What is an Adaptogen?

What is an Adaptogen?

What is an Adaptogen?
By LeAnne

The word adaptogen is showing up everywhere in the health and wellness world, especially in relationship to mushroom based supplements or nutraceuticals.  I thought it might be helpful to summarize some of the information and take the mystery out of these types of healing herbs.

Let’s start with a definition:  Wikipedia states that an adaptogen is a “substance used in herbal medicine for the claimed stabilization of physiological processes and promotion of homeostasis”.  Homestasis in relationship to our personal health is the state of being in balance- not overstimulated and not exhausted.  There is a “midpoint” range that keeps us in a state where one is not harmed (emotionally, physically and even spiritually) when exposed to environmental stressors such as: pollution, radiation, infectious disease or interpersonal disharmony, to name a few. In short, when we are exposed to a stressor of any kind, our body reacts; adaptogens help the body stay within a healthy range or respond in the direction that returns it towards balance.  A recent book by the founders of Four Sigmatic use a great visual to show this.  I have recreated a similar one here (see the end of this post for more information on their marvelous new book!):

To be considered an adaptogen there are four key characteristics:

  1. It must be nontoxic. This means that you can take any amount and it does not harm or poison your body. The body takes what it needs and safely “flushes” the rest.  Not all herbs do this. Some herbs need to be taken in moderation or can only be handled within specific limits or they can become harmful.  (Something to be said for “too much of a good thing” – but not with adaptogens!)
  2. It must be nonspecific. Some herbs/substances are meant for a specific purpose.  Adaptogens will not push the body in one direction. For example, a stimulant will always energize and a depressant will always slow a function. Adaptogens work to move the body back to that mid-state, whether you are fatigued or energized from the “stressor”. 
  3. It is normalizing. This means that the substance will normalize one or more systems within the body. Examples include your immune system, nervous system, cardiovascular, digestive or even endocrine system(s).
  4. It has a stress protective effect: Think of the “adapt” in adaptogen.  When presented with a stressor you will lose less energy; the targeted “system” is protected from negative effects, or at least minimizes to the extent possible the consequences of exposure or imbalance.  

Adaptogens sound almost like magic, don’t they?  For western medicine or an allopathic mindset, they may seem too good to be true, yet have actually been scientifically researched since 1947. During World War II, a Soviet scientist, Nikolei Lazarev, began to look at ways to support the health of soldiers and shortly thereafter Israel Brinkman, also a Soviet scientist, began looking specifically at herbs, such as ginseng, to support stress response. 

Today, research is ongoing on the role of adaptogens in combating the bodies response to: adrenal fatigue, arthritis, sleep, neuroendocrine systems and anti-tumor support. The Cleveland Clinic provides patients with an overview of adaptogens and uses.  You can check them out here: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/drugs/22361-adaptogens.

What are some examples of adaptogens?  Some of the most popular or well-known adaptogens include: Panax Ginseng, Holy Basil, Ashwagandha, Astragalus Root, Licorice Root, Rhodiola, Cordycep Mushrooms and Schisandra Berry. You can find a great list of adaptogens and their support value from the Botanical Institute: https://botanicalinstitute.org/list-of-adaptogens/.

Some great resources include a new book was recently published by the founders of Four Sigmatic called “Healing Adaptogens” by Teko Isokauppila and Danielle Ryan Broida. (https://healingadaptogens.com/).

And if you really want to geek out on some research related to adaptogens, you can check out the National Library of Medicine online.  Here is a super clear summary of recent research with explanations. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6240259/

References Include:

Liao LY, He YF, Li L, Meng H, Dong YM, Yi F, Xiao PG. A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chin Med. 2018 Nov 16;13:57. doi: 10.1186/s13020-018-0214-9. PMID: 30479654; PMCID: PMC6240259.


Isokauppila, T., and Broida, D.R. (2022). Healing Adaptogens: The Definitive Guide to Using Super Herbs and Mushrooms for Your Body's Restoration, Defense, and Performance. Hay House, Inc: Carlsbad, CA.

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