Adaptogens are herbs that are nontoxic, produce a nonspecific defensive response to stress, and have a normalizing influence on the body. Adaptogens help the body adapt to stress, support its normal functions, and restore balance. They increase the bodys resistance to physical, biological, emotional, and environmental stressors. They are unique from other substances in their ability to balance endocrine hormones and the immune system, and allow the body to maintain optimal homeostasis.
Knowledge about adaptogens dates back thousands of years to ancient India and China, but serious scientific study did not begin until the late 1940s, when Soviet scientists explored the benefits of these substances in fighting stress, preventing and reducing illness, maintaining homeostasis, and strengthening the body.
In 1947, Russian scientist Nikolai Lazarev defined an adaptogen as an agent that allows the body to counter adverse physical, chemical, or biological stressors by raising nonspecific resistance toward such stress, thus allowing the organism to adapt to the stressful circumstances. [The term adaptogen is from the Latin word adaptare, meaning to fit or adjust.]
In 1968, Lazarevs colleagues Israel Brekhman and I.V. Dardymov formally gave adaptogens a functional definition, as follows:
1. An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient.
2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.
Very simply, adaptogens are nontoxic, produce a nonspecific defensive response to stress, and have a normalizing influence on the body.
There is currently no binding definition for the term adaptogen. No recognized herbal or scientific organization has come forward with the definitive definition. Most of the identified adaptogens have been uses in either Ayurvedic medicine or traditional Chinese medicine. Some adaptogens have more scientific research than others confirming their use. Clearly, more research is needed.
All adaptogens display effects that help to regulate the neuroendocrine and immune systems, provide a defense against stress, and increase the ability of a person to maintain optimal homeostasis. In addition, they all are respected tonics, or rasayanas (Ayurvedic rejuvenative remedies), with a long history of safety and efficacy.
Many popular books and Web sites refer to adaptogens by a variety of common names. For instance, different sources might refer to lycium as gogi berries, goji berries, or wolfberries. This can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. The best way to positively identify any herb is to refer to it by its botanical name -- see table below.
Different Perspectives on AdaptogensWhen we try to understand what the term adaptogen means, there are different perspectives to consider according to different practitioners and authorities - Ayurvedic practitioners, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, Russian scientists, Western scientists and clinical herbalists.
Ayurvedic practitioners say that certain rasayanas have overall rejuvenating properties. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine say that qi or blood tonics nourish the organs and strengthen the protective energy of the body. Russian scientists say that adaptogens increase the resistance within the body to a wide range of stressors and normalize functions. Western researchers and scientists look at how adaptogens regulate the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathoadrenal system. Clinical herbalists use adaptogens to re-regulate€ the neuroendocrine and immune systems to enhance healing and prevent stress-induced disease.
The term adaptogen has not been accepted in Western medicine. This probably is due to a lack of good scientific studies and the difficulties in discriminating adaptogens from other categories such as immune system modulators, tonics, anabolic agents, or antioxidants. Most researchers agree that there are plant substances capable of modulating distinct phases of the general adaptation syndrome as defined by Hans Selye, PhD. These substances either reduce stress reactions in the alarm stage or prevent the exhaustion stage from occurring and thus provide a certain degree of protection against long-term stress. Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Western perspectives of adaptogens all include immune modulating activity.
NOTE: Much of this information is adapted from Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by Steven Maimes