James Green defines an adaptogen as, "An action concept unique to herbal therapeutics. Adaptogenic or hormonal modulating action increases the body's resistance and endurance to a wide variety of adverse influences from physical, chemical, and biological stressors, assisting the body's ability to cope and adapt" (Green, 2000, p. 27). Adaptogens are further defined as herbs that are non-toxic, herbs that have a nonspecific response in the body, and herbs that "have a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor" (Winston & Maimes,2007, p. 18).
What does this mean? In short, these are non-toxic herbs that provide a non-specific response, meaning their effect will be different in each individual, and that effect will be normalizing, irrespective of direction - either boosting or lowering body chemistry in order to normalize it. I see these herbs as the natural equivalent of the "smart pharmaceuticals" that conventional medicine so wishes to achieve. It never ceases to amaze me that adaptogenic herbs interact with the individual's body chemistry catering their effect to the needs of that particular person. These herbs work with the neuroendocrine and immune systems, along the HPA axis and "they are capable of either toning down the activity of hyper functioning systems or strengthening the activity of hypo functioning systems thus having a normalizing effect" (Winson & Maimes, 2007, p. 19).
Adaptogenic herbs are useful for regulating the immune system, both boosting it and potentially normalizing auto-immune responses; for regulating the thyroid; for boosting or decreasing reproductive hormones as needed; for treating adrenal fatigue; for providing antioxidant nutrients to the body; for increasing energy, stamina, and longevity of life; and reducing risk of cancer and heart disease. Specific adaptogens also come with their own specific balancing or normalizing abilities, such as regulating blood sugar (shilajit), treating anxiety and depression (ashwagandha), supporting the lung and kidneys (cordyceps), or treating arthritis (holy basil) (Winston & Maimes, 2007).
One of the most well-known adaptogenic herbs is ashwagandha or Withania somniferia which contains the following active constituents: withanolides, sitoindosides, withaferins, somniferiene, withanine, and anaferine (Winston & Maimes, 2007, p. 29). Ashwagandha has a long history as a cure-all in the Ayurvedic tradition. In addition to the aforementioned general properties of adaptogens, ashwagandha is particularly suited to bringing a state of calm, relieving muscle pain, and treating adrenal exhaustion.In addition to being an adaptogen, this biter, warm, and dry root is also anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immune amphorteric, anti tumor, nervine, antispasmodic, mildly astringent, and diuretic. Just some of its many uses in Ayurvedic medicine include the following: malnutrition in children, paralysis, coughs, edema, impaired cognitive functioning, asthma, infertility, rheumatism, gastric ulcers, fevers, bedsores, boils, arthritis, alcohol addiction, and as an aphrodisiac (Winston & Maimes, 2007, p. 139).
Adaptogens, or rasayanas as their called in Ayurvedic medicine, are the miracle workers of the psychoneuroimmunological systems of the body! In a day where folks are worn down by stress, illness, and poor diet, they offer much for balancing the system and restoring innate health.
Green, James (2000). The Herbal Medicine Maker's Handbook: A Home Manual. Crossings Press: Berkely, CA.
Winston, David & Maimes, Steven (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, VT.