The History of Adaptogens

Israel I. Brekhman
The history of adaptogens dates back thousands of years. But it’s only through the research of Israel I. Brekhman and his associates’ research that we know the full scope of their healing power.

Want to know about the history of adaptogens? Adaptogenic herbs have been used by traditional societies since prehistoric times. But it’s only been barely over a half-century since adaptogenic herbs have been clinically studied.

That adaptogens—Mother Nature’s stress-reduction pharmacy—-have been studied and dispensed for such a short time is shocking, considering how many tribes and ancient cultures used them to stay healthy.

Take a disease like malaria. Few associate this mosquito-borne malady afflicting the U.S.A. But only a relative blink of an eye ago, malaria existed in the States. And it’s amazing that adaptogens were not used, considering that many tribal societies used adaptogens and many of the people in the tribe were able to avoid becoming symptomatic.

History of Adaptogens: A competitive edge for the U.S.S.R.

Nonetheless, we have communists to thank for giving empirical validity to adaptogenic herbs. During the same era of the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts in the States, a Soviet researcher by the name of Israel I. Brekhman began researching adaptogens.

The Soviet Union, arguably back then, in their glory days, was looking for every competitive advantage it could muster. This extended to Soviet Olympic athletes, the military, cosmonauts, and other important cogs in the mighty Soviet Union.

(This competitive edge continues to this day; see “Russian doping scandal.”)

Brekhman was not the first Soviet to study adaptogens. Credit for that goes to a colleague of his, Nikolai Lazarev. But Lazarev focused his studies on a chemical substance called dibazol. Dibazol is a spasmolytic agent. As such, it constricts blood vessels and reduces spasms, as well as reduces blood pressure. Dibazol, though, is not an all-natural herb. Brekhman, instead of studying synthetic substances such as Dibazol, centered his research around natural adaptogenic herbs. Adaptogens would be his life work for decades.

History of Adaptogens: The first adaptogenic herb studied was ginseng (but not all ginseng is the same)

The first adaptogenic herb Brekhman researched was Asian ginseng (aka Panax ginseng). Asian ginseng is widely regarded as the “longevity herb” in traditional Chinese medicine. The problem with Asian ginseng, though, was, it did not grow in the Soviet Union, as vast as the empire was.

Again, the Soviets were looking for ways to best the west. They wanted their athletes faster and stronger. They wanted their soldiers more alert. And they wanted their cosmonauts to comfortably float in space longer than their astronaut counterparts.

Because Asian ginseng was a costly adaptogen to import into the U.S.S.R., Brekhman’s research expanded to include other adaptogens, such as eleuthero, aka Siberian ginseng.

Brekhman’s research into Siberian ginseng proved that it had an impressive ability to counteract stress. It also showed efficacy in increasing endurance and performance. The Soviets were particularly pleased to see that Siberian ginseng improved performance under many different conditions, one of the key characteristics of what defines an adaptogen.

(It’s important to note that Siberian ginseng is not true ginseng; only Asian ginseng, aka panax, is true ginseng.)

History of Adaptogens: Eleuthero (aka Siberian ginseng)

According to the book, “History of Adaptogens,” by David Winston and Steven Maimes, Brekhman’s first published study of adaptogens (on eleuthero) was very influential. Only two years after its publication, eleuthero extract was approved by the Pharmacological Committee of the USSR Ministry of Health for clinical use as a stimulant.

In the Soviet Far East, Brekhman and his colleague Lazarev, employed a large army of researchers. Winston and Maimes state that over 1200 biologists, scientists and physicians comprised this massive research team, which conducted studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Over 3000 clinical trial and experiments on adaptogens were conducted by Brekhman and Lazarev’s team.

Brekhman and Lazarev were aware that some of the adaptogens they were studying survived Ice Ages. If these miraculous plants could survive an Ice Age, these ‘godfathers of adaptogens’ surmised that they “possessed qualities that could help our bodies adapt to the stresses of modern life,” according to Winston and Maimes.

Of the 4000 plants that this massive research team studied, only 12 were identified as adaptogens! The four main adaptogens that the Brekhman and Lazarev research team studied were, in addition to eleuthero: rhodiola, rhaponticum, and schisandra.

History of Adaptogens: conclusion

By 1984 (the same year the Soviets boycotted the Olympic games in Los Angeles, doing so because of the U.S.A. boycott of the 1980 games in Moscow, a protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), there were over 1500 studies on adaptogenic herbs.

Within a decade, though, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and with it, went the funding for adaptogenic research.

If you’re a freedom-loving capitalist who happens to love natural health, it’s ironic, then, that you have the Soviet communists to thank for the clinical validation of adaptogens. Certainly, after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., clinical studies on adaptogens continued, and do so to this day.

In fact, if you Google “Pubmed Adaptogens” there are over 22,000 entries.

Although Brekhman is rightly credited for bringing the non-toxic, stress-coping mechanisms of adaptogens into the Western limelight, and, although Winston and Maimes (and others who have chronicled the history of adaptogens) have written a compelling book, what would be especially interesting is if an anthropologist with a focus on medicinal plants were to write a book documenting the uses of adaptogenic herbs by a myriad of traditional tribes throughout history … even prehistory.

Until such a complete tome is published, we may never know the full history of how distant ancestors used adaptogens. But thanks to Israel Brekhman, western science can only view adaptogens as a clinically-effective, safe alternative to stress-reduction and general health. The history of adaptogens in western society is relatively scant. At least compared to the use of adaptogenic herbs by traditional societies, which dates back thousands of years. 

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