What are Adaptogens?
Adaptogens are a group of natural substances that have been used for centuries in traditional medicine to help the body adapt to stress and promote overall well-being. These substances include herbs, roots, and mushrooms that are believed to help the body resist or reduce the effects of stress, such as anxiety, fatigue, and illness.
Originally defined as substances that enhance the “state of non-specific resistance” in stress , to be classed as an adaptogen the substance must meet three specific criteria :
1. Must be non-specific and must assist the human body in resisting a wide range of adverse conditions. E.g., physical, chemical, or biological stress.
2. Must maintain homeostasis in humans. I.e., can offset or resist physical disorders caused by external stress.
3. Must not harm the normal functions of the human body.
The main purpose of adaptogens is to balance, restore and protect the body. Returning the body to a state of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the ability of an organism or system to maintain a stable internal environment despite changes in the external environment.
Homeostasis: “The maintenance of a constant internal environment in the face of a changing external environment by means of physiological or behavioural feedback mechanisms" .
Adaptogens support the body's stress response, by helping to regulate the levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol.
Additionally, adaptogens have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which may help to protect the body against the effects of chronic stress.
How Adaptogens Work
At a molecular level, adaptogens work by modulating the body's response to stress. They interact with a network of signalling pathways that regulate the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, as well as other molecules involved in the body's stress response [1,4].
Adaptogens work by acting on a system in the body called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This system is responsible for regulating the body's response to stress, and it involves the interaction of several different organs and hormones.
Adaptogens work by reducing the sensitivity of the HPA axis to stress, which can help to reduce the negative effects of stress on the body. They can also help to increase the body's resistance to stress over time, which can improve overall resilience and well-being.
Popular Apoptogenic Substances
There are over 70 types of natural plants that can be considered as adaptogens, here are 10 of the most common or most powerful adaptogens [5,6]:
1. Ashwaghanda (Withania Somnifera)
Powerful antioxidant. Effective anti-depressant. Antitumor, anti-stress, neuroprotective, anti-arthritic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory….
2. Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea)
Reduces stress, strengthens immune system, antioxidant, reduce fatigue, boost alertness, helps with fertility….
3. Turmeric (Curcuma Longa)
Strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-cancer, anti-pain, anti-bacterial, reduces appetite, improves mood….
4. Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus)
Strengthens vision, treats urinary tract problems, constipation, diarrhoea and kidney stones, assists respiratory, reproductive and endocrine systems, prevents infections….
Lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, boost energy, reduce stress, treat diabetes, manage male sexual problems, anti-fatigue, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory….
6. Holy Basil (Tulsi)
7. Astragalus Root
8. Licorice Root
9. Cordycep Mushrooms
10. Schidandra Berry
While adaptogens are generally considered safe, it is important to note that they can have negative effects on certain individuals. Some adaptogens may interact with medications or cause allergic reactions in some people. Although, negative effects can be considerably rare. More research is required to confirm the beneficial properties of each substance.
Daniel Glassbrook, PhD
Daniel is a sports scientist and researcher, currently working as the first team sports scientist for the Newcastle Falcons Rugby Club, and a postdoctoral researcher in sports related concussion at Durham University.
1. 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.
2. 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, 1-12.
3. Guyton, A. C., & Hall, J. E. (1986). Textbook of medical physiology (Vol. 548). Philadelphia: Saunders.
5. Ecosh (n.d.) Adaptogens – What are adaptogens, how adaptogens work and the list of 28 most powerful adaptogenic plants. Available at: https://ecosh.com/adaptogens-what-are-adaptogens-how-adaptogens-work-and-the-list-of-28-most-powerful-adaptogenic-plants/
6. Axe, J. (2021). Adaptogens: Top 9 adaptogenic herbs for stress & more. Available at: https://draxe.com/nutrition/adaptogenic-herbs-adaptogens/