What’s the Definition of an Adaptogen?

Here’s a pop quiz if you’ve been following the Sun Horse blog. Don’t worry if you totally bomb the quiz. There’s no after-school detention or other punishment. The pop quiz is only one question: do you remember what the definition of adaptogenic herbs is? More specifically, can you name the three defining characteristics of adaptogens?

Here’s a random sentence to shield your eyes from the answer, and to give you time….

Ready for the answer?

OK, here it goes…Adaptogens:

  1. Are generally non-toxic
  2. Produce a nonspecific resistance to stress on the cellular level
  3. Have a normalizing effect on body systems

So how did you do? Did you get all three?

Regardless if you got them all right or none, let’s take a closer look at the definition of adaptogens….

The three functional characteristics above were defined and established by the modern “discovery” of adaptogens, Dr. Israel Brekhman and his colleague, Dr. Dardymov, according to David Winston and Steven Maimes, co-authors of the terrific resource book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.

The functional definition of adaptogens has largely remained the same, although Winston and Maimes claim that with the increase in scientific studies on adaptogens in recent years, the definition of adaptogenic herbs has been expanded. We’ll get to some of those new definitions in a future blog. But before we do, let’s expound on the original three characteristics and go deeper into their meaning….

Adaptogens are non-toxic

All adaptogens are non-toxic, in recommended amounts. Other herbs may have adaptogenic properties, but if they are in the least bit toxic, then they are not widely considered to be adaptogenic in nature.

Nonspecific Defense Response to Stress

In order to keep the body balanced when affected by multiple stressors, or harmful influences, adaptogens can stimulate, activate, or “promote a response in multiple nonspecific ways, including the building of a reserve of adaptive energy,” Winston and Maimes say in their book on Adaptogens.

How is that different from other false-energy sources (energy drinks, coffee, sugar, etc…)?

This reserve is used when needed in response to an actual stressor, rather than used to deplete cells of vital energy.

Normalizing Influence on the Body

Adaptogens can be bipolar. Usually, bipolar has a bad connotation, i.e. bipolar personality disorder. But in this case, it’s a good thing. To normalize body function, adaptogens can have a bidirectional effect on physiological function. What this means is that adaptogens can either tone down the activity of hyperfunctioning systems or strengthen activity of low-functioning systems. Therein lies the genius of adaptogens!

As Winston and Maimes say, this bipolar physiological functional ability is truly unique, leading some researchers or medicinal botanical enthusiasts to declare that adaptogens have intelligence.

Adaptogenic herbs stimulate and balance several systems, most notably the neuroendocrine and immune systems. This can help the body come back to a state of homeostasis, regardless of how many stressors an individual is faced with.

An example of a bipolar or bidirectional adaptogen is Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). Containing medicinal compounds called ‘ginsenosides,’ Asian ginseng can both simultaneously stimulate the nervous system and calm it.

This is where adaptogens are unlike any other herb or pharmaceutical medication. Virtually all drugs and even medicinal plants have one action only. In the case of high blood pressure, for example, a prescription drug containing isolated compounds of a medicinal plant would be used to lower blood pressure. On the other hand, adaptogens may help normalize blood pressure, regardless if an individual’s blood pressure is too high or too low.

Are Adaptogens the same as Antioxidants?

Yes,  sort of. Adaptogenic herbs are antioxidants, meaning they help prevent our cells from succumbing to too many  free-radicals. But having antioxidant properties is not enough to classify a plant as an adaptogen. Also, the term ‘tonic,’ which is especially popular in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), is also not enough of a defining adaptogenic characteristic. Tonics help fortify an organ or nourish energy deficiencies. Tonics, in general, are for conditions of weakness in the body. But tonics do not have bidirectional capability, and therefore, do not meet the criteria for being defined as an adaptogen.

Adaptogens in Western Medicine

Winston and Maimes state that the definition of adaptogenic herbs has not been accepted in Western medicine. Perhaps this is because pharmaceutical drugs by and large do not contain whole parts of a botanical; they contain isolated compounds. But considering how well adaptogens have proven to reduce stress reactions in the alarm stage and prevent total adrenal burnout (exhaustion) in studies performed by Soviet researchers, adaptogens should be considered for allopathic remedies. (Read our blog post: History of Adaptogens; for a more complete account of Soviet research on adaptogens, read Winston and Maimes’ excellent book.)

In a future blog post, we’ll look at some more definitions on these remarkable botanicals, particularly how different societies have viewed them, along with more modern scientific perspectives.

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