In 1946 a Russian scientist N.V. Lazarev introduced the term “adaptogenic substance” to the world. He used this term to express the ability of this substance to produce a unique effect in the human body which increases non specific resistance to an adverse influence. Earlier this substance was well known for its ability to enhance the human body’s non specific resistance towards stress causing factors. However, Lazarev was the first scientist to introduce this term bearing high technical precision.
Herbalists use the term to suggest a natural herb that helps the body increase its ability to fight against trauma, stress, fatigue, and anxiety. Accordingly, adaptogens were classified under a broad category of tonics, rasayanas, restoratives, etc.
It is also claimed that these substances possess unique action of balancing hormones as well as immune system. Also they help the body to maintain optimum dynamic balance of systems or homeostasis. Due to this unique ability, this substance is distinguished from other substances exhibiting similar actions. They are thought to exhibit a normalizing effect on the body and are also thought to possess a capacity to tone body systems. As consequence it is proclaimed that these substances bring down the accelerated activity of hyper functioning systems. Similarly they strengthen activity of hypo functioning systems. Thus both the fast and slow paced functions of the body are normalized to give optimum physiological outcome. However, adaptogens are thought to start showing their action at a level described as allostasis, a stage of body function resulting from long term stress. Allostasis lacks fixed reference of homeostasis which is a more stable state of the human body.
Adaptogens contain antioxidants. However, antioxidants are not adaptogens. Adaptogens and antioxidants exhibit their properties by different mechanisms.
Dr. Brekhman (a Russian holistic medical doctor) and his co-workers rephrased the definition of adaptogens to cover all aspects of application of adaptogens. According to them adaptogens are:
- The plants which are entirely safe for human consumption.
- The plants which increase the body’s non specific resistance. In other words they are the ones which provide wonderful supportive mechanism by which the human body can withstand pressures excreted by external and internal factors on its different systems.
- The plants which assist the body in normalizing the system.
The naturally occurring biologically active substances or the organic chemicals are the stress protectors of the human body. Due to the unique properties these plants are of vital importance to human health.
It was also evident many other plants have the same properties. They produce neither stimulating nor inhibitory effects on the body, but they do equalize (tonify) the body functions, so as to get an optimum output from body systems.
The adaptogens primarily exhibit their anti-stressor properties through their ability to help the body effectively fight the stresses caused by external and internal factors. The adrenal glands located at the upper surface of each kidney are responsible for the body’s response to stress and emotional changes in a fight and flight manner (either attack or defend). However, adaptogens recharge and optimize these adrenal glands and thereby strengthen the body’s anti-stressor mechanism. This proposition also raises a question whether adaptogens can be used to enhance the body’s general health and performance because they normalize the body and enable it to utilize energy more effectively in a situation where stressors are not physical threats. Several studies have supported the above stated probable application of adaptogens, i.e. their use in enhancing the body’s general health and performance.
There is ample historical evidence to prove adaptogens were used in ancient times for their unique actions on human body. These herbs were used by Chinese people as physical and mental capacity enhancers, fatigue reducers and longevity extenders. People also found that using adaptogens in challenging situations is of vital importance and extremely beneficial as well. It was a customary among Chinese soldiers to use these herbs a night before battle. Serbian hunters used to consume them a night before going on a dangerous journey. Similarly Tibetan monks used adaptogens as s tool of survival during their stay in high mountains where food and warm cloths were virtually unavailable. These herbs were utilized for thousands of years in China, Russia, Japan, Korea and Europe, and have legendry records of popularity. However, in spite of these facts its effectiveness and physiological utility was established only 45 years ago by physician and scientist Dr. Israel Brekhman.
The scientific discovery that these herbs are effective in helping the human body to adopt or to adjust strains and changes of daily living has proved to be the mother of the word adaptogens. The adaptation to changing environment as a tool of survival for living systems is very well accepted. It is also well known scientific fact – better is the adaptability of an organism, better are the chances of survival of that organism (e.g. human, plants). As a matter of fact these herbs have withstood the harsh environments and have survived for centuries because they possess the right weapon i.e. their unique composition of biological activity.
Owing to their capacity to increase the body’s ability to adapt to stresses and fluctuating situations, people have been consuming them for years in Asia. In 1940s Western scientists started research to explore more facts about adaptogens. The exact mode of action by which they exhibit their effects on the human body is still unclear. Their action is thought to be mediated by an interaction of a number of compounds and complex processes. Adaptogens in pure form are sold by a majority of health food stores.
The start of use of these compounds as a remedy to treat fatigue, stress and anxiety can be dated back to many centuries. Adaptogens were a part of tonics and drinks even before their effects were perceived. Liquorice is an ingredient of many folk remedies in Europe. Similarly ginseng has been extensively used in Asia for millenniums. Even in modern times Native Americans use their own ginseng species.
Herbalist may recommend the use of adaptogens as a part of a daily routine to benefit their patients with better health, stability, and happiness. The herbs may be recommend alone to treat stress related issues. Alternatively the herbalist may suggest combining adaptogens with other components – either a compound or herb to reach specific therapeutic effect. Adaptogens are the most common category of natural product medicines that are used to treat depression, stress, anxiety. This fact becomes evident by reading the list of ingredients that appears on many traditional remedies available in market.
Adaptogens essentially help the body to regain a state of normalization by restoring the dynamic equilibrium among various body functions or homeostasis. However, apart from these primary actions one gets benefitted tremendously by secondary actions of adaptogens also. These benefits (such as protection against heart diseases) arise from their ingredients viz. antioxidants which are found in abundance in them. Antioxidants are responsible for correcting heart ailments.
Although adaptogen provides good solution to treat imbalances in the body, it should not be considered as cure all remedy. A self medication should be avoided and should be taken under expert supervision of a herbalist. Being an expert in the field of herbal remedies, the herbalist shall take time to recommend proper herbal preparations depending on the condition of a patient and the severity of the disease. In the event a patient decided to add an adaptogen to his daily diet, it should be done only after consultation with a physician. This is essential in the event one is already under treatment with prescription drugs.