How Do Adaptogens Work?

Adaptogens May Help Your Health

If you have not yet been bombarded with claims about adaptogens, then you soon will be. These substances are almost as old as time, but—until recently—they have been practically unheard of outside of traditional Indian and Chinese medical and healing circles.

However, the world is buzzing about them like crazy. They are showing up in more and more products and plenty of vloggers, bloggers, and Instagrammers are posting ‘adaptogen recipes.’ So, let’s get into it and answer the big question: do adaptogens really work?

Here’s What You Need to Know About Adaptogens

What Are Adaptogens?

It’s either magic or it’s just a buzzword, depending on who you ask.

It seems like one of those ‘love it or hate it’ trends. There are many different adaptogens, each coming with a different claim, but the common theme is that they are supposed to assist in managing both physical and mental stress (and some may even help with homeostasis).

Adaptogens are plants that have been used for centuries all over the world, particularly in China and India, for their apparent health benefits—both physical and psychological. These plants are most often consumed in the form of a supplement, but some can also be eaten in a regular meal or as tea.

Another big claim that you will probably hear a lot of is that they promote homeostasis within the body. We will cover all of this later when discussing the various studies that have shown adaptogens can provide many benefits in different types of situations. Some of the most common adaptogens are:

Some of the most common adaptogens are:

  • Ashwagandha
  • Asian Ginseng / Panax Ginseng
  • Milk Thistle
  • Holy Basil
  • Rosemary
  • Rhodiola Rosea

How Do They Work?

It is important to keep in mind what stress is, and what role it played in early human evolution. These early humans had many different sources of stress than we do today.

For example, they may have been wandering through the woods looking for something to eat, and all of a sudden a dangerous beast appears out of nowhere.

Stress causes the “fight or flight” phenomenon that we’ve all heard about, and in most cases, it will cause the person to run from insurmountable odds. We are talking here about a short burst of stress and then the person can calm down.

Nutrition Trends Simplified What Are Adaptogens

On the other hand, today we have constant stress. We can never escape the dangerous beast, and we can never calm down. Adaptogens assist your body in minimizing stress, particularly long periods of it, by keeping you at homeostasis or at your baseline.

It is claimed that adaptogens will alter (or adapt, hence the name) your hormone production by interacting with the sympathoadrenal system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

However, researchers are just now scratching the surface to find out how adaptogens really work. Many studies have shown that they do work, and we’ll take a look at some of them now.

Scientific Research and Studies on Adaptogens

The general public is just now beginning to hear a lot about adaptogens and, as with many other health and nutrition trends, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all just a hoax. However, adaptogens aren’t that new, and there have been numerous studies done on these herbal extracts already.

In fact, many cultures around the world have been using these herbs since ancient times, so you could say they were early to jump on the trend.

So, what exactly does the research suggest? In one study from 2010, carried out by Alexander Panossian and Georg Wikman at the SHI in Sweden, they wanted to find out what effect these adaptogens had on the central nervous system (CNS), and determine how exactly they work.

They dug up some interesting history, such as how the Soviets during World War II were studying the use of Schisandra Chinensis as a stimulant for their armed forces. Other nations also experimented, with a particular focus on pilots and submariners.

In the conclusion of this 2010 study, they state that adaptogens do have a “stress-protective effect” which is caused by several mechanisms to regulate homeostasis.

What this means is that adaptogens attempt to adapt to whatever is happening at the time in order to keep you at a baseline level. In other words: it’s a bit like how your body tries to keep you at a stable temperature, regardless of external temperatures.

In 2015 there was a small study in India carried out by Swati Dongre, Deepak Langade, and Sauvik Bhattacharyya. This research focused on the sexual health of women aged 21 to 50 who were either given a placebo or ashwagandha.

The study lasted for 8 weeks and the women reported having a less sexual dysfunction. No adverse effects were mentioned.

Another small study, again in India and carried out by some of the same crew as above, found that consumption of ashwagandha root extract significantly increased the muscle mass and strength in healthy young men (18 – 50) during resistance training.

Also, when compared to the men who took a placebo, those who were given ashwagandha had significantly less muscle damage.


So, what can we learn from all of this today?

For a start, it seems that this supposedly new trend of adaptogens is actually quite old, and many of them really do seem to work.

However, as with any herbal extracts and supplements, there needs to be much more research done to prove the efficacy of some of the lesser-known extracts.

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