Forget nuclear warfare.
We know now that the truth lurking behind the Iron Curtain wasn’t just atomic weapons, alien space machines, and apocalypse-triggering Communism. We survived the Red Dawn, yes, but with the fall of the USSR followed the ironic reveal of their best-kept secret:
Every nation has them, but Russia was the first to understand their stress-resistant abilities. And in today’s “stressed-out” world, the legendary value of these anti-stress botanicals has only risen since the end of the Cold War.
Branching from ancient phytotherapy (the use of plants for healing), adaptogenesis encompasses a particular set of herbs that improve the body’s ability to adapt to physical & mental disturbances—particularly as they relate to stress.
[Key words: Adapt & Stress]
The body constantly adapts to internal & environmental stressors to achieve homeostasis—a condition of physiological equilibrium in which all bodily processes are in a stable, balanced state. In this sense, adaptogens help the body maintain homeostasis by resisting stress.
Of the 750,000+ known plants, only 20,000+ are recognized as medicinal—and only a select handful of these are deemed adaptogens.
The 3 Defining Criteria for an Adaptogen
In Soviet pharmacologists Dr. Brekham & Dardymov’s 1968 survey on medicinal plants, only five herbs were identified as adaptogens under the following criteria:
- An adaptogen should cause minimal harm to the body.
- The action of an adaptogen should be non-specific in its range of anti-stress benefits.
- An adaptogen normalizes bodily parameters against pathological conditions.
Combined, these points formed the original description of adaptogenic effects:
“non-specific in that the adaptogen increases resistance to a very broad spectrum of harmful factors (‘stressors’) of different physical, chemical and biological natures.”
In this sense, an adaptogen normalizes conditions under stress through various pathways—either by exciting hypoactive systems, calming hyperactive functions, or sustaining an already balanced physiology.
The cherry on top: Adaptogenesis applies under all forms of stress.
But what constitutes stress?
Stress & Stressors
Hans Selye (Selye János in Hungarian) fathered stress research when he conceptualized “stress” in a biological context in 1936. He defined it as:
“the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”
There’s a theme of non-specificity developing here… What we generally consider as “stress”—a psychological state of discomfort—only details one specific aspect of stress:
- Selye’s “stress” is much more inclusive in its nature. Stressors, which preclude the effects of stress, can range from psychological to biological, chemical to physical, personal to social. Temperature changes, UV exposure, hectic schedules, toxic foods, scary movies are all examples of stressors. The subsequent demands on the body to adapt to these stressors determine the severity of stress.
Due to certain scientific limitations of the time period, not all of Selye’s theories on stress were correct. But the heuristic value of his work alone was enough to tip the avalanche of “stress adaptive” research in mid-20th century Soviet Russia.
The Botanical Arms Race
“Those who drink Rhodiola tea will live more than 100 years old,” – Siberian folklore.
Here’s a name to save for your next son or pet: Nikolai Vasilievich Lazarev, the Soviet Russian pharmacologist who officially conceptualized the theory of adaptogens in 1947.
Following Selye’s lead on the adaptive response to stress, Dr. Lazarev coined the term “adaptogen” after observing the adaptogenic properties of dibazol 12-benzyl benzimidazol, an arterial dilator developed in France. Soon after, his mentee Dr. Brekham ran away with the concept, conducting a series of studies that led to the discovery of the “First Generation” Adaptogens:
- Panax Ginseng
- American Ginseng
- Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Most of Brekham’s discoveries on adaptogenesis derived from these plants—however, it was the revelation of “Second Generation” adaptogens that drew the attention of Soviet government leaders, namely in response to one powerful “Second Generation” adaptogen: Rhodiola Rosea.
The Golden Root
In its traditional history, Rhodiola was a popular invigorating tonic consumed by Russian farmers & soldiers to alleviate the harsh conditions of the Siberian high-altitudes. Its enhancing effects on stamina & productivity and its folkloric connections with immortality garnered the attention of Chinese emperors, who sent traders into cold Siberia to bring the “Arctic Root” back to China.
Modern applications of Rhodiola have seen its usage in a number of professions: From military officers to Olympic athletes, political leaders to cosmonauts, businessmen, chess players, and, of course, the botanists themselves:
- The famously long orbital travel of cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who spent 437 days, 18 hours on space station Mir (the longest time any human has lived in space), was partially credited to adaptogens in Polyakov’s 1996 presentation “The Use of a New Phytoadaptogen under Conditions of Space Flight.” It was later learned that cosmonauts had been supplementing Rhodiola since 1961—years before its discovery as an adaptogen.
Interestingly, while the Soviet government was willing to share its science on Siberian Ginseng, it wasn’t until the end of the Cold War that the rest of the West learned of Rhodiola’s adaptogenic potential. The USSR genuinely believed the herb gave their nation a competitive advantage over everyone else and, thus, sanctioned this purported advantage through secrecy.
Post-Cold War Adaptogenesis
Despite the hundreds of Scandinavian & Russian studies written on Rhodiola, much of the English speaking world is still catching up to understand its adaptogenic mechanisms. Yet, thanks to the release of the Soviet studies, few (if any) scientific communities are unaware of Lazarev & Breckham’s principles on adaptogenesis.
And the list of adaptogenic herbs continues to develop as regions apply the Soviet concepts of botanical anti-stress support to their local herbal traditions.
Mechanism of Action
If adaptogens are inherently “non-specific” in how they alleviate the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change (i.e. stress), how do we pinpoint their specific mechanisms of action?
While there are specific pathways engaged by the active constituents of each adaptogen, we won’t dive into all of them. Instead, we’ll detail the general thought process behind the normalizing effects of adaptogens on the central biological stress pathway:
The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis
During conscious & autonomic perceptions of stress, the hypothalamus triggers the HPA axis into action, directing a system of direct & indirect hormonal feedback mechanisms that ultimately result in the non-specific responses of stress.
The hot-topic stress hormone, cortisol, is involved in the regulation of a number of metabolic & bodily functions—energy levels, immunity, digestion, emotional state, sex, etc. etc.
A healthy stress response leads to a healthy release of cortisol via the HPA axis, resulting in workable fight-or-flight mechanisms directed against the environmental stressor at hand.
Unhealthy releases of cortisol result in a fractured fight-or-flight state that, if left unchecked for too long, can lead to health disorders.
(Mal)Adaptations vs. Disorders
Fatigue from exercise & work, lethargy from cold temperature, apprehension for an upcoming test—these are all maladaptive effects of the stress response. They’re key examples of what adaptogens help the body resist (or adapt) against.
Chronic fatigue, depression, & anxiety are examples of disorders. And while adaptogens will certainly alleviate such conditions, they’re not intended to cure them.
However, the name of the game for adaptogens is prevention, as opposed to treatment—curbing the maladaptations of stress greatly diminishes the risk of them turning into disorders.
We’d take our chances with prevention over treatment 99 times out of 100.
Who uses them now?
Due to the rising popularity of adaptogens, growing numbers of professionals are buying into their non-specific anti-stress benefits. However, the secondary advantages of adaptogens’ anti-stress effects make them particularly beneficial in certain fields & professions.
Bodybuilders & Athletes
Soviet research suggests that Rhodiola supplementation results in remarkable improvements on muscle development & function amongst athletes. One report on biathletes (combination of cross-country skiers and rifle target shooters) showed increases in shooting accuracy, indicating that Rhodiola’s adaptogenic properties can also enhance athletic focus & performance. Tie that in with the “anti-catabolic” effects of reducing stress and you can see why adaptogens are popular in sport.
Brainiacs & Creatives
Stress gone haywire can have immediate detrimental effects on cognition & focus. By keeping mental-draining stress levels at bay, adaptogens possess important brain-protective abilities found valuable by mind-driven professionals. What’s more, some adaptogens seem to enhance cognition by improving memory, focus, and feelings of well-being, giving them a significant nootropic edge.
Workaholics & Manual Laborers
Due to the “high-stress” rat race of First World Americana, occupational stress is becoming more & more of a relevant topic among researchers, medical doctors, and public health officials alike. Whether the stress is mentally-driven due to the Sisyphean pressure of deadlines or manifested physically in hard labor, adaptogens have shown to decrease the Life-Stress symptoms commonly associated with the modern working man & woman.
List of Popular Adaptogenic Herbs
Not all adaptogens have the same effects—some are more powerful, others have additional health benefits. Regardless, here are a few of the most popular adaptogens available:
Used as a central health tonic in Ayurvedic medicine, “Ashwagandha” translates from Sanskrit to “the smell of a horse,” meaning it may impart the virility & strength of a stallion. Its clinically sanctioned effects on stress & testosterone warrant its use as an anti-stress agent & a performance-enhancer.
If the golden root’s legendary status in Soviet medicine hasn’t convinced you yet, we’re left to assume you’re bearing Cold War grudges. From its benefits on fatigue & performance to its nootropic-style effects on cognition & mental health, there’s little reason to pass up rhodiola’s research backed support.
One of the most historically valued herbs of China & Korea, ginseng has traditionally been supportive of Qi circulation and is scientifically suggested to increase libido, testosterone, & stress-resistance. The root contains over 25 saponin “ginsenosides,” which offer a range of adaptogenic effects.
Panax quinquefolius also contains active ginsenosides, but at a lesser content. For this, many consider American ginseng as the weaker ginseng—yet, American ginseng’s phytochemical profile seems to favor ginsenosides that are better suited to coping with stress.
Technically not a true ginseng, Eleuthero was one of the first studied adaptogens for its long history in traditional Chinese medicine. Its primary constituents, eleutherosides, appear to act on the adrenal glands, preventing excessive adrenal action during times of stress.
Known as “Peruvian Ginseng” (also, not technically ginseng), this radish-like root grows in the high-altitude regions of South America. Maca exportation from Peru to the U.S. has multiplied throughout the last decade for its known sex-protective & anti-stress effects.
Or maral root, is another perennial plant cultivated in Russia for its noticeable improvements on stamina & strength. The muscle-building phytoecdysteroids of rhaponticum make the herb popular among bodybuilders.
Another Qi-tonic of ancient Chinese herbalism, Astragalus protects against stress with a particular emphasis on immune health.
The only fungus in this category of herbs, cordyceps meet the mark for their adaptogenic role in (you guessed it) Chinese medicine. In addition to nourishing the HPA axis, cordyceps nourish athleticism by increasing O2 capacity & ATP production.
Formally recognized by the 1960s Soviet studies, the berry Schisandra chinensis earned a position on the National Pharmacopoeia of the USSR for its improvements on physical working capacity, mental performance, immune health, antioxidant levels, and endocrine stress measures.
Also known as “Tulsi” or “The Incomparable One,” holy basil is a sacred mint plant in Indian medicine. Its complex phytochemistry supports an immune-enhancing range of antioxidant, antibacterial, & adaptogenic effects.
Within traditional Chinese medicine, Dang Shen is referred to as “poor man’s ginseng” for its mild resemblance to Panax Ginseng. The Codonopsis root contains the medicinal aspect of Dang Shen in its heavy portion of stress-reducing phytosterols & triterpenes.
From nootropics to pre-workouts to T-boosters, more and more supplement products are stacking adaptogens in their formulas. This makes sense: Achieving homeostasis benefits the body & mind across the board. Theoretically, by establishing a homeostatic foundation, adaptogens can clear the path for other ingredients to elevate the body & mind above their average “room-temperature” threshold.
In the context of Cold War politics, it seems the only use for adaptogens is to gain a competitive edge. Yet, their legendary status in traditional herbal medicines suggests they have deeper roots as tools of recreational, personal wellbeing.
Before they were used by Olympians, cosmonauts, & political leaders, adaptogens were consumed by farmers simply looking to gain an edge on their day. Had they the scientific knowledge we possess today, they’d realize that there’s a grain of truth in that Siberian folk-phrase: “Those who drink Rhodiola tea will live more than 100 years old.”
Considering that stress affects nearly every aspect of our daily lives, it’s safe to say that everyone, regardless of their motives, could probably benefit from supplementing with adaptogens.