Adaptogens explained: What makes an herb an adaptogen?

What specific benefits do adaptogens provide? An expert explains.

An adaptogen is a substance (typically an herb) that usually exerts no specific biological effects but tends to normalize or otherwise bring the body into a state of homeostasis. Some of the most powerful adaptogens include Panax ginseng root, Rhodiola rosea root, Eleutherococcus senticosus root, astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus), ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera L.), and schisandra fruit (Schisandra chinensis)—which I’ll discuss in this article.

Adaptogens In General

Adaptogens tend to reduce the effects of stress, improve stamina, and reduce fatigue. In most cases, adaptogens are from the root part of the herb and tend to have a bitter taste. That’s why many prefer to consume adaptogens in capsule form rather than as a powder or liquid.

I’ve seen some herbs incorrectly referred to as adaptogens, but unless they fit the description given in the first sentence of the opening paragraph of this article, they aren’t adaptogens.

Here are some of the most popular adaptogens among today’s consumers and some of the research that has been conducted on them over time.

Panax Ginseng

Perhaps the most well known of all the adaptogens is Panax ginseng. Panax is the Latin name of the herb, but it is more generally referred to as simply ginseng. It is also known as Asian ginseng, Korean ginseng, and Chinese ginseng. In Asian countries, ginseng is considered a tonic, stimulant, and stress adaptogen. Hundreds of studies have been published on ginseng, but only a few can be reviewed here.

As demonstrated in animals and humans, ginseng improves mental and physical performance and well-being in a variety of circumstances.1-6 Furthermore, ginseng enhances fat burning during exercise, thereby sparing valuable muscle stores of glycogen (muscle sugar).7 Research has also demonstrated the value of ginseng in supporting immunity, cardiovascular function, and blood sugar metabolism.8 Other current and evidence-based uses of ginseng include, but are not limited to, learning enhancement, stress reduction, reproductive system influences, endocrine and metabolic activity (hormones), and widespread support to elders and for fatigue.8-11

Rhodiola rosea

As with ginseng, the part of Rhodiola rosea (commonly referred to as rhodiola or Arctic Root) used is the root. Its key constituents are rosavins and salidroside.For centuries, rhodiola has been used in the traditional medicine of Russia, Scandinavia, and other countries to increase physical endurance, work productivity, longevity, resistance to high-altitude sickness, and to help reduce fatigue and moodiness and promote sexual health.12

Modern scientific studies in cell cultures, animals, and humans have revealed anti-fatigue, anti-stress, anti-hypoxia (protection against damaging effects of oxygen deprivation), antioxidant, immune enhancing, and sexual-stimulating effects.13-18 Of particular note are rhodiola’s anti-fatigue and performance-enhancing properties. Several studies have shown that rhodiola increased physical work capacity and dramatically shortened the recovery time between bouts of high-intensity exercise.13 Other current and evidence-based uses of rhodiola include, but are not limited to, general health and a feeling of well-being, and support against cardiovascular disease and for general immunity, mental performance, and sexual performance.9

Eleutherococcus senticosus

In the very recent past, eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus, Syn: Acanthopanax senticosus) was commonly called “Siberian ginseng.” Although this name was botanically incorrect since eleuthero is not even in the same plant genus as Panax ginseng, it was an understandable appellation since many of the herbs’ functions are the same. For example, like Panax, eleuthero shows excellent adaptogenic activity. It is thought to help support adrenal gland function when the body is challenged by stress.19 Though less of a stimulant than Panax, eleuthero tends to cause a more profound increase in stamina. As a matter of fact, eleuthero was previously used to increase stamina and endurance in Soviet Olympic athletes.20

Eleuthero also enhances mental acuity and physical endurance without a caffeine-like letdown.21 Research shows that eleuthero improves the use of oxygen by the exercising muscle.22 Consequently, aerobic exercise may be maintained longer, and recovery from workouts may take place more quickly. In addition, evidence also suggests that eleuthero may prove valuable in the long-term support of the immune system.23

Astragalus membranaceus

Astragalus root is primarily used for its immune-stimulating and adaptogenic properties.24,25 The Chinese use it as a classic energy tonic, often in place of ginseng for people under 40 years of age. Astragalus works by stimulating several factors of the immune system. This includes interleukin-226, improving the responses of lymphocytes, enhancing the natural killer cell activity of normal subjects, and potentiating the activity of monocytes.

The saponins in astragalus also increase phagocytosis and demonstrate hepatoprotective effects.25 Other current and evidence-based uses of astragalus include, but are not limited to, promoting immune response, supporting against water retention, supporting healthy blood pressure levels already in a healthy range, antioxidant support, and supporting cardiac output.9,10,27

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is sometimes called “Indian ginseng,” probably because it is employed as an adaptogen or tonic in Ayurvedic traditional medicine.28 This herb can promote healthy immune function.29 Apparently, one of ashwagandha’s mechanisms of action is that it has significant antioxidant activity. In one study, ashwagandha significantly reduced free radical oxidation in the liver of mice while concurrently increasing the activity of antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase.30 Other research has shown that ashwagandha reduced free radical activity in stress‑induced animals.31

Ashwagandha has also been used in the treatment of mental and emotional well-being since it can influence brain chemistry in positive ways. For example, it has been shown to be capable of improving memory and enhancing cognitive function in animal research by improving acetylcholine activity in the brain and binding to acetylcholine receptor sites.32 This herb also has GABA‑mimetic activity; that is, it can mimic some of the activity of the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA.33 Clinical trials have shown that ashwagandha “optimizes mental and psychomotor performance by easing the mental stress bundle.”34 Furthermore, in a clinical trial of ashwagandha on the aging process in over 100 men, 71.4% of the men reported improvement in their capacity of sexual performance. These responses seem to support the herb’s traditional use as an aphrodisiac.27

Given their relative similarities in function, a comparative study was performed on ginseng (Panax ginseng) and ashwagandha. Using aqueous suspensions of the powdered root, each herb was tested in mice: (1) for anti-stress activity (by the swimming endurance test), and (2) anabolic activity. In the swimming endurance test, ashwagandha and ginseng each showed anti-stress activity as compared to the control group, although the activity was higher with ginseng. In the anabolic study, the mice treated with ashwagandha showed a greater gain in body weight than those treated with ginseng, although significant anabolic activity was observed for both herbs.35

Schisandra chinensis

In traditional Chinese medicine, the schisandra fruit is mainly used for respiratory health and to assist with problems with spontaneous sweating, nocturnal emission, lack of sleep, and forgetfulness.36 In Russia, it is regarded as an adaptogen.37 Research indicates that schisandra can improve work performance, build strength, reduce fatigue, and increase endurance38,39—all consistent with the effects of an adaptogen.

Schisandra also appears to have significant value for the liver. For example, it appears that the lignans in schisandra protect the liver by activating the enzymes in liver cells that produce the antioxidant glutathione.40 Studies from China indicate that schisandra helped patients with suboptimal liver function.36,41 Schisandra also induces detoxification pathways in the liver.42 Finally, schisandra and its lignans have improved mental efficiency and sensitivity of sight and hearing, increased the speed of adaptation to the dark, enlarged the visual field, increased the discrimination of skin receptors, and improved activities requiring concentration and fine coordination in humans.36 Other current and evidence-based uses of schisandra include mental health, antioxidant support, and cardiovascular and respiratory health.10,43

Conclusion

Adaptogens are especially valuable today in a society in which stress is a constant and fatigue is commonplace. Consequently, dietary supplement brand owners have shown greater interest in including one or more adaptogen supplements in their product line, which is a timely consideration. Any of the aforementioned adaptogens are good candidates.

About the author

Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, RH (AHG), is a certified nutritionist and registered herbalist with 42 years of dietary supplement industry experience. With a master’s degree in nutrition and a second master’s degree in herbal medicine, he has a proven track record of formulating innovative, evidence-based dietary supplements. Mr. Bruno currently serves as both the vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at NutraScience Labs and professor of nutraceutical science at Huntington University of Health Sciences.

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