Various plants are described as “adaptogenic”. Of course we can cite ginseng (Panax ginseng L.), eleutherococcus or Russian/Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus Maxim.), rhodiola or orpin rose (Rhodiola rosea L.), as well as Chinese Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis Turcz. Baill.) or ashwagandha (Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal).
This term is reserved for medicinal plants in order to characterize properties that are specific to them and different in nature to those of plants that are simply tonics offering management of transient states of fatigue (functional asthenia). Let’s look at how and in what context the concept of “adaptogens” was developed, and how to characterize the action of an adaptogenic plant.
History and development of the concept of the adaptogenic plant
The historical, political and geographical context in which the concept of “adaptogens” was developed was in response to needs that were both specific and extreme. It all began in 1943 with a resolution by the government of the former USSR to launch studies into Schisandra chinensis, with the aim of finding natural substances able to increase human capacity and potential during the Second World War, then in the context of a race for productivity in a hardening East-West Cold War environment.
Russian pharmacologist Nicolai Lazarev, who sought to define the type of action of certain plants such as ginseng, in 1947 created the concept of “adaptogens” to characterize “a pharmacological substance capable of inducing in an organism a non-specific state of increased resistance enabling it to counteract stress signals and adapt to exceptional effort.”
In the early 1960s, Lazarev's work was continued by his former student, who had become head of the department of physiology and pharmacology of adaptation in Vladivostok, Israel Brekhman, in particular into eleutherococcus. In 1968, Brekhman defined three criteria for characterizing an adaptogen. They were:
- Increases the body’s resistance to different types of aggressors (physical, chemical or biological), in a non-specific manner;
- Has a normalizing influence, regardless of the changes from physiological norms;
- Demonstrates an absence of toxicity and influence on the normal functions of the body [Brekhman 1968].
In 1969, work covering 15 years and more of research were published outside the former USSR for the first time, in an international journal, the Annual Review of Pharmacology [Brekhman & Dardymov 1969]. Up to the mid-1980s, more than 1,000 studies were published in Russian on extracts and constituents prepared from eleutherococcus, ginseng, rhodiola and Chinese schisandra, then work continued at a sustained rate, and became international.
Note that in traditional Chinese medicine, the idea of “adaptogens” has been present for thousands of years as part of the concept of “superior tonics”, which regulate various functions and increase energy, promoting overall health without treating any specific illness.
Development of the concept and current characterization of the action of an adaptogenic plant
Adaptogenic plants now represent a new class of metabolic regulators that enable an increase in the body’s ability to adapt to environmental factors and avoid encountering adverse effects.
The adaptogenic action of plants can now be characterized as:
- a non-specific response = induced response to all stress factors (biological, chemical, physical);
- a general effect = it does not target any particular organ, physiological function or pathology;
- a normalizing action = increase in the body’s homeostatic abilities (e.g. the body’s ability to adapt and its strength of resistance to stress factors);
- multiple actions = involvement of various mechanisms (or several immediate biological effects).
The most studied adaptogenic plants
The earliest clinical studies were on Chinese schisandra between 1943 and 1967 in the former USSR. From the mid-1960s onwards, clinical studies continued on eleutherococcus, ginseng and rhodiola [Panossian 2005]. Since the early 2000s, the most studied plant with adaptogenic properties has been is rhodiola [Panossian 2011].
The most convincing clinical evidence for the efficacy of adaptogens has been observed in studies related to their neuro-protective effects and effects on cognitive functions in the event of fatigue, as well as their efficacy in states of asthenia and depression [Panossian 2011].
Didier Guédon, Expert on the French Pharmacopoeia Committee
Brekhman II. Eleutherococcus [in Russian]. Leningrad, Nauka, 1968:1-168.
Brekhman II, Dardymov IV. New substances of plant origin which increase nonspecific resistance. Ann Rev Pharmacol 1968;8:419-30.
Panossian A, Wagner H. Stimulating effect of adaptogens: an overview with particular reference to their efficacy following single dose administration. Phytother Res 2005;19:819-38.
Panossian A, Wagner H. Adaptogens: a review of their history, biological activity and clinical benefits. HerbalGram 2011 (90):52-63