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Adaptogens: An Introduction

In short, the word adaptogen is a scientific, if not clinical, term for a natural herbal tonic or product that allows for a non-specific response to everyday stressors, fatigue and sources of anxiety. They are completely non-toxic and have a normalizing effect on the body allowing overall resistance to biological, chemical and physical stressors. In other words, these herbs allow the person or the body to adapt to surroundings and the inevitable risks involved. The most commonly known adaptogen is Asian ginseng (Panaxquinquefolium), but astragalus, eleutherococcus and schisandra are valuable herbal commodities as well. Actually, schisandra is a dried Chinese fruit that possesses all the five basic flavors of Chinese herbal medicine: salty, bitter, sweet, sour and pungent or spicy.


Like most natural medicines, adaptogens were a staple in ancient societies in and around China and India. In those times, they were referred to as restoratives, rasayanas or qi tonics—labels that inspire naïve images of magic and alchemy. It seems strange to be introducing something so ancient, but like so many other herbal remedies, adaptogens are no longer part of common knowledge.

It wasn’t until after World War II, in the late 1940s, that these wonderful herbs got their modern makeover and began carrying the moniker ‘adaptogens.’ Interestingly, Russia put together a team of more than 1,200 scientists to study and understand the herbal tonics as a kind of medicinal extension of the “the space race” and the global scramble to come out on top. Finally, in 1947, Nikolai Lazarev gave adaptogens their official definition: an agent that allows the body to counter adverse physical, chemical, or biological stressors by raising nonspecific resistance toward such stress, thus allowing the organism to “adapt” to the stressful circumstances.”

To better understand the physiological effects of adaptogens, perhaps it is appropriate to mention that they function best when the body is at homeostasis. However, they continue to function at allostasis. They all contain antioxidants, but are not defined by the function of antioxidants. NOTE: By no means are all antioxidants also categorized as adaptogens.

Other adaptogens include rosamajalis, reishi, rhodiola, chaga mushroom and lepidium. As we intend to build our archive up with a vitamin, mineral and herb library of sorts, we will continue to cover the uncommonly known benefits of adaptogens and other important nutrients in the future.

For more specific information, check out Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief (cowritten with Steven Maimes, Healing Arts Press, 2007).

The information supplied in this article is not to be considered as medical advice and is for educational purposes only.