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Adaptogens–Herbal Magic or Just Some Hocus Pocus?

herbal tea

Disclaimer: This article should not be treated as medical advice.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are plants and mushrooms with active ingredients that are believed to help keep our bodies stabilized and balanced. They are typically used to treat symptoms of stress and anxiety, and can be consumed in various forms: powder, extract, or infused tea—the most popular choice. Though having recently gained popularity during the pandemic for reducing lockdown stress, adaptogens can be traced back to Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions, as well as research led by the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century.

Common examples of adaptogens:

  • American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium): supports the immune system, reduces inflammation, and improves stimuli response
  • Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng): reduces both mental and physical fatigue; increases energy and performance during stress
  • Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): can be used to treat depression, anxiety, and relieve symptoms of stress
  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): regulates metabolism and hormones; improves endocrine and cardiopulmonary functions

Possible side effects include:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Negative interactions with other medications
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

Adaptogen history:

Although adaptogens have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 5000 years, the official term “adaptogens” was introduced in the mid-20th century by the Soviet toxicologist Nikolai Lazarev. In the beginning, they were mostly researched as stimulants to increase productivity and endurance for the Soviet army due to their affordability; the plant limonnik nanai(Schisandra chinensis) became a particular point of interest due to its vast use by native Siberians to reduce thirst, hunger, and exhaustion and to improve night-time vision. Adaptogens were later incorporated into Soviet medical practice, with herbs such as rhodiola still being used to this day.

Modern day usage of adaptogens:

In ancient Chinese beliefs, adaptogens helped to maintain the balance of yin and yang within the body. If an imbalance occurred, the body entered a state of weakness called “shanghuo,” leading to increased stress and illness. Adaptogenic plants were used to restore vital energy, allowing the body to recover.

Adaptogens have continued to grow in popularity since then. According to Global Market Insights Inc., the market size for adaptogens exceeded $8.5 billion USD in 2020, and that number is estimated to surpass $14 billion by 2027. This demand can be attributed to the spotlight on the health industry due to the pandemic, where many—particularly post-secondary students—became more conscious of their well-being due to increased levels of stress and anxiety.

In 2022, adaptogens have become more readily available as they continue to be praised for their benefits. As an example, coffee with ashwagandha is on the rise and can be found for sale in various major retail locations and supermarkets. Adaptogens are also becoming more common in the sexual wellness industry, where supplements containing shilajit or schisandra are said to boost libido and sexual performance. Furthermore, recent research reveals that adaptogen-based medicine can even help increase physical performance for long-term COVID patients, with subjects in the treatment group showing shorter periods of pain, fatigue, and improved lung health.

As amazing and miraculous adaptogens may seem, they are no stranger to heavy criticism and doubt. For one, not all of the extensive research conducted by Soviet scientists highlighting the benefits of adaptogens has been made publicly accessible, making it difficult to rely on their claims. Newer research also tends to lack the “wow” factor adaptogens are marketed to have. Moreover, in the study examining the effects adaptogen-based medicine has on long-term COVID patients, duration of symptoms such as pain and fatigue only decreased by at most two days over the span of a three-week period, when comparing the treatment group to the control group. This result therefore may not be significant enough to justify that adaptogen-based medicines are indeed beneficial.

Are adaptogens the underdog cure-for-all or just a marketing ploy? Is the rich history enough to support the positive claims or is it just based on empty hopes?

I, unfortunately, do not have the answers for you folks, but the concept behind adaptogens is fascinating all the same. Regardless of your beliefs, these medicinal plants have influenced multiple cultures throughout history, and I doubt they will be going away anytime soon.


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