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Adaptogen History, Classification, and Main Uses

The natural wellness industry is booming and adaptogenic plants (alongside CBD) are leading the way. Diving into the rich history of adaptogens means turning the clock back to the birth of Traditional Chinese Medicine + Ayurveda somewhere around 3000 BCE. The usage of adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms may be thousands of years old, but the term ‘adaptogen’ didn’t make its debut till the 1940s. So what’s with the name? Adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms have the unique ability to ‘adapt’ their function according to the specific needs within the body.

The earliest known usage of adaptogens warranted expeditions to distant lands ordered by Chinese Emperors. It’s thought that Rhodiola was first found in a region of Siberia. Reishi, Rhodiola, and Ginseng were all used by royal families from 2500-2700 BCE. 

Adaptogenic plants were mentioned in the earliest Ayurvedic text but had a major showcase as ‘valuable medicines’ in Charaka-Samhita, the first well-known classic of Ayurvedic medicine. In this text, Author and Herbalist Charaka named over 350+ healing plants including adaptogenic plants like Holy Basil, Amla, and Shilajit. From this point on, adaptogenic herbs continued to pop up in medical texts like De Meteria Medicia by Greek physician Dioscorides and The Shennong Herbal. These texts provided documentation and research of some of the earliest medical usage in China, India, and across parts of Europe. 

Over the next few hundred years, various adaptogenic herbs like Chaga, Rhodiola and Reishi were utilized by Vikings, Shaolin Monks, and even a Russian Tzar.

Western discovery of Ayurvedic medicine

A quick time-hop lands us in 1948 when a Soviet scientist named Dr. Nikolai Lazarev first coined the term “adaptogen” while studying the body’s resistance to stress. This term itself is rooted in Latin adaptare, which means to adjust, and applies to substances that boost the body’s stress resistance. Nikolai was on a quest to concoct the ultimate, all-natural performance tonic to aid the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Dr. Nikolai had initially started his research with chemical substances but was soon steered to plant-based medicine by his colleague, Israel l. Brekhman. Brekhman was thought to be inspired by earlier studies of the Nanai hunters (native people of far-eastern Siberia and northern Manchuria) who utilized Schisandra berries to reduce thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. The beginnings of their research focused on Panax ginseng but quickly shifted to eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) due to it being less costly and easier to grow. In 1962, eleuthero or “the prototype adaptogen” was declared an official herbal medicine by the Soviet Ministry of Health.   

Together, these two doctors discovered what Ayurvedic practitioners had already known for thousands of years, that certain plants have compounds that give them the ability to resist stressful environments by adapting. This ‘discovery’ had a massive impact on medicine within the Soviet Union and led to extensive research and clinical studies surrounding adaptogenic herbs. The Soviet government backed these studies with the utmost support as they believed it gave them an upper hand in sports, military and medical industries. The 1969 Annual Review of Pharmacology included the first western review covering fifteen years of adaptogen research. In this Western body of research, it wasn’t (and still isn’t) uncommon for Ayurvedic medicine and research to be left out. 

Over 1,000 clinical studies conducted by Nikolai and Brekhman led to the widespread use of eleuthero amongst the USSR population, including athletes preparing for the ’70s and 80’s Olympics and cosmonauts. It’s on record that 4000 plants were studied during these trials and out of that lot, only 12 were identified as adaptogens. Some of the other valuable adaptogens that emerged from these studies include Echinopanax, Schisandra and Rhodiola. To receive the adaptogenic title, a plant must carry these qualities: 

  1. An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient (causing minimal if any side effects on physical or mental health)
  2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body -- an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical and biological agents.
  3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor. 

This definition of adaptogens was first published in the 1960s but is widely referenced by scientists to this day. With that said, the term adaptogen still has not been accepted in the modern Western medicine world. This is likely due to a lack of ‘good’ scientific studies and the difficulties in discerning adaptogens from other categories such as immune system modulators, tonics, anabolic agents, and antioxidants. (Winston & Maimes, 2007) 

Adaptogenic recognition in a traditional Western sense has remained relatively low profile in the United States despite being a huge part of the holistic health world. 

It wasn’t until 1998 that the term adaptogen was allowed as a ‘functional and structural” claim for certain products by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. In 2002 The U.S. National Library of Medicine mentioned the term adaptogen when referring to plant preparations that offer immune support and anti-fatigue properties. (Winston & Maimes, 2007) 

It’s safe to say that in the Western world adaptogenic references are generally small and hard to come by in text form. Further published research and information can be found by turning to physical text sources like Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief and Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism: Elite Herbs and Natural Compounds for Mastering Stress, Aging and Chronic Illness

As adaptogens continue to gain popularity in the West, small and big companies alike continue to hire private labs to conduct research on the quality and effectiveness of adaptogens as medicinal herbs. Whether it be new or ancient research or Western or Eastern text, the verdict is unanimous: adaptogens are clinically-proven to be a safe and effective way to reduce stress and improve general health.