Although adaptogens have been used in the form of tonics, rasayanas, or restoratives in Russia, China, India and the Americas for centuries, they’re fairly new to modern medicine. In the United States, adaptogens first came under medical scrutiny in the late 1940s. During these early studies, the physiological effects of adaptogens, such as increased resistance to infectious agents, were easily demonstrated. However, the immune system hadn’t been discovered. Thus, adaptogens were thought to benefit the body’s physiology through non-specific means.
Adaptogens in Mainstream Medicine
With the discovery of the immune system in the 1960s and a better understanding of white blood cell function, scientists had the means to accurately study the effects of adaptogens, which are also referred to as immunomodulators. Consequently, in 1968, the scientists Israel Brekhman and I.V. Dardymov formally described adaptogens as nontoxic; capable of increasing the body’s resistance to physical, chemical and biological stressors; and having a normalizing effect on the body.
In addition to modulating the immune system, adaptogens are reported to balance the endocrine system and help the body heal itself (maintain homeostasis). Adaptogens are also thought to help the body cope with the effects of long-term stress as well as immediate stressors.
For instance, adaptogens such as Eleutherococcus (Siberian ginseng), Avena sativa, and skullcap are reported to improve and strengthen adrenal glands exhausted by years of long-term stress.
In general, adaptogens are all potent antioxidants and they’re reported to improve endurance and produce effects associated with stress reduction, for instance, improved sleep and enhanced athletic performance. Specific adaptogens are associated with specific properties. For instance,Rhodiolarosea is reported to reduce the neurasthenic effects caused by physical and mental stress and has sexual-stimulating properties.
Studies show that adaptogens contain a variety of phytochemicals that are responsible for their antioxidant and immunomodulating properties. These phytochemicals include: Triterpenes, which include the plant sterols, sterolins and saponins; Phenylpropanoids, including the bioflavinoids, and lignans; and Oxylipins, including the hydroxylated fatty acids.
Adaptogens can have individual effects depending on the general health, constitution, and specific nutrient deficiencies, and medical conditions present in an individual. Like all herbs, adaptogens should be used under the direction of a naturopath or herbalist who can advise of interactions with other herbs and prescription medicines. Individual adaptogens may be used or tonics containing several complementary adaptogens.
As immunomodulators, adaptogens strengthen weakened immune systems, offering benefits in autoimmune disease.