The concept of adaptogen is becoming more widely used for more than six decades. The term adaptogens are plant-based herbs filled with complex compounds, which have been used in traditional forms of medicine such as alternative and complementary medicine, as well as in pharmacognosy, phytomedicine, and phytotherapy research across the globe for centuries.
Adaptogen is related to a physiological process, this can result in the stabilization of physiological processes and promote homeostasis such as a decrease in cellular sensitivity to stress, that helps the human body mediate or adapt to (hence the name “adaptogen”) physical or psychological stress by interacting with body’s cellular systems. Current and potential uses of adaptogens are mainly related to stress‐induced fatigue, cognitive function, mental illness, and behavioral disorders. (1-4)
The key points of the adaptogenic concept in the modern sense were first established in World War II in USSR, namely, NV. Lazarev, (5) when he described Schisandra Chinensis (Turcz.) and other adaptogenic herbs with the following definition: plant-originated adaptogens that can non-specifically the enhance human body. This definition was further defined by USSR scientists, namely Brekhman and Dardymov in 1969 and suggested that certain compounds and herbal extracts, termed adaptogens, could prolong the duration of nonspecific resistance to stress and diminish the magnitude of the alarm phase.(4-6)
Based on this definition, plant-originated adaptogens should meet four criteria: firstly, plant-originated adaptogens must reduce the harm caused by stressed states, such as infection, fatigue, and depression; secondly, plant-originated adaptogens must have positive excitatory effects on the human body; thirdly, the excitatory effects produced by plant-originated adaptogens must not cause side effects such as insomnia, low protein synthesis, or excessive energy consumption; fourthly, plant-originated adaptogens must not harm the normal functions of the human body.(6)
Yet now, more and more researches focus on this field and a great number of peer-reviewed papers, preclinical and clinical studies, and comprehensive assessment reports on the adaptogenic plants have been published over the past 10 years, which mainly concentrated on the direction of pharmacology pharmacy, biochemistry, molecular biology, plant sciences, and agriculture. (1,4-8)
A study indicated that many of the plant-based compounders are adaptogenic herbs with unique properties or hormones. The key hormone is corticosteroid cortisol, which is released as a response to stress, and is also known to lead to high blood pressure, myocardial ischemia, depression, and even cancer.(9)
The key role adaptogens play is the minimizing of these effects and allow the body to respond to stress in a healthier way, without cortisol levels reaching a high level. The majority of natural adaptogens used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Kampo (the study of traditional Chinese medicine in Japan), and Ayurveda medicine (a natural system of medicine, originated in India more than thousands years ago) include Panax Ginseng, Chinensis Schizandra ( Schisandra Chinensis) , Ginseng, Chinese Heron (Lycium Chinensis) , Pink Stonecrop (Rhodiola Rosea), Ganoderma Lucidum, Cordyceps, Rhodiola, Holy Basil (Tulsi). Andrographis, Bryony, Ashwagandha, and Turmeric. (6,10,11)
An example, plant-originated adaptogens like ginseng is one of the most well-known adaptogenic herbs. It is believed to aid the human body in its reaction to physical and emotional stressors in a highly dynamic way. Research evidence from pre-clinical and clinical studies showed that ginseng and their combination products suggest that adaptogens can be useful in prophylaxis and treatment of many chronic disorders at all stages of progression of inflammation as well as in aiding recovery of the organism by (I) modulating innate and adaptive immunity, (II) anti-inflammatory activity, (III) detoxification and repair of oxidative stress-induced DNA damage in compromised cells, (IV) improving quality of life during convalescence. (12)
Clinical studies have shown that adaptogens are considered “metabolic regulators” and “stress‐response modifiers”. The metabolic regulation of homeostasis by adaptogens at the cellular and systems levels is associated with multiple targets, (13)that can non-specifically enhance the resistance of the human body under a wide range of external stress conditions with a multi-targeted and multi-channel network-like manner, especially by affecting the immune-neuroendocrine (INE) system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the main stress response center. In addition, adaptogens exhibit multi-target action and the shared use of a number of different receptors, including receptors for corticosteroid, mineralocorticoid, progestin, estrogen, serotonin (5‐HT), N‐methyl‐d‐aspartate, and nicotinic acetylcholine, receptor tyrosine kinases, many G protein–coupled receptors and cortisol production. (14-17) Clinically, they are associated with stress hormones, chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative cognitive impairment, metabolic disorders, and cancer, all are associated with aging.(12,18)
Interestingly, a recent study even showed that adaptogens can play a potentially important role in prophylaxis and treatment at all stages of viral infection during the COVID-19 pandemic by adopting a recently proposed phased immunophysiological approach to viral infection.(19)
Furthermore, last October, the scientific journal “Medicinal Research Reviews” published a review paper written by a multinational group of 11 medicinal plant experts based in various regions of Asia and Europe and provided a list of 109 plant species that are listed in the scientific literature as adaptogenic or anti-stress herbs.
Authors believe that the medical literature spanning adaptogens’ history provides evidence that certain adaptogenic compounds modulate the human immune response beneficially, that it appears they may be able to mitigate the risk of developing a wide host of age-related chronic diseases, with physical and mental stress serving as the primary drivers motivating consumption.
The study thoroughly reviewed in relation to physiology, pharmacology, toxicology, and potential uses in herbal medicine and pharmacosanation,(1,8) which provides a synopsis of adaptogenic herbs and other botanical ingredients considered to be adaptogens, and their use in modern medicine. (20)
Adaptogens has become very popular in recent years. Various clinical studies and practical applications have shown that plant-originated adaptogens are a kind of unique herbal medicine, playing an important role in human health and helping the human body resist various stress factors. However, even after more than 40-years of adaptogenic herbal research, there are very few botanical drugs that have been successfully introduced as adaptogens in modern medicine.
Further investigations, based on well‐designed clinical research with standardized herbal preparations, is required to understand the range of interactions between adaptogens and stress response pathways (both intracellular and extracellular) in terms of the metabolic regulation of homeostasis in stress-and age‐associated disease and support the efficacy of these traditional herbal medicines to qualify them as adaptogenic herbs products with well‐established use in modern medicine. Moreover, the safety and toxicity research of the adaptogenic compounds are important issues, the research of molecular mechanisms of action of adaptogens are also required for understanding the polyvalent pharmacological activity of adaptogens and provide a new way to guarantee human health.
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12Journal of Ginseng Research. October 2017,Volume 41, Issue 4, Pages 589-594