What Are Adaptogens?

Ginseng is arguably the most easily accessible and widely known adaptogenic plant. HelloRF Zcool/Shutterstock

The term "adaptogen" may bring to mind some type of genetically-engineered robot of the future, but it actually describes plant compounds that increase the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors and to avoid damage from such factors, according to the National Institutes of Health. In other words, they are herbs that help us resist stress and the deleterious effects that come along with it.

The term was coined in 1947 by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarev to describe materials thought to boost resistance to “adverse influences.” In 1958, as recounted by the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association, I.I. Brekhman, a Russian holistic medical doctor, and his colleague, I.V. Dardymov, offered the following definition of an adaptogen: It "must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism, it must have a nonspecific action, and it usually has a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the pathological state."

They’re called adaptogens because of their unique ability to “adapt” their function according to each different body’s specific needs.

How do adaptogens work?

Adaptogens do not have a specific job to perform in the body, rather they work to increase resistance of the organism to a broad spectrum of adverse biological, chemical and physical factors. They help strengthen the body’s response to stress and enhance its ability to cope with anxiety and fight fatigue – slowly and gently, without jolts or crashes, says Dr. Frank Lipman, wellness guru to the celebrity set and founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City.

“Though the effects may initially be subtle and take time to make themselves felt, they’re real and undeniable,” Lipman says.

Lipman compares adaptogens to a thermostat — like when a thermostat senses that the room temperature is too high, it adjusts to make the room cooler; when the temperature is too low it brings it up. “Adaptogens can calm you down and boost your energy at the same time without over stimulating. They can normalize body imbalances. By supporting adrenal function, they counteract the adverse effects of stress,” he says. “They enable the body’s cells to access more energy; help cells eliminate toxic byproducts of the metabolic process and help the body to utilize oxygen more efficiently.”

“In short, adaptogens are amazing!” he says.

The list of adaptogenic plants is rather long because the definition is so broad, but the top contenders include Asian ginseng, eleuthero, ashwagandha, Rhaponticum or maral root, Rhodiola rosea, suma, Astragalus, licorice, schisandra and jiaogulan, among others.

If you are interested in trying them, there are several approaches you can take. For specific issues you may have or if you are interested in a particular adaptogen, seek advice from your health care provider or a herbalist who will be able to recommend a specific adaptogen and the proper dosage to suit your needs. You can also try an adaptogen formula — a premade mix either in tincture or tablet form that will come with instructions for dosage. As with all herbal supplements, it's important to purchase them from a legitimate manufacturer since they are not approved by the FDA for safety and effectiveness.

Check with your favorite vitamin maker, or check out other reputable brands like Lipman's Be Well Adaptogens or the adaptogenic formula created by Deepak Chopra and his team, which you can learn more about in the video below.