-toxic roots and herbs to heal bodily systems and target specific issues has been a part of Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medicine for thousands of years. However, it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Russia began scientific research into the potential of using these plants as  supplements. During World War II the Russian military began testing herbal supplements on Soviet submarine crews and pilots with the hopes of improving CNS response and combating mental fatigue. In fact, it was during the anti-communist McCarthy era that Russian toxicologist Dr. Nikolai Lazarev defined the term adaptogen as we know it today. From the Space Race to Olympic athletes, adaptogens became Russia’s secret weapon during the Cold War as tensions with the United States grew. Currently, adaptogens are recommended by health practitioners and may be used as complementary therapy for chronic health issues.


Commonly used adaptogenic plants


Holy Basil is ingested as a tea, essential oil or as a supplement; it can also be applied topically as an ointment. Holy Basil is thought to protect against infection, decrease blood sugar and LDL cholesterol levels, lower anxiety levels, and alleviate joint pain and inflammation.


Ginseng is most often taken as a supplement although it can be found in tea form (check your local Asian grocery store.) It is purported to increase mental alertness, improve physical performance, and ward off infection.


Licorice root is consumed as an herbal tea and is known for its healing effect on the digestive system and on symptoms of IBS and Crohn’s.


Elderberry has been used throughout history to treat the symptoms of cold and flu. Elderberry should be taken as a concentrated syrup, tea or the berries themselves can be dried and added to food. Avoid elderberry leaves and stems as they’re highly poisonous.


Maca root is a Peruvian export known for its ability to increase libido, improve sexual health, and as a supplement for athletes looking to gain muscle. Most often consumed as a powder, in a capsule or dried, it should be noted that the majority of studies on the effects of maca root are based on male participants.


Exercising caution with adaptogens


While the purported benefits of supplementing with adaptogens may seem tempting, it’s important to be an informed consumer. Adaptogens are still an imprecise science, with many supplements and adjacent products lacking a specific dosage as well as adequate quality control. Some adaptogens may interact poorly with prescription and over the counter medications. Other adaptogens—such as licorice root—are linked to potentially dangerous health problems.


The results of clinical studies on adaptogenic effect have been mixed. An assessment of existing scientific literature on adaptogenic plants and their effect on the stress-activated symptoms of fatigue found promising results such as sharper physical and mental clarity. Adaptogenics are also being studied for their use as complementary therapy for certain types of mental illnesses and so far the results are promising.