What is an “Adaptogen?”

Most folks have never heard of the word “adaptogen.” Not that the concept is new, the term itself has been in use since 1947 when the first study was conducted utilizing the theory of an “adaptogen” as the subject. Still, it remains a concept that doesn’t seem to see much use in popular culture unless one has a knowledge of herbs or supplements.

So what exactly is an adaptogen? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines an adaptogen 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.” Essentially adaptogens help the body, both physically and mentally, deal with stress and stay in balance.* Some examples are physical stress, such as a tough workout at the gym, or mental stress such as long hours at work or not getting enough sleep. Adaptogens are also thought to rebuild strength lost from the body during acts that fatigue or stress the body and have been shown to be effective in clinical trials of people with high stress loading in the body – athletes for instance.

Adaptogens are defined by having similar qualities which were first defined back in the 1960s. First, they are almost completely non-toxic. Second, they are non-specific, meaning they work on all body systems, not just one, and they act by increasing the body’s resistance to stress.* Third, they have a regulatory, or normalizing effect on the body.* This is generally described as trying to bring the body into balance, or homeostasis, originally defined in the first study on adaptogens in 1947 by N. V. Lazarev, a pharmacologist, that used a definition of “stress” as “threatened homeostasis.” Lastly, adaptogens must be able to execute their therapeutic effects without disturbing other portions of the body.

This last quality is very important for a number of reasons. For instance, think about the qualities of adaptogens: increased resistance to stress, increased recall/memory, and heightened focus (among others).* These qualities can also be granted by other substances such as central nervous system (CNS) stimulants. These can be anything from caffeine in coffee to prescription stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) or amphetamines (Adderall), which are commonly prescribed to treat ADD/ADHD and sleep disorders such as hypersomnia or narcolepsy.

Now think about the qualities of CNS stimulants such as caffeine or Ritalin. They increase focus and awareness, help the body deal with stress, and increase performance. But they also have pronounced consequences on other parts of the body such as the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels), the endocrine/adrenal system, and a person’s circadian rhythm (sleep cycle), and they provide a very pronounced comedown. Have you ever had a cup of coffee and a few hours later were more tired than at the start? This is a similar phenomenon.

Adaptogens, as defined, must provide their effects without disturbing other parts of the body…and they do. That’s the point! Of course, they work in a completely different manner, physiologically speaking, than CNS stimulants, but that is exactly why there has been so much interest in them over the last 60 years.

How does an Adaptogen work?

Adaptogens work by increasing a person’s resistance to stress caused by multiple different factors. In part, an adaptogen’s ability to regulate stress in the body is related to its ability to neutralize free oxygen radicals within the body, based on how powerful an antioxidant the adaptogen in question is. One of the most powerful antioxidants known is superoxide dimutase, or SOD. SOD is found in many places in nature, including chaga, where it is found in higher levels than any other substance known to man (Ingram, 2010). This is as opposed to CNS stimulants which “stimulate” the body’s functions with a pronounced comedown afterward. Of course, these two classes of substances, adaptogens and stimulants, are different on a basic level, but most studies have historically focused on how adaptogens stimulate the body’s response to stress, with stimulants being the next most logical substance to compare.

It is important to note that adaptogens do not achieve their effects simply by inhibiting the body’s natural stress responses, they achieve them by helping the body adapt to them. During a stress response in the body, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline all spike. This is a function of our sympathetic nervous system causing the well known “fight or flight” response. The problem is that this type of stress, termed “distress,” especially in the long term, can cause increases in risk for hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, and heart disease, among others things. However, certain types of stress actually put the body into a heightened state of arousal that is not detrimental and can, in fact, be helpful. This type of stress, called “eustress,” (as opposed to “distress” which is the bad type of stress) is the first portion of the body’s stress response, before it moves on to the detrimental “distress” portion. As opposed to blocking the stress response all together, adaptogens actually act as “eustressors” in the body, putting it into a state of “helpful stress.” This type of helpful stress has been described as being similar to that of repeated physical exercise.

In other words, adaptogens are like lifting weights for your body’s stress response! They actually stress the body in a helpful way, to help it grow and adapt to stress.*