Adaptogens have advanced in the marketplace with the increase in interest with traditional medicine systems such as TCM and Ayurveda. The science behind these ingredients has advanced, too, helping to build up a body of western-style evidence developed in accord with the scientific method model to go with the thousands of years worth of traditional knowledge and observational studies conducted on these herbs in their countries of origin.
Tendency to overreach on claims
The mystery of the origins of these ingredients, that sense of a great secret being revealed to modern science, once led Dr. Mehmet Oz to describe schisandra as a “miracle pill for anti-aging.” Marketers of adaptogenic herbs have taken a more circumspect approach. For example, Ixoreal Biomed, parent company of KSM-66 Ashwagandha, says its ingredient can help “promote a healthy response to everyday stress, over-work and fatigue” and can “support normal levels of mental clarity, concentration and alertness.” Natreon, maker of Sensoril, an ashwagandha root and leaf extract, says its ingredient supports “healthy energy levels” and “healthy mental cognition.” Himalaya Herbal Healthcare, a vertically integrated botanical supplement manufacturer that claims to be the world’s No. 1 seller of ashwaganda, says that the herb “releases stress and boosts energy” and “rejuvenates adrenal function.” Oregon’s Wild Harvest, a manufacturer of a schisandra standalone dietary supplement, says the ingredient improves “vitality, mental acuity, concentration and endurance.”
Roy Upton, founder of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, which offers a series of botanical monographs that include some adaptogenic herbs, said the modern concept of adaptogens dates to Russian herbal researchers in the 1950s. Among the prime adaptogenic herbs in the marketplace today are ashwaganda, schisandra (sometimes spelled schizandra or identified under its Chinese pinyin name, Wu Wei Zi) and various species of ginseng, along with holy basil and reishi mushroom. Of these, schisandra and ginseng are native to parts of the former Soviet Union as well as growing elsewhere in East Asia.
“[The Russian researchers] defined a category of substances that helped the human organism to adapt to physiological and psychological stresses. The ability to adapt, evolutionarily, is correlated with the ability of the human species to survive, thus forming the basis of the value of adaptogens to human health. So part of the answer is that, yes, adaptogens are good for most everything (with the exception of acute infections), because they help us top cope and function with the stresses faced on a daily basis,” Upton said.
Not a compensation for poor lifestyle
The reductionist approach to the research of and formulation of herbal dietary supplements has had consequences in how consumers look at adaptogens. The modern marketing tendency to look for the “answer,” in other words, an herbal product that will fix a particular problem much as a drug might interrupt a particular disease process, has skewed the message somewhat.
“If we take adaptogens and tonics and use them for compensating for insufficient nourishment, insufficient rest, and exposure to excessive stress, then we push the body to accept an unhealthy reality. The traditional use of tonics, such as widely used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine incorporated meditative practices (such as among Taoists) so the energy imparted from tonics was not just foolishly spent in frivolous behaviors (such as burning the candle at both ends, and excessive sexual activity) but rather was directed internally to physiological functioning to promote health, vitality, mental and emotional well-being, and longevity,” Upton said.
David Winston, a registered herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild and founder of the manufacturer Herbalist & Alchemist, shares Upton’s caution about being too effusive in the praise of adaptogens.
“Adaptogens are not good for everything. Adaptogens can be very useful for helping people (or animals) to deal with acute or chronic stress, but they are not a replacement for the foundations of health - adequate, good quality sleep, a healthy diet, regular exercise, good lifestyle choices and social relationships. . . Adaptogens are not ‘wonder drugs,’ they like anything else have benefits and limitations,”he said.
“There is some great research on adaptogens, mostly coming from China, India, Sweden, Japan and South Korea, but much of what is written on-line and in the popular press either misrepresents the research or is pure fantasy, with greatly exaggerated claims. The old adage ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is’ applies here,” Winston said.
Studied in isolation
These herbs were in their traditional settings often used in multi-ingredient formulations that were put together along specific lines. (Ashwagandha and schisandra, at least, are often offered as single-ingredient products in the modern marketplace.) But studying the ingredients in isolation best matches the modern research paradigm. Schisandra (and its constituents), for example, has been the subject of more than 80 studies referenced on the PubMed database in 2016 and 2017 alone.
“Ashwagandha is a more interesting adaptogen as, traditionally, it was predominantly used to enhance the strengthening and tonifying properties of other botanicals; for example it may be paired with herbs for the lungs to strengthen lung function. At the same time it has been studied individually with a primary focus on enhancing physical and psychological performance, reducing anxiety, promoting sleep, and for its anti-inflammatory properties, as well as reducing stress induced conditions such as gastric ulcers and depression. In this regard, it has a marked effect on the central nervous system that is a little different than other adaptogens,” Upton said.
The effect of these adaptogens will vary with the individual, and in traditional systems the formula would proceed from the nature of the patient first, and move from there to the specific issue that patient might have. Even modern drugs, standardized to a specific component or even consisting of a specific molecule, will not perform identically in all patients.
Upton that as a practicing herbalist he uses a combination approach to formulation that might be difficult for a manufacturer to put into practice. He said he works to combine “a host of adaptogenic herbs for which I have a sense work well together, based on quasi traditional principles of formulation; which means matching tastes, and from a modern perspective matching like pharmacological activities. The second is from a constitutional perspective, meaning according to the specific needs of an individual, matching specific tonics with specific patterns,” he said.
Winston, who among other things is the author of the book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina & Stress Relief, also said these herbs are best used where possible in a combination formula.
“A great formula uses the concept of synergy (1+1 = 3). This means you look for traditional herbal combinations that over millennia people realized enhance the efficacy of each other. These herb pairs or trios are found in TCM, Ayurveda, Physio-medicalism, Unani-Tibb, Tibetan medicine, Kanpo. etc. In addition you combine adaptogens with complementary herbs such as nervines (fresh Oat, Skullcap, Lemon Balm, Linden Flower, Motherwort), nootropics (Rosemary, Bacopa, Lavender, White Peony, Eclipta) or nutritive tonics, which contrary to popular belief are not adaptogens (Amla, Goji Berry, Maca, Processed Rehmannia, Nettle Seed),” he said.