Confusion abounds for adaptogens, says expert

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Rhodiola rosea is one of nine well-researched adaptogens. Image © iStock / Maasik
Rhodiola rosea is one of nine well-researched adaptogens. Image © iStock / Maasik

Related tags Ginseng

Industry and consumer interest in adaptogens is on the rise, but the list of actual adaptogens may be a lot smaller than many think, says a leading expert.

As founder of Herbalist & Alchemist​ and author of Adaptogens Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief​, David Winston, RH (AHG), knows a lot about adaptogens. For Winston, there is widespread confusion around what is and what is not an adaptogen.

“It’s astonishing that industry, the herbal community, and researchers are all equally confused,” ​he told us.

There are only about nine well-researched adaptogens, said Winston: Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng​), American Ginseng (Panax quinqeufolius​), Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera​), Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus​), Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis​), Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea​), Shilajit (Asphaltum bitumen​), Rhaponticum (Rhaponticum carthamoides​) and Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinesis​). 

There are a number of other herbs that can be classed as “probable adaptogens” (Holy Basil, Suo Yang, Tienqi Ginseng, Shatavari, Ba Ji Tian/Morinda, Aralia elata​ and A. mandshurica), ​ and “possible adaptogens”  (Codonopsis, Prince Seng, Reishi, Cross Vine, Eucommia and Guduchi) “We just don’t have quite the level of research to clearly define them as adaptogens,”​ he noted.

And then there are herbs that Winston refers to as “nutritive tonics”. These are nourishing and strengthening but they do not meet the definition of an adaptogen, he said. This includes herbs such as amla, astragalus,, goji berry and maca

Traditional vs modern science

While many may think that adaptogens are traditional herbs, the actual term “adaptogen” is a relatively recent invention and came out of science and not traditional use. . In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) many tonic remedies are known as Kidney yang tonics, and in Ayurveda they are known as Rasayanas. While some Rasayanas and Kidney Yang tonics are adaptogens, many are not, he said. 

“Research into adaptogens started in 1947 in the USSR and was funded by the Soviet military to boost strength and performance ,” ​explained Winston. “They were researching pharmaceutical drugs and then settled on ​Panax ginseng. Despite the USSR and China both being communist powers and neighbors, their relationship was uneasy and the Soviets didn’t want to pay the Chinese for ginseng, which was expensive. They came across Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). This was led by the Father of Adaptogens, Dr Israel Brekhman. Much of this initial research was classified, but the science slowly started to trickle out.”

Dr Brekhman and his co-workers stated that adaptogens:

1. Are non-toxic in normal therapeutic doses;
2. Produce a non-specific state of resistance in the body to physical, emotional or environmental stress;
3. Have a normalizing (amphoteric) effect on the body helping to restore normal physiologic function that has been altered by chronic stress.

David Winston Herbalist
David Winston, an internationally known lecturer, author and ethnobotanist, and the founder of Herbalist & Alchemist.

These criteria were established in the 1960s, said Winston, and the definition has become more refined since then.

“Later research has shown that adaptogens work by re-regulating two master control systems in the body, the HPA axis (hypothalamic/Pituitary/Adrenal axis) and the SAS or Sympatho-adrenal system,” ​he said. “The HPA axis controls all endocrine function, as well as nervous system and some immune function, while SAS is our fight or flight response. 

“An adaptogen has to meet all three Brekhman parameters and has to work through the HPA axis and SAS. Something like maca is a nutritive tonic but there is no evidence that I am aware of to show it works through the HPA axis and SAS.”

Winston added that recent research by Dr Alexander Panossian and Dr Georg Wikman from the Swedish Herbal Institute has found that adaptogens work on a cellular level preventing cortisol–induced mitochondrial dysfunction (see Pharmaceuticals​ 2010, 3(1), 188-224; doi:10.3390/ph3010188​). Mitochondrial dysfunction has been linked to a number of conditions, including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. 

The market and the claims

The confusion flows from the industry to the consumer. “The claims for adaptogens go beyond what the research shows us,”​ said Winston.

“A lot of people think adaptogens are a panacea, but they are not a replacement for the foundations for good health, such as sleep, exercise and a healthy diet”​ he said. “Where adaptogens makes sense are when someone has started a new job and is stressed, because they’re working crazy hours, or they have a new baby, they’re studying for finals, or they travel a lot and deal with jetlag. That’s where adaptogens have a role.

“Another important point is that not all adaptogens are created equal. Some are relaxing, some are stimulating, some are drying, some are moistening.”

Schisandra © Getty Images alexmak72427
Schisandra. Image © Getty Images / alexmak72427

Among the stimulating adaptogens are Red Ginseng, White Asian Ginseng, and Rhodiola, while Schisandra, Ashwagandha, and Cordyceps are calming. American Ginseng, Codonpsis and Shatavari are known to be moistening, while Rhodiola and Schisandra are drying.

When creating food and beverage products, formulators should be aware of these differences, as well as the potential impact on flavor.

“Some adaptogens have a long history of use in food, like Codonopsis, which is used in a soup. You can often use a fairly large doses because they are mild and nutritive, but you have to have an effective dose,” ​said Winston. And some adaptogens have strong flavors. Schisandra,or Reishi  for example, “won’t win any awards for their taste”

Is there a risk to the nascent category by overusing the term adaptogen ? Yes, said Winston. “Adaptogens work best when used with in-depth knowledge of their effects, energetics and the appropriate companion herbs . We want people to educate themselves, so they can use the right herbs to maximize their benefits and the person's health. When we take the wrong herb, an inadequate dose or a poorly designed formula, and they are ineffective people’s take away is that herbs don’t work."

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