What are adaptogens and how do they work?

What are adaptogens and how do they work?

Adaptogens, one of the most common classes of herbal medicines that is yet to be fully understood.

In WWII, pilots and submarine crews were given pills designed to improve their mental and physical performance. Soviet Union pharmacologist, Nicolai Lazalev, first coined the term "adaptogen" in 1958 in the pursuit of an all-natural performance tonic.

In the modern day, we experience different types of stressors. However, the intrigue with a group of substances known as adaptogens persists. 

So what are adaptogens?

Adaptogens, as suggested in their name, are plant-derived substances that help you adapt and re-establish balance in the face of stress. They strengthen the stability of your internal environment to provide resistance against adverse conditions (Panossian & Wikmann, 2010).

Early definitions defined substances as adaptogens by 3 main characteristics:

1. Non-specific - They must help resist against a range of stressors.

2. Normalising - They must help restore and maintain homeostasis in the human body.

3. Non-toxic - They must be safe to use in normal therapeutic doses over extended periods of time.

Spoon of adaptogenic substance powder

These adaptogenic substances enhance your body’s ability to resist the effects of physical, emotional and environmental stress (Panossian, 2013). This would be beneficial in terms of psychological stress, which is a significant contributor to illness in contemporary society. Mental stress has been associated with high blood pressure, myocardial ischemia, and depression

In his book, clinical herbalist David Winston describe 9 well-researched adaptogens:

  • Asian Ginseng
  • American Ginseng
  • Ashwagandha
  • Eleuthero
  • Schisandra
  • Rhodiola
  • Shilajit
  • Rhaponticum 
  • Cordyceps

There are some herbs classified as “probable adaptogens” (Holy Basil, Sun Yang, Tienqi Ginseng, Shatavari, and Morinda) and others as “possible adaptogens” (Codonopsis, Prince Seng, Reishi, Cross Vine, Eucomma and Guduchi).

Studies have shown that adaptogens may provide a wide range of health benefits (Panossian & Wikmann, 2010).

Benefits of Adaptogens

    There is an ever-growing body of research into the impact of adaptogens on the human body, and there is little evidence for serious side effects. However, like any substance - whether lactose or cucumbers - adaptogens may be allergenic or unsuitable for some people.

    How do they work?

    Adaptogens act on your neuroendocrine system - the network of neurons, glands and hormones that regulate a whole host of bodily functions. This system is also known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), named after the three main glands. 

    This system of organs and hormones plays a crucial role in regulating energy, metabolism, sex drive, digestion and immunity. When the HPA axis is out of balance, it may lead to issues including fatigue, chronic stress, and libido issues.

    Image source: Nutritional Therapy Association 

    The challenge lies in measuring stressors (e.g. an argument, sadness), distinguishing different expressions of stress, and identifying the specific mechanism of action (Liao et al., 2018). 

    Adaptogens likely act on multiple receptor sites in the human body (Gerontakos et al., 2019). At a cellular level, adaptogens have been suggested to increase the rate at which you use oxygen, protein, fat and sugar (Liao et al., 2018).

    Adaptogen supplements are intended to be taken over a longer period of time. Dr Weil states that their effects are more gentle and subtle, but very powerful. Unlike other herbs, which lose potency when taken over longer periods of time, adaptogens work better over time.

    Whilst they are not completely understood, adaptogens have a complex and multidimensional influence on metabolism and our immune system.

    What’s the catch?

    Most adaptogens taste horrible on their own. Moreover, as they are not well-known, most people may be apprehensive to try them.

    Our Teelixir range includes potent, wild-crafted adaptogens that also taste delicious. 

    “...many herbs will lose their effectiveness if you use them all the time or too frequently, which is why they’re best saved for when they’re really needed... The exception to the general rule about using medicinal herbs only when needed for a specific purpose are the tonic herbs, or adaptogens, such as ginseng, that can strengthen or invigorate the healing system, and Asian mushrooms that enhance immunity.”

    - Dr Andrew Weil

    If you use the wrong adaptogens for your individual needs, they can become a costly expense. Or if there are insufficient active ingredients, the dosage will be ineffective.

    As with any habits that impact your health, the effects of adaptogens will only become noticeable through consistent consumption. 

    Adaptogens are not a cure-all and cannot replace (or work effectively in lieu of) the foundations of good health: sleep, exercise and a healthy diet. 

    Join our Facebook community "Tasty, but healthy" to find the latest health updates and nutritious recipes.

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    Gerontakos, S., Wardle, J., & Casteleijn, D. (2019). Understanding adaptogens: The action that evades us. Australian Journal of Herbal and Naturopathic Medicine, 31(2), 60.

    Liao, L. Y., He, Y. F., Li, L., Meng, H., Dong, Y. M., Yi, F., & Xiao, P. G. (2018). A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chinese Medicine, 13(1), 57.

    Panossian, A. G. (2013). Adaptogens in mental and behavioral disorders. Psychiatric Clinics, 36(1), 49-64.

    Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress—protective activity. Pharmaceuticals, 3(1), 188-224.

    Provino, R. (2010). The role of adaptogens in stress management. Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism, 22(2), 41.

    Winston, D. (2019). Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Simon and Schuster.


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