Adaptogen herbs, which promise to reduce stress, may sound almost too good to be true. They are claimed to normalize body systems, reducing overly high values or raising abnormally low ones. Blood pressure too high? An adaptogen may bring it down. Too low? The same adaptogen may raise it. The principle behind adaptogen use is that the herbs can help in restoring and maintaining homeostasis, stabilizing bodily processes.
Adaptogen herbs have a long and valued history in treating human ailments. Their main use has been in reducing stress by acting on the adrenal glands. There are a number of scientific studies that at least seem to back up claims that in addition to stress reduction, adaptogens can relieve insomnia, decrease depression, improve brain function, enhance energy, and even may have anti-cancer properties. These supplements may sound almost like a sort of one supplement cure-all for many conditions. Some of them may actually accomplish this.
On the other hand, according to Wikipedia, most of the research was conducted in the Soviet Union, Korea and China before the 1980s and have serious methodological flaws. The European Medicines Agency said in 2008 that the idea needs more clinical and preclinical research and is not accepted in pharmacological and clinical practice.
Conversely, Rodale’s Organic Life Web site in a posting dated July 13, 2017 and titled “6 Things You Need to Know About Adaptogens—Nature’s Answer to Valium,” goes into great detail about the benefits of adaptogens. The author, Emily Monaco claims that “adaptogens’ power doesn’t lie in reducing feelings of anxiety, but rather in decreasing the effects of hormones and other compounds that are released into the body in times of stress, such as kinase, nitric oxide, and cortisol.” She refers to two scientific reports, one in Drug Target Insights, 2007: 2: 39054 (a study of Rhodiola and Schizandra in rabbits). The second reference is to a report in Pharmaceuticals. This one describes how various stimulants were tried during World War II for pilots and submarine crew members and included Schisandra chinensis. This research came out of the finding that berries and seeds used by Far East hunters reduced “thirst, hunger and exhaustion” and increased “stamina and survival. From this work came the concept of adaptogens. A number of clinical studies are cited in this long article.
Two of the better known adaptogen herbs are Rhodiola and Ashwagandha. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) grows in higher elevations in Asia, Europe and the Arctic. There is some evidence that it was used by ancient Greek physicians and later in Scandinavian countries, where the Vikings were regular users to overcome fatigue, presumably while plundering other countries. The extract is said to be most useful in mood enhancement including mental acuteness by restoring optimum levels of serotonin and dopamine. Studies in students have shown increased performance on tests after taking Rhodiola. “A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of the stimulating and apoptogenic effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract on the fatigue of students caused by stress during an examination period with a repeated low-dose regimen,” Phytomedicine 7:2 (April 2000), 85-9.
A systematic review of six electronic databases looked for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and controlled clinical trials (CCTs) that evaluated the safety and efficacy of Rhodiola as related to mental and physical fatigue. Because of possible bias or flaws in the reports the results were contradictory, not definite enough to come to a firm conclusion. However, some evidence did suggest that Rhodiola might be of use in improving physical performance and reducing mental fatigue.
Another article, “Rosenroot (Rhodiola rosea): traditional use, chemical composition, pharmacology and clinical efficacy,” in Phytomedicine 2010: Jun 17(7) 481-93, noted that “A number of clinical trials demonstrate that repeated administration of R. rosea extract SHR-5 exerts an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance (particularly the ability to concentrate in healthy subjects), and reduces burnout in patients with fatigue syndrome. Encouraging results exist for the use of Rhodiola in mild to moderate depression, and generalized anxiety.” This article concluded, “Lack of interaction with other drugs and adverse effects in the course of clinical trials make it potentially attractive for use as a safe medication. In conclusion, Rhodiola rosea has robust traditional and pharmacological evidence of use in fatigue, and emerging evidence supporting cognition and mood.”
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root, also known as the Indian ginseng, has been a useful herb for 2,500 years in the Ayurvedic healing arts. Adherents to its use believe it may act as a diuretic, an anti-inflammatory and for relief from stress or depression. Besides these uses, animal studies and some human studies indicate the root may boost sexual performance, help in arthritis, act as an antioxidant, boost thyroid function and treat dementias. For example, “Pharmacologic overview of Withania somnifera, the Indian Ginseng,” Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 2015:Dec. 72(23): 4445-60, said this, “Withania somnifera contains a spectrum of diverse phytochemicals enabling it to have a broad range of biological implications. In preclinical studies, it has shown anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-stress, neuroprotective, cardioprotective, and anti-diabetic properties.”
Other studies investigated Ashwagandha in connection with cancer therapy. “Medicinal plants from Near East for cancer therapy,” in Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2018: 9:56, “analyzed the huge amount of data available on anticancer ethnopharmacological sources used in the Near East. Medicinal herbs are the most dominant ethnopharmacological formula used among cancer’s patients in the Near East.” The conclusion suggested, “The ethnopharmacology of the Near East was influenced by Arabic and Islamic medicine and might be promising for developing new natural and safe anticancer agents.” A study of an extract from the leaves of Ashwagandha reported on reduced tumor cell growth, “Growth inhibition of human tumor cell lines by withanolides from Withania somnifera leaves,” Life Sciences 74:1 (Nov 21 2003), 125-32.
Dosages for these herbs and others in the adaptogen family can vary significantly depending on the individual’s health and specific ailment. Anyone considering use of these herbs should consult with a doctor before beginning treatment.
For more information see “Everything you need to know about adaptogens, explained,” and 12 Adaptogens You Should Know and Why You Need Them