Adaptogens – the holy grail of herbal remedies

Have you ever heard about adaptogens? We love them! Our adaptogenic elixirs are packed with them. This article will help you better understand the magical power of various adaptogenic herbs, so that you can start benefiting from them in your life too.

Society demands from us to always be well-groomed, styled, smiling and, of course, always online. So we try to live up to these expectations. For some time we are as bright as a star, but nothing lasts forever and finally our bodies say ENOUGH! There are signs of fatigue, lack of strength, illness. This is the worst-case scenario – but things can be different. We all take care of ourselves daily from the outside – cleansing our skins, applying various types of creams, balms or serums. And what about supporting the body from the inside?

Using natural ingredients, such as adaptogens, can improve our performance, resistance to stress and illnesses, concentration and cognitive functions. All this with the help of adaptogenic herbs, which the modern world is only discovering now, but which have been known and cherished in Ayurveda or ancient Chinese medicine (TCM) for centuries.

Adaptogens are not a cure – they do not cure diseases. Their task is to support the body from the inside in such a way, that it can deal with the stress factors by itself. Adaptogenic herbs are not a temporary trend. Adaptogens have practically always been with us, but only recently have we learnt about their extraordinary properties.

What are adaptogens?

To put it simply: adaptogens help you adapt. They support the body’s ability to cope with stress, anxiety and fatigue.  The most important property of these unusual substances is the ability to enhance the adaptability of our organism in adverse conditions. These plants first “helped” themselves – growing in unfavourable conditions and adapting to be able to draw from them as much as possible and, of course, all that was best. They did not have an easy life themselves: often growing at high altitudes or heavy winter conditions, adaptogens had to develop strong survival qualities. It is believed that after ingesting adaptogens, they can transfer their incredible adaptogenic properties onto us – to help and protect us from the adverse conditions of our environment – stress, fatigue, overworking. Adaptogens help our bodies deal with the negative effects of not only mental or physical stress, but also external stressors such as environmental pollution, radiation, wi-fi pollution or toxic substances. Through various, non-specific pathways, they positively affect our health and well-being. No wonder adaptogens have been widely used in many cultures across the world for several thousand years.

Adaptogens – definition

For a plant to qualify as an adaptogen, it must meet three criteria: it must be safe (meaning no side effects) and non-toxic, it must have a broad, non-specific effect, and it must specifically reduce the effects of stress, both mental and physical.

  • Adaptogens are non-toxic

This is probably one of the most important functions – apart from the fact that they help, they cannot harm in any way. All adaptogens are non-toxic. Other herbs may have adaptogenic properties, but if they are in any way toxic, then they are not considered to be adaptogenic. It is also important that adaptogens are not addictive.

  • Adaptogens have nonspecific defense response to stress

Adaptogens do not act as drugs, the task of which is to improve the function of one organ or system. Their operation is based on a certain natural “intelligence”. They discover the needs of our body and strive to satisfy them. Adaptogens reduce disproportions between deficiencies and excess. In this way, they support the operation of the entire “system” which is our body.

According to scientists, adaptogens can stimulate, activate, or promote a response in multiple nonspecific ways, including the building of a reserve of adaptive energy, which can be used when needed in response to an actual stressor. In this sense, adaptogens help keep the body balanced when affected by various stressors in a non-specific, holistic way.

  • Adaptogens have normalizing Influence on the body

Homeostasis, or balance, is something that helps our body to stay healthy. Its disorders or imbalances will be associated with the occurrence of illnesses and weakness. Adaptogens can be “bipolar”. To normalize our body balance, adaptogens can have a bipolar effect on various physiological functions. Adaptogens are clever! They can either tone down the activity of hyperfunctioning systems or strengthen the activity of low-functioning systems. You can compare adaptogenic herbs to a thermostat, which senses the room’s temperature and brings it down when too hot, or brings it up when too low. This bipolar ability of adaptogens is truly unique, leading some researchers to conclusions that adaptogens have intelligence.

Benefits of adaptogens

Adaptogens’ normalizing influence involves bringing balance to the body’s inbuilt system called the HPA-Axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal), which is our natural system responsible for producing hormones in response to stress. By supporting adrenal functions, adaptogens help counteract the negative effects of stress and help bring the body back to balance.  Benefits of taking adaptogens may include, amongst others:

  • Normalizing body balance and the production of hormones
  • Normalizing reproductive hormones·
  • Supporting immune system
  • Improving mood, mental and athletic performance
  • Enhancing energy
  • Enhancing cognitive functions
  • Providing greater capacity for liver detoxification
  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Less fatigue and infections
  • Increased alertness

The above characteristics of adaptogens make them a truly unique piece of mother nature’s art. The effects may not come straight away and can initially be subtle, but they’re real and undeniable.

Adaptogens – history

Herbal medicine has a rich history. The earliest known traditional medicinal systems to use adaptogenic herbs are Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) around 3000 years BCE. However, the benefits of adaptogens were used for hundreds of centuries across the whole globe, primarily by peoples inhabiting the territory of today’s China, India, Siberia, Russia, Korea, Japan, Iran, both Americas and even Africa, where adaptogens were believed to support the body fight against malaria. On the basis of these amazing qualities of adaptogenic herbs, unique potions were created by these ancient civilisations, and the plants themselves were considered sacred and, often, elitist, where only kings and governors were allowed to have access to them. For example, it is believed that Chinese emperors used to send expeditions into Siberia to bring back precious adaptogenic herbs, which were reserved to the Chinese royal family only.  Between 200 BCE and 220 CE various traditional Ayurvedic, Greek and Chinese herbalists identified certain plants as valuable medicines, including such well-known adaptogens as amla, rhodiola, licorice, shilajit, tulsi, reishi, astralagus, chaga or Asian ginseng.  We also know that Shaolin monks used reishi adaptogenic herb to enhance their meditation and concentration abilities, the Russian tsar is believed to have used chaga to cure his lip cancer, the army of Alexander the Great chewed on licorice roots to give them stamina and endurance during their long military expeditions, and the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun ordered licorice root buried with his body for afterlife use.

Modern scientific research on adaptogens begins with World War II and the enhanced need to increase the stamina, endurance, and performance of soldiers, pilots and sailors during the war, as well as that of labour workers in the communist regime and sportsmen during the Cold War era.  Russia was on a mission of obtaining a competitive edge and so the most active in the field of searching for the holy grail of super adaptogenic elixirs were Soviet scientists Nikolai Lazarew and Israel Brekhman. Whilst Lazarev was mostly focused on searching for a perfect synthetic substance, Brekhman  spent his life researching natural adaptogenic herbs.  The Russian scientists team initially searched for synthetic “boosters” for soldiers, workers and athletes, when they discovered a group of plants with very promising qualities. This shifted their research to adaptogens. The primary herbs studied by the Russian adaptogen team of scientists were: eleuthero, schisandra ginseng, rhodiola and ashwaganda.

Brekhman and Lazarev knew that some of the adaptogenic herbs they were studying survived the Ice Ages. That gave them a clue to the fact that if these miraculous plants could survive an Ice Age, they must have possessed qualities that could help people adapt to stress better and more efficiently.

Over 1,200 scientists, biologists and physicians were employed at the Russian Academy of Sciences and conducted studies under the supervision of Dr. Lazarev and Dr. Brekhman. Over 3,000 clinical studies and experiments on adaptogens were conducted to conclude that of the 4000 plants that the team studied, only 12 were identified as true adaptogens! Further tests were done. Adaptogens were tested against such stressful conditions as extreme temperatures, lack of water or extreme noise. Also, the effect of adaptogens supplementation was studied in depth. After many years of research and tests, it was confirmed with no doubt that adaptogens contributed to the increased resistance to stress in humans and that they improved performance and endurance, while at the same time were safe and non-toxic as no unfavourable side effects were noted.

Successful research on adaptogens resulted in their inclusion in the Soviet space exploration program as well as Arctic and Antarctic expeditions or in the nuclear energy industry. Adaptogenic herbs were also used to increase the performance of Russian sportsmen during Olympic games or chess competitions. For many years adaptogens were kept secret and, just like in the old days, given only to the country elite: high military, certain VIPs, ballet dancers, sportsmen, soldiers and astronauts.

Dr. Sergey Portugalov, the Chief Nutritional Adviser to the Russian Olympic teams said in 1994: “Our greatest competitive advantage came from performance supplements derived from natural plant materials. The nutritional support provided by these supplements helped our athletes achieve better performance, stamina, endurance, strength, recovery, immune resistance, muscle development, and adaptation to changes in climate, time zones, and altitude. The world has seen the results at the last four Olympic Games. But until recently our revolutionary discoveries on adaptogens and athletes were a closely guarded secret.”

Eleuthero and a number of other adaptogens, were first used by Russian athletes to prepare for the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972.  That year the Russian Olympic Team triumphed in the medal classification with 99 medals, including 50 gold medals. American and Chinese sportsmen nowadays widely use adaptogens supplementation to help them achieve high performance in their chosen sport disciplines. For example, in 1993 a number of unknown and unranked Chinese athletes broke world records in various competitions during the world championships in Germany. It was such a precedence that they were tested for banned substance use, however no such substances were found. Their coach later confirmed that the athletes were supplementing cordyceps and this adaptogen is to be credited with their outstanding sports results. Today, a formula prepared by Dr. Brekhman including such adaptogens like eleuthero, schisandra, rhaponticum, rhodiola and licorice is regularly used by most of the members of the American Olympic Games team.

As regards space exploration adaptogens were given to Russian astronauts to improve their endurance for years during the Cold War era and today even NASA officially includes adaptogenic herbs as one of their means of protecting American astronauts against radiation on long-term space flights.

The most well-known adaptogens include (you will find most of them in ZOJO adaptogenic elixirs):

AshwagandaAshwagandha has had a very significant place in ancient herbal medicine, especially in Indian Ayurveda, but also in ancient Chinese medicine. It is an incredibly healthy medicinal herb. Ashwagandha has amazing adaptogenic qualities. It can grow in very difficult conditions, in high and low temperatures, or very high above sea level, making it very robust. This is what makes adaptogens so great, as they are believed to be able to transfer their adaptogenic, survival, qualities onto humans. Ashwagandha can contribute to optimal health and cognitive activity and beneficially affect the heart and cardiovascular system. But it is particularly known for supporting the body’s resistance to stress.  Ashwagandha  contributes to emotional balance and general well+being and can support the onset of sleep. It is also a powerful antioxidant and is known to positively affect the normalisation of hormonal activity. That is why it is recommended in case of such disorders as: Hashimoto’s disease, hypothyroidism, insulin resistance or PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome).

Schisandra – First mentions of schisandra’s incredible powers in Chinese medicine date back to over 2,000 years ago. This traditional Chinese herb is a well-known adaptogen, which means it can protect the body against physical and mental stress. Traditional Chinese medicine used schisandra for detoxifying, revitalizing and as an anti-ageing herb. Its name means “five flavour” fruit, as the Chinese believe it has all the five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and tart. Schisandra is known for its adaptogenic properties and for supporting the detoxification of the liver. Schisandra can also protect cells and tissues against oxidative damage.

MacaMaca is a plant native to Peru where it has been traditionally used to enhance sex drive and fertility, improve energy and stamina. This popular adaptogen is often referred to as „Peruvian ginseng“. Maca is rich in vitamins C and B6, as well as fiber, iron, calcium and potassium and such bioactive plant compounds as glucosinolates and polyphenols, including flavonoids. This adaptogenic herb is believed to reduce anxiety, boost energy and improve physical and mental performance as well as stimulate sexual desire and positively benefit fertility.

Reishi – Also known as the “Mushroom of Immortality“ or the „Mushroom of Spiritual Potency“  reishi has been a popular adaptogenic mushroom for thousands of years in the East where it was believed to be helping achieve longevity and eternal youth. Chinese medicine recognises reishi as a powerful tonic mushroom and it is also a well-known adaptogen, which means it can help our bodies adjust to mental or physical stress, traumas, infections or other stressful conditions. Buddhist monks and Chinese medicine practitioners believed that reishi can help ease tension, strengthen the nerves and build willpower, so sounds like a perfect potent adaptogen.

ShatavariShatavari is one of the most beneficial adaptogens known to nature. Shatavari grows mainly in India, Sri Lanka and the Himalayas.  It plays an important role in Ayurveda, where it is believed to be a natural remedy supporting the female hormonal balance, bringing vitality and longevity, as well improving lactation and acting like a natural aphrodisiac. The word “shatavari” means “the one with a hundred husbands”, and it relates to female fertility and sexual energy. Shatavari may be one of nature’s best kept anti-ageing secrets, due to the presence of antioxidants such as saponins, racemofuran, asparagamine A and racemosol.

Gotu kola – it is believed to improve concentration and support brain work.

GinsengGinseng was originally found in North America and Asia, however this adaptogen has become more and more popular all over the world. It is believed to stimulate glucose metabolism and boost energy levels, vitality, alertness and physical performance. This adaptogenic herb was traditionally used as an aphrodisiac. Ginseng was believed to increase both male and female sexual performance and boost libido.

Milk thistle – is responsible for the natural protection and regeneration of the liver. In addition, it supports concentration and memory and can support the treatment of diabetes.

Licorice root – this adaptogen is known for stimulating and increasing energy and endurance. It strengthens the immune system.

Astragalus rootadaptogen extremely popular in Chinese medicine. It is a known remedy to stress and its effects in our bodies.

Rhodiola – helps adapt to emotional stress, fatigue and physical effort, helps stimulate cognitive functions and is believed to help with sleep difficulties.

TulsiTulsi is often called “The Queen of Herbs” or “Holy Basil”. It is considered to be one of the most powerful adaptogens in the world. Native to Southeast Asia, tulsi certainly is one of the adaptogenic herbs that deserve its name. It is so highly valued in India that the people in India still worship tulsi twice a day and believe it protects the whole family from evil and brings good luck. It is considered a powerful adaptogen in many countries.

TriphalaTriphala is the gem of Ayurvedic medicine. In India, where it has been used for well over 2,000 years, it is considered one of the most versatile of all herbal formulations. Triphala is a Sanskrit word that means “three fruits“. This amazing herbal blend consists of three different fruits- Amla, Bibhitaki and Haritaki. It is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine. Triphala is very gut friendly as it helps to support the digestion and elimination, thus helping to keep your stomach nice and flat. It also helps to maintain normal blood glucose level and a healthy liver, helping to clear the body of accumulations of toxins. Triphala is well known for its natural rejuvenating and antioxidant properties and helping to protect cells against the ageing process. Triphala is often used as a gentle bowel tonic as it is known to help in digestion and support regular bowel function.

Mucuna pruriens – Velvet bean has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 2,000 years. It typically grows in tropical regions of India, Africa and the Caribbean. This amazing herbal adaptogen is well known for its range of tonifying, and strengthening properties. Mucuna pruriens is mostly known for containing natural levodopa (L-dopa), which is an essential precursor of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It also supports and revitalizes both male and female reproductive functions.

Moringa oleiferaMoringa oleifera is a tree native to North India but is now widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas of Asia, Africa, and South America. Moringa is known under a variety of names, such as drumstick tree, horse radish tree, or ben oil tree. This adaptogen was widely used in traditional herbal medicine as it is rich in vitamins A, C, B6, B2, as well as in protein and precious minerals like iron and magnesium. Moringa is also rich in powerful antioxidants such as kaempferol, caffeoylquinic acid, zeatin, quercetin, rutin, chlorogenic acid, and beta-sitosterol. The adaptogenic herb is also used to help maintain a normal glucose level.

Contraindications for use of adaptogens

There are no confirmed side effects that would involve the use of adaptogens. However, it is worth to note that if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or on medication, you should always consult your doctor before any adaptogens supplementation regime is introduced.

 Adaptogens – which ones to use and why whole herbs are best?

There are many forms of herbal supplements available at the moment so it probably makes you wonder which form, or brand, is the best. In general, the adaptogenic herbs are sold in one of two ways: either as whole herbs, or as extracts.

Herbal extracts are substances that are extracted from the adaptogenic herb using various solvents – like water, alcohol, chemicals, or other liquid that has the ability of extracting the plant chemicals out. The problem with liquid extracts is that they often have quite a strong, bitter taste, plus if you are taking in many liquid extracts in your diet, you may unfortunately end up consuming a lot of alcohol. Also, dried powder extracts may have their own issues, mainly that some companies use toxic chemicals in the solvent during the process of extraction.

Unlike liquid or powdered extracts, whole herbs are pretty much what you get and the best mother nature has to offer. These adaptogenic herbs are in their natural form – being powdered leaves, roots or stems. We strongly believe this is by far the best way of intaking adaptogens since if you are consuming adaptogenic herbs in their natural, powdered form, you are basically intaking the entire plant, including the full spectrum of its beneficial plant chemicals (also known as “phytochemicals”). It is very important, as the adaptogen’s phytochemicals all work in synergy and that is what makes adaptogens so special. More importantly, it has not always been researched by science what the effect of a single, extracted chemical, is. Therefore, we always recommend respecting the wisdom of thousands of years of ancient medical systems like Ayurveda or TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and intaking adaptogens in their natural form, as a whole plant – like our ancestors used to do.

Organic adaptogens:

For the very same reason it is important to go back to the roots, where it all began, and find adaptogens that are raw, pure and organic, and not affected by pollution or modern farming practices like the use of pesticides, chemical fertilisers or GMO, or further food manufacturing techniques, involving long-distance shipping and long-term storage, heavy processing, high-temperature preservation and adding all sorts of artificial preservatives, colourings, flavourings and sweeteners to food.  It is best to source adaptogens from trusted brands that offer organic, raw adaptogenic blends, free from any nasties.

Adaptogens – enjoy!

We are really excited that you have discovered adaptogens and happy that we could introduce you to their amazing power. We hope you will enjoy the benefits of adaptogenic herbs and that they will become part of your daily beauty, body and soul routine. Ancient wisdom and modern science both agree – adaptogens are truly amazing and we have only started to discover their true magic.

Authors: Dagmara Widawska and Marta Ravensdale