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Terms of the Trade: Adaptogen

Posted Feb 10 2009 10:14am

This is still a fairly controversial term among the herbal community, especially with the more grass-roots practitioners. Not all of us feel that it is useful as an action or category because it artificially lumps together herbs from several other classes in what is essentially a scientifically created box. I don’t personally categorize herbs this way, preferring many of the traditional, vitalist or organ system specific actions/terms to this more modern one. Nevertheless, the word has become fairly mainstream at this point and its meaning needs to be understood by any herbalist (or for that matter, any person that reads herb books and blogs). Below is the definition by the term’s creators, my distilled definition and the definitions of several notable practicing herbalists. There is also some notes for use and context provided, along with the standard short list of familiar plants that are currently grouped under this heading.

The term was first coined in 1947 by a Russian scientist named Dr. Nikolai Lazarev but the formal definition was not created until 1968 by Isreal Brekham, PhD and Dr. I. V. Darymov. The formal definitely includes the following criteria:

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.

In summary, an adaptogen is a substance that increases the body’s non-specific resistance and adaptibility to stress while having a balancing effect on the overall physiology without being significantly toxic even with long term use.

David Hoffmann points out in his excellent Herbal Handbook that:

“….an adaptogen enables [the body] to avoid reaching a point of collapse or over-stress because it can adapt ‘around’ the problem.… The core of their action appears to be in helping the body deal with stress… Adaptogens seem to increase the threshold of resistance to damage via the support of adrenal gland and possibly pituitary gland function. By stretching the meaning of the word it can come to mean what in the past was called a tonic. This is especially when an herb can have a normalizing effect; that is, contradictory actions depending on the body’s needs. This restorative quality is a common and unique feature of herbal medicines.…”

The primary point of an adaptogen is to actively promote homeostasis. They are able to modulate  body systems regardless of which direction (hypo or hyper) the system is currently swinging (high or low blood pressure, tachycardia or bradycardia etc.).

Thus, most adaptogens are immunomodulators but not all immunomodulators are adaptogens. In the same way, all (as far as I know) adaptogens are antioxidants but not all antioxidants are adaptogens. In order to be an adaptogen it must fulfill all of criteria listed above. They may effect various organ systems in myriad ways but their overall effect is non-specific to any particular organ. They are the great generalizers and have the amazing ability to address many symptoms and seemingly disparate disorders through their gentle normalizing action.

In their popular book entitled Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief, David Winston and Steven Maimes define adaptogens as:

“…herbs [that] help the human body adapt ot stress, support normal metabolic processes, and restore balance. They increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional and environmental stressors and promote normal physiologic function”

Now, according to the above definition I could imagine many herbs primarily considered alteratives to also fall into this category, although the botanicals listed in the book are fairly typical of what we think of as adaptogens at the current time.

A common definition of adaptogen by modern herbalists also says that its effect must be primarily upon the HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal) and thus acting through the endocrine (and immune) system(s). Not everyone accepts this part of the definition and you may sometimes see many nourishing or “tonic” type herbs referred to as an adaptogen.  Great Lakes herbalist Jim McDonald puts it this way:

“Adaptogenic herbs increase the ability of the body to cope with and respond to stress.  They tend to act on the adrenals and the endocrine & immune systems.  This is the class of herbs people think of when they hear the word “tonic”… There is much academic debate about what can and should not be called an adaptogen.  For my part, if an herb relaxes tension, increases one’s resilience to the stress they are exposed to, and, if taken over time, helps replenish their vital energy, then the herb is acting as an adaptogen, whether or not we can pinpoint and verify that its actions are manifested via the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis.”

I agree with Jim’s assessment but I feel that at this point, the term becomes so vague as to be less than useful. Also, (as always) the herbs effect different people in different way. Most people perceive American Ginseng to be energizing yet relaxing at the same time, but some people (especially those with extensive nervous system trauma) may find that it simply gives them the jitters. Many (but not all) adaptogens are warming and can easily trigger hot flashes in those with either deficiency or excess heat. Care should be taken to match the herb to the person in each case. Given at medicinal doses, there’s really no such thing as a universal remedy. In most cases, adaptogens are best suited to those with some level of deficiency because most of these botanicals are, by their very nature, supplementing. To supplement someone with an already excess condition is to aggravate the existing issues and potentially cause more.

One of the greatest problems in the modern use of so-called adaptogens is how they are promoted to help us push beyond normal stress capacity. So rather than working with the plants as helpers and healers, they are used as a kind of drug to keep us going when our body is telling us to slow down and recuperate. In this way, they become yet another coping mechanism and a way to speed us towards inevitable burnout. This is a suppressive method and one I don’t recommend, especially in the long term.

A safer and more advisable approach is working with these plants to help build up strength after a long illness, during recovery from a chronic disease or as a long term measure to supplement and nourish an individual who is very sensitive to stress and environmental factors. This is also a more traditional way of working with these herbs in most cases. Adaptogens are NOT a replacement for sleep, adequate nourishment or a much needed change in environment or ways of being. They are not a “natural” version of steroids, viagra or nodoze. They are complex, dynamic living beings that can have a profound healing effect upon our bodies, emotions and minds if we ally with them. The more we remember they are our partners and not drugs or minions the more successful our relationship with them will be.

Because of how broad this category is, it’s very difficult to lay out criteria for when they should or should not be used beyond my above general recommendations. I advise you to research each herb as an individual rather than just under the heading of ~adaptogen~ in order to gain further clarity and insight into these plants. Many of these plants will also be discussed under other (more specific) terms in the Terms of the Trade series.

A Few of my Favorite Adaptogens:
Withania somnifera - Ashwagandha
Ocimum sanctum - Holy Basil/Tulsi
Ganoderma lucidum - Reishi
Glycyrrhiza spp. - Licorice
Panax quinquefolius - American Ginseng
Eleutherococcus senticosus - Eleuthero, formerly known as Siberian Ginseng
Schizandra chinensis - Schizandra
Urtica dioica and related spp - Nettle Seeds
Centella asiatica - Gotu Kola

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