Adaptogens Part 1: What Are They and How Do They Work?

Posted by Stephany Morgan on

What are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens might be a funny sounding word, but they are relatively straightforward. In short, Adaptogens are a relatively new class of herbs that help us “adapt” to stress, regardless of the origin of the stressor. Now, don’t get me wrong, adaptogenic herbs have been around for ages, and the old herbals likely would have referred to their adaptogenic action as being “amphoteric”, meaning they have normalizing effects on the body.

The term was coined in the late 1950’s by a Russian toxicologist named Nikolay Lazarev. He based this off of the famous work Hans Selye had been doing on stress and something called the “general adaptation syndrome”, which is the sum of the three response phases to stress: alarm, resistance and exhaustion.

During this time, the Russians began looking at what herbs could help improve the endurance and stamina of athletes. Their research resulted in the recognition of adaptogenic plants.

How do Adaptogens Work?

Buckle up folks, because we are about to science! Yes, I used “science” as a verb… Poetic license, am I right? Eh? No? Okay, moving on…

So, how exactly do adaptogens work? Well, after much research it has been established that they effect two main stress-regulating systems: The HPA axis and the SAS.

The HPA axis is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. In short, the hypothalamus maintains homeostasis and is responsible for multiple bodily functions such as regulating hormones, sleep and wake cycles, and body temperature. It interprets information from bodily signals and responds in a modulating fashion, keeping our bodies functioning optimally.

The pituitary gland sits below it, and is considered to be the “master gland” (although one could think of it more as the pituitary gland is king but the hypothalamus is its appointed royal advisor). It regulates vital body functions, commands the production of hormones and ultimately regulates and maintains an appropriate internal environment.

Lastly, the adrenals produce steroidal hormones which regulate salt and water balance, sex hormones and stress hormones.

When this system is impacted by long-term stress, the function can become overwhelmed and the system will struggle to maintain homeostasis (adrenal fatigue, anyone?).

The SAS is the sympatho-adreno system. It regulates our fight, flight (or freeze) response. Think of this as the reaction you might have if you turn around and see an angry bear. Your body responds with a flood of hormones designated to save you from the threat in any way possible. It slows down or stops unnecessary functions and focuses solely on getting you out alive.

Great system, right?

Well, yes, if it isn’t abused. Unfortunately, with our modern lifestyles many of us  are in a constant state of fight or flight. Eventually it begins to wear us down. Fight or flight is meant to be short term. Chronic stress results in exhaustion, lethargy, weight-gain, digestive issues, blood pressure problems, irritability, even frequent illness and infection. When chronic stress is present, the regulation of those bodily processes and hormone production breaks down and we ultimately suffer.

Matcha Alternatives Adaptogens Chronic Stress


So, now to the point: Adaptogens act on those systems to aid them in their modulation and maintenance of homeostasis *insert applause here*. In addition, they also act on a cellular level to prevent dysfunction of the mitochondria (the cellular “engines”) due to cortisol. Adaptogens increase the cell’s sensitivity to specific proteins and peptides to the effect of maintaining proper mitochondrial function. This is hugely important because mitochondria provide the body with 90% of its energy! And when dysfunction sets in, chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, diabetes and even cancer can occur.

In summary, adaptogens regulate and modulate hormone production, organ function, cell health and immune function. These plants are “intuitive” and it is said that the more you need them the more they will work, the less you need them the less they will work. For example: A person with low blood sugar and a person with high blood pressure could both take therapeutic amounts of adaptogens and see their blood sugar balance out!

To learn more about what foods and teas contain adaptogens, you'll have to wait until next week for Adaptogens Part 2: Health Benefits & Which One is Best for Me? ;-)

Adaptogens References & Further Reading

Panossian, A; Wagner, H. 2011. 'Adaptogens: A Review of their History, Biological Activity, and Clinical Benefits'. HerbalGram. Issue: 90 Page: 52-63; American Botanical Council.

'Hypothalamus'. You and Your Hormones, Society for Endocrinology. 

'Pituitary Gland'. You and Your Hormones, Society for Endocrinology. 

'Adrenal Glands'. You and Your Hormones, Society for Endocrinology. 

'Adaptogen'. The Naturopathic Herbalist: Botanical Medicine for the Medical Student.

A note from the Herbalist...

All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. The information here is for educational use only.

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