Adaptogen herbal products and their benefits for energy and stress
April 14 2016 by
Ray Sahelian, M.D.

The term adaptogen is used to describe herbs that enhance vitality, energy, and overall health, for instance ginseng or Ashwagandha Withania. However, I am not comfortable with the use of this term since so much of the effects, benefits and side effects, of any substance depends on the dosage and the unique physiology of the person using the product.

Adaptogens and energy
Certain medicinal plants augment resistance to stress, and increase concentration, performance and endurance during fatigue. Certain herbs such as ginseng, rhodiola, maca, and others are promoted as adaptogens that enhance energy. Although some herbs may increase energy for a few days or weeks, eventually, if used in excess, fatigue may set in.

Adaptogen is a term coined to loosely define certain herbs that help improve energy, vitality, mood, wellbeing, etc. Users of this term imply that these adaptogens are healthy to take and may prolong life, although there usually is little research to back up these claims. I prefer not to use the term adaptogen since it does not have a reliable scientific definition. Most who take ginseng notice an improvement in energy, vitality, sexual enjoyment, and mental clarity.

Brain function and mental health
Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2013. Adaptogens in mental and behavioral disorders. Panossian AG. This article focuses on the most extensively studied adaptogens: Rhodiola rosea, Eleutherococcus senticosus, and Schisandra chinensis. Clinical studies, evidence for stress-protective and simulative effects, and molecular mechanisms of action on metabolic and other processes regulated by the neuroendocrine system are discussed.

J Ginseng Res. 2013. Actoprotective effect of ginseng: improving mental and physical performance. Actoprotectors are preparations that increase the mental performance and enhance body stability against physical loads without increasing oxygen consumption. Actoprotectors are regarded as a subclass of adaptogens that hold a significant capacity to increase physical performance. The focus of this article is studying adaptogen herbs of genus Panax (P. ginseng in particular) and their capabilities as actoprotectors. Some animal experiments and human studies about actoprotective properties of genus Panax attest that P. ginseng (administered as an extract) significantly increased the physical and intellectual work capacities, and the data provided suggests that ginseng is a natural source of actoprotectors. Preparations of ginseng can be regarded as potential actoprotectors which give way to further research of its influence on physical and mental work capacity, endurance and restoration after exhaustive physical loads while compared with reference actoprotectors.

Definition, what is it?
Q. The impression I get is that all adaptogens are tonics, but all tonics are not necessarily adaptogens. For example, horny goat weed herb is a tonic, but is not usually referred to as an adaptogen; Ginseng on the other hand is said to be both. So what's the difference?
   A. I guess each herbal expert will have their own thoughts on this issue. In my opinion, the terms are arbitrary. I really don't like the term adaptogen since I really don't know what is means exactly. Originally, the term was defined by Russians as an herb having by an ability to affect the hypothalamic-adrenal axis in such a way as to improve the body's response to stress. Ginseng, apparently falls into this category, but many other plants from other parts of the world, such as maca from South America, could do much the same thing. As to the term tonic, Chinese doctors often use it in terms of an herb that increase energy and endurance. In my opinion, Horny goat weed could be considered either a tonic or an adaptogen, but I prefer not using either term. I think like a Westerner, and I use words that I am comfortable with, such as 'energy' or 'mood' or 'alertness' or 'motivation' etc. Horny goat weed increases energy and sexual motivation, and I am comfortable with using these words. It also depends on dosage. Too little horny goat weed may not do much, and too high a dose of horny goat weed, by causing insomnia, could lead to fatigue.

Influence on hormones, cortisol
Q. Numerous products including various “adaptogens” are claimed to help balance cortisol levels / reduce elevated cortisol. In your opinion are any of these claims valid?
   A. I do not think this is a reliable way to make generalizations about these natural products since most have many different effects on the body and the term "balancing cortisol levels" does not make too much sense to me.

Q. I see countless herbal products, usually blends of various so-called adaptogens, that claim to support adrenal health and stabilize cortisol levels. I didn’t really see these discussed on your cortisol page and wonder if you had any views?
   A. Each product has a different blend and can have different effects on different people, therefore it is difficult to make any generalizations about them.