The little-known term “adaptogen” was first coined by Russian researcher Nikolai Lazarev in the 1940s.
But the concept—something that helps us adapt to daily stress and extraordinary burdens—has been a key one in Chinese herbal medicine for two millennia or more.
Winter brings special seasonal stresses, so it’s a particularly good time to seek support from adaptogenic herbs.
Today’s herbalists reserve the label for herbs that enjoy scientific evidence of stress-modulating, brain-supporting, endurance-enhancing effects.
Most attention has been focused on the adaptogenic herbs’ ability to extend users’ endurance in the face of physical and mental exertion… but the benefits vary from herb to herb and can include liver, brain, heart, and mood support.
Western herbal medicine uses the term “tonic” to convey a similar meaning… herbs or herbal formulas that help balance key body systems.
While Asian herbs such as Ginseng are the best known adaptogens, research is beginning to add Western culinary and medicinal herbs like Holy Basil to the list.
Since endurance-extension is seen as a key effect of adaptogenic herbs, let’s take a closer look at that aspect of these traditional aids to overall health.
Healthy stress support
Adaptogens are most famous for their reported positive effects on people undergoing exhaustive physical and mental work.
And the beneficial, sustainable effects of adaptogenic herbs differ greatly from the unsustainable ones exerted by central nervous system (CNS) stimulants.
With CNS stimulants such as ephedrine or amphetamines, an initial increase in work capacity is followed by a period of substantially decreased, below average work capacity.
Repeated use of strong CNS stimulants like ephedrine or amphetamines depletes the “fight-or-flight” hormones released by our adrenal glands in response to stress—and it reduces the efficacy of conditioned reflexes.
In contrast, adaptogenic herbs—such as the three legendary tonics described below—typically increase work capacity. And while work capacity falls following the initial boost, it continues to be above average, with no significant side effects (ABC 2002).
Three adaptogenic herbs are considered particularly safe, powerful choices:
- Golden root / Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea)
- Schizandra berry (Schisandra chinensis)
- Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Each of these herbs enjoys both a long, strong folk reputation and a substantial record of lab and clinical research.
And these three adaptogenic herbs are also very rich in beneficial antioxidants.
People in the mountains of Siberia and the Caucuses region have long used the root of this shrub to help increase endurance, reduce inflammation, and relieve stress, fatigue, and depression.
Strong scientific evidence supports Rhodiola’s reputation as an herb that helps maintain healthy mood, reduce fatigue, ease the ill effects of oxygen deprivation, and improve attention and cognitive performance.
Rhodiola extracts stimulate dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain and enjoys a great deal of evidence as a mood stabilizer.
And in a number of studies, Rhodiola increased physical work capacity and dramatically shortened the recovery time between bouts of high-intensity exercise.
One recent study tested these three popular herbs against each other for antioxidant capacity and found that Rhodiola had the highest level.
Likewise, Rhodiola scored highest for having the greatest polyphenol content of the three herbs, which would explain its superior antioxidant capacity.
Native to Northern China, Schizandra was first classified as an adaptogen in the 1950s when it was found to support mental and physical function and cardiovascular health.
Schizandra’s reported benefits include improved concentration, coordination, and endurance, as well as the ability to decrease fatigue and accelerate recovery after exercise.
Schizandra’s reputation for preserving youthful vigor, bestowing beauty and increasing sexual enjoyment is legendary.
Siberian Ginseng (Eleuthero)
Siberian Ginseng is a small, spiny-stemmed shrub that can be found in northeast China and Japan. The plant has been a traditional Chinese folk medicine and is now prescribed for medicinal use in France, Germany, Russia, and China.
Despite its name, this plant bears no botanical relationship to Asian ginseng or American ginseng. It gained its misleading moniker because its active constituents and effects are similar to those of its two cousins.
However, Siberian ginseng is generally considered a more broadly applicable herb, with properties that lie between those of Asian and American ginseng.
The term “adaptogen” was first coined by Lazarev to describe Eleuthero’s ability to help maintain immune health and enhance performance under stress.
It is prescribed for those suffering specific ailments, such as fatigue or chronic inflammation; however, studies suggest Eleuthero has many “non-specific” health benefits, meaning it helps maintain and improve overall bodily function and health, particularly when under stress.
There have been relatively few clinic studies on Eleuthero, but results show increases in oxygen uptake, heart rate, memory, and work capacity.
While two studies suggested that people with blood pressure higher than 180/90 mm HG should not consume the herb, other studies showed that Eleuthero lowered blood pressure.
Choosing adaptogen extracts
Herb extracts come in two basic forms: liquid (alcohol or glycerin extracts, in bottles or capsules) and dried extracts (in capsules).
Liquid extracts rarely list the amounts of their active compounds, but extracts from major, reputable brands should be reasonably potent.
When it comes to encapsulated extracts, look for listing of the precise amounts of the herb's active compounds on the label.
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