Adaptogens are a group of herbs with specific properties. In short, like their name suggests, they can help you ‘adapt’ to different stressors.
A more technical definition is that adaptogens increase the “state of non-specific resistance to stress, and decrease sensitivity to stressors”. A very broad definition indeed, yet the hundreds of studies on these herbs show a variety of benefits under the heading of ‘stress’.
Research on these herbs dates back to at least the World War 2 era, when Soviet scientists looked to plants as a way to help their soldiers survive in hostile environments. The scientists of course took their cues from the use of these herbs by indigenous people who had used them for centuries prior.
The most commonly researched adaptogenic herbs include Rhodiola rosea, Ashwaghanda, Astragalus, Schisandra, Cordyceps (technically a fungus), Eleutherococcus (Siberian ginseng) and Panax ginseng.
Of these, Rhodiola is perhaps the most studied adaptogen and continues to attract the most attention due to the number of positive (and equivocal!) studies on it. Researchers continue to look into its wide-ranging effects, especially in the realm of endurance fitness.
Rhodiola and other adaptogens aren’t just for athletes though. Here’s a list of the known benefits of these herbs:
Enhanced energy production
Protection against highly toxic chemicals. This includes ethanol (i.e. alcohol)
Protective of brain cells
Increased mental focus
Central nervous system stimulation (increased attention and focus)
Increased mental work capacity
In studies done on athletes, adaptogens allow more intense training, quicker recovery and even improved physiological parameters like increased Max Vo2.
All of these benefits fall under the stress-protective umbrella effect of adaptogens. When we’re stressed, there’s a whole chain of events that happen in our brain. In short, stress leads to the activation of a certain brain area (hypothalamus) that in turn stimulates the release of several stress hormones from the pituitary, which then in turn has an effect on our organs (heart, lungs, adrenal glands, etc.). Known as the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, this system exists to keep us alive and well by improving our tolerance to stressors.
While all of this is good in the short term, chronic stress is well known to have a negative effect on our health.
This is why adaptogens are such an important natural medicine, and anyone suffering from stress (especially those who have a hard time tolerating it) would benefit from adding an adaptogenic herb or a combination like Adrenal B Complex to their health regimen.
We have to remember that when we use the term ‘stress’ this applies to all sorts of things – all of which have the same effect on the HPA axis. So, if you’re a busy person in today’s society or an athlete who has a heavy training load, your brain interprets these stressors in a similar, pre-programmed way.
Rhodiola has been studied time and time again in athletes, with several positive studies and some which showed no changes. One only needs to be reminded of the smallest margins by which victory is attained watching the Olympic games – where only a few hundredths of a second, or the smallest miscalculation of a jump or twist – is the difference between victory and defeat, to know that anything that presents any possible advantage can and should be employed as long as it’s safe and of course legal.
With all these benefits there’s got to be a downside, right? Well not really – adaptogens enjoy a very wide safety margin with negative effects rarely if ever reported. Of course, one should use caution when mixing any chemicals, natural or synthetic. Because adaptogens primarily affect the brain’s neurotransmitters, using them with prescription drugs should be approached with caution.