Can Adaptogens Help You Adapt to Illness and Stress?

Adaptogens, as they are aptly named, are substances (usually herbs) that may help your body adapt to changing needs by restoring normal physiological functioning and reducing stress and fatigue. While they have been around a very long time, the term “adaptogens” was coined only in 1947.

There are approximately 70 herbal plants identified in research papers as having adaptogenic properties. Some of the most commonly used adaptogens include ashwagndha, ginseng, rhodiola rosea, maca root, eleuthero, astragalus, licorice and medicinal mushrooms like reishi, maitake, and Shiitake. Ginseng is possibly the most well known and most widely used. There are close to 4,000 prescriptions with ginseng as an ingredient in the Korean Clinical Pharmacopeia, which has been around since 1610 A.D.

Adaptogen Approval. While these remedies have been used in traditional Chinese and Korean medicine and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, they have, for the most part, not been accepted by conventional medicine. Despite their long-term use and their growing popularity in the U.S., research into the effectiveness of any of these adaptogens is inconclusive and they are currently not reviewed or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. However, some adaptogens are officially considered medicines in Europe and Japan and there is some research suggesting benefits, both as preventatives and as treatments.

Adaptogen Applications. It has been suggested for example, that adaptogens, such as rhodiola rosea can help stimulate the immune system and offer supportive therapy in cancer treatment. A wide variety of adaptogens may act on a cellular level to reduce stress and help prevent age-related diseases, such as neurodegenerative diseases or cardiovascular disease, in otherwise healthy people. In addition, current and potential uses of adaptogens are related to the treatment of mental and behavioral disorders. Some studies suggest that different combinations of adaptogens as well as adaptogens used in combination with traditional medications may be beneficial, though this has not been thoroughly studied.

Safety. Just as the benefits of adaptogens have not been thoroughly studied, neither have the potential side effects, though they seem to be safe in doses typically recommended. However, no botanical or drug is risk-free. The natural variability of compounds found in herbs makes it difficult to analyze the possible effectiveness or potential risk of taking specific dosages.

—Densie Webb, PhD, RD

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