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What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens is a relatively recently discovered class of naturally occurring substances. They stimulate our defense against the impacts that occur at the cellular level, when we are exposed to various forms of stress. 

Our cells are affected by a variety of environmental factors such as hard work, physical training, various foods, drugs, and chemicals, various types of radiation, disease and extreme temperature variations. This can cause damage. We call these factors stressors, and stress are, in this broader sense, an inevitable part of life.

Adaptogens are natures defence against stress and a key to wellbeing
Definition of an adaptogen

The original definition of the term adaptogen is based on a large number of clinical studies of how various stressors affect us and how adaptogens restores the balance:

  1. The effect must be general and broad, with an increased resistance against a wide range of stressors of physical, chemical and biological nature.

  2. Adaptogens shall have a normalizing, that is, restoration, function.

  3. Adaptogens are safe and have a wide therapeutic effect with minimal or no disruption of the normal biological processes.

Broad effect

Since adaptogens restore the functions affected by stress, the perceived impact depends on the type of stress you are exposed to.

Adaptogens has in clinical studies shown the following characteristics:

  • Restores and enhances the physical and mental energy.

  • Improves the physical and mental stamina.

  • Compensates for the effects of sleep deprivation.

  • Protects the brain and nervous system, which, among other things, improves memory and perception.

  • Relieves the anxiety and mild depression.

  • Protects against certain types of free radicals, that is, acts as an antioxidant.

Prevents and restores

The main characteristic of adaptogens is that they help the body to help itself. The restoration function is both clear and well documented. And the effect is general and broad, because adaptogens act on such a fundamental level. They can also be taken preventively, before physically or mentally demanding tasks.

Only five plants
in the world are
real adaptogens
This happens during stress
Adaptogens vs stimulants

A healthy body is in balance. This means that the cells consume as much resources that are placed at their disposal. This balance between the system that accelerates and brakes is called homeostasis and is what keeps us alive.


During stress a whole number of processes starts to satisfy the increased need for resources. To not get the body overloaded, some absorbing mechanisms enters and restores the balance to a new, higher level of activity. The body has adapted to the change. But if the stress response becomes too high or long-lasting, the regulating systems get tiring out and resources are running out. Then you have to rest, if you do not want to risk your health.

The difference between stimulants, such as coffee, tea, or energy drinks containing ephedrine, and adaptogens is that stimulants provide a high kick even when you are in balance. But as the stimulus is relatively short and, if it is excessive, this can lead to side effects such as tremor, increased heart rate, sweating, and sleep disorders, as well as a greater degree of fatigue afterwards. Ephedrine can also cause damage to the cardiovascular system. Adaptogens, however, provides a smoother effect for a long time at the same time as your senses sharpens and your skills improve.

Stephen Fulder about stress

“Stress is not an illness in itself. Stress is change... our ability to adapt to all the changes that occur in life – moment to moment - whether emotional or physical. Stress can be from exercise, work, chemicals, drugs, food, radiation, bacteria, disease, temperature, or simply too many late nights and too much fun.”

This is how adaptogens act

Several pharmacological and clinical studies have demonstrated that adaptogens, stimulates the production of two important substances in the brain, namely: 


  • Neuropeptide Y (NPY), is involved in numerous physiological processes in the body, such as energy, memory and learning.

  • Heat Shock Protein 72 (Hsp72), protects the proteins carried in the cells. The production of Heat Shock Proteins increases when exposed to various types of stress, like: infection, inflammation, hypoxia, dehydration, starvation, ultraviolet light or toxins. Also training increases the production of these proteins, also known as “stress proteins” as they are part of the body’s stress response.

Improves the ability to adapt

The increased production of NPY and Hsp72 improves the cells’ ability to adapt, which makes the brain work better during physical and mental stress  Reference 1. 

Effects throughout the body

Besides preventing the damaged proteins to clump together, Hsp72 promotes the repair processes in the cells, which in turn reduces the risk of apoptosis, i.e. programmed cell death. NPY acts in a completely different way, directly on the so-called hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, see figure 3 below. This dual action of adaptogens is why they are so effective in mitigating the negative effects of stress.

Proteins consist of long chains of amino acids and Hsp72 forms as an ”apron” around them. It protects them against the free radicals formed during stress.

2b Without the protective Hsp72 there is a greater risk that the free radicals damage the proteins, which in turn can lead that they clump together.

3 Stressors such as noise, heat, cold, hunger, fear or infection triggers the stress response, which involves the brain and its glands hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands, also in this context named as stress or HPA- axis. The pituitary gland secretes ACTH (adreno corticotropin hormone), which in turn triggers the production of adrenal stress hormones, such as cortisol. Adaptogens stimulates the production of NPY which reduces the stress response through direct action on the stress system (stress-axis).

Comparison between adaptogens and antioxidants

Adaptogens act on an overall level by stimulating the body’s own protective mechanisms, via NPY acting on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, while the antioxidants act inside the cells. Also adaptogens act in the cells, but the mechanism is different as seen in Figure 2a. Adaptogens promote the natural production of Hsp72 which makes the cells more resistant to oxidative stress. Adaptogens strengthen the body’s defense against the negative effects of stress on more levels, and via other mechanisms than antioxidants. Adaptogens provides a more comprehensive and diversified protection and justifies them to be regarded as a separate category of substances

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