On the labels of lots of health supplements you’ll see the phrase “adaptogenic” which is usually used to classify certain herbs such as ginkgo biloba or eleuthero root. The word sounds interesting, but I’d guess few people know what it actually means. Which is too bad, because adaptogens are one of the most unique and thoroughly researched naturally occurring medicinal compounds in the world.
What Is An Adaptogen? What Do They Do?
The term “adaptogen” refers to a compound that allows the body to naturally fight off stress from any external circumstance…..stress induced by diet, emotional fatigue, panic, or physical stimuli. This might sound a little weird or pseudo-scientific, but the body’s responses to all forms of stress are usually regulated by the same metabolic pathways. So a compound that helps regulate the synthesis of protein, steroids, and hormones that are used in the stress response system will have benefits that are expressed in a variety of situations.
So in a sense, adaptogens do exactly what their name would suggest…..they help your body adapt to different circumstances.
The overall health benefits of an increased stress defense system are pretty widespread. They include but are not limited to:
- Increased metabolism
- Enhanced immunity
- Better sleep
- Higher energy levels
- Increased life span (in smaller animals)
Because the body’s stress response mechanism is so widely used, adaptogens sort of act as a system wide metabolic enhancer that increases your reactivity to physiological stimuli and physical performance. The term adaptogen itself was created when Russian researchers were looking for natural compounds that would improve the performance of soldiers without the drawbacks of metamphetamines and crack.
To officially be called an “adaptogen” a compound must be able to elevate the overall performance of the body without any adverse side effects. They also have to work independent of other conditions. This is what separates an adaptogen from something like crack, which can give your body a quick fix of energy, but you eventually deflate, depress your metabolic pathways, and need more crack to achieve the same effect. Adaptogens give you a free lunch. They permanently increase your body’s basal metabolic systems, even after they’re out of your system.
The following graph is a good illustration of the difference between an adaptogen and other stimulants like caffeine, sugar, or performance enhancing drugs.
When I first learned about adaptogens my “quack radar” started buzzing. What are these ancient medicinal roots that leave your body at a permanently higher state without any side effects? It sounds folkloric, doesn’t it?
But folkloric it is not, my friend. The term adaptogen was officially accepted as having a well-defined meaning by the FDA in 1988, and Russian and Japanese science institutions have a looooong history of studying the metabolic effects of these mysterious herbs.
The term was first coined in 1947 by an old Russian pharmacologist named N.V. Lazarev, who discovered their health effects by accident. Research on adaptogens picked up during the 1960’s when the Russian military was looking for the best way to enhance the performance of their soldiers. They didn’t like the tradeoffs they had to face with traditional stimulants, since they eventually depress the body. So they searched the wilderness far and wide for different compounds that could give the body a metabolic free lunch. Eventually they found plants like eleuthero root and rhodiola.
By the year 1984 there were over 1,500 studies published in Russian scientific journals on the identification and mechanisms of different adaptogenic herbs. The science is legit.
Common Adaptogens and Supplements
So, what are these herbs discovered in the Russian wilderness? An incomplete list would look like this:
- Eleuthero root
- gingko biloba
- panax ginseng
- licorice root
- amla berry
There are many more, but these are the most common. For the most part, adaptogenic herbs are not commonly found in food. You have to buy a supplement, although rosemary and lavendar have been labeled as “adaptogenic.” Eleuthero root is probably the most researched adaptogen, followed by rhodiola and gingko biloba.. I’ve never seen eleuthero listed as an ingredient in a recipe book, so chances are you’d have to buy a powder or tablet to eat them.
How Adaptogens Work
The exact mechanism of adaptogenic action is hard to pin down, precisely because of their vague but real system wide effects on your body. They seem to simultaneously alter a variety of stress induced hormonal pathways that act together to regulate how your body responds to different stimuli. However, it does look like they have a significant effect on how your DNA is replicated, and digesting adaptogens seems to help your body produce more proteins that are used to help your body fight stress induced physiological reactions.
One of the curious (and exciting) health benefits of adaptogens is that they have a good track record of extending life. Suffering from stress isn’t good for the body, and the lifetime benefits of increased stress resistance helps the body live a little bit longer.
Rats, fruit flies, and even bacteria have experienced longer lifespans when they’re systematically fed an adaptogen supplement. So the physiological benefits are deeply rooted in the animal kingdom.
However, this doesn’t mean simply taking an adaptogenic supplement is going to make you live longer, just that in very controlled environments extra doses of adaptogens have that effect on lower life forms. So keep your head up and keep up all the good habits necessary to live a healthy life. The latter point was simply brought up to demonstrate how widely accepted adaptogens are by mother nature.
Research and References on Adaptogens
Panossian, A, et. al. “Plant Adaptogens III. Earlier and More Recent Aspects and Concepts of Their Mode of Action” Phytomedicine. 1999 vol. 6(4) pgs. 287-300.
Wagner, H. et. al. “Plant Adaptogens” Phytomedicine. June 1994. Vol. 1 pgs. 63-76.
Weigant, F.A. , et. al. “Plant Adaptogens Increase Lifespan and Stress Resistance in C. Elegans” Biogerontology. January 15, 2008.