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What is an adaptogen?

Posted by: pshields on Wednesday, July 05, 2006 - 01:10 PM Print article Printer-friendly page  Email to a friend

What is an adaptogen?

July 3, 2006

What is an adaptogen? An adaptogen can be defined as a substance that is safe, increases resistance to stress, and has a balancing effect on body functions. Dating back thousands of years, Chinese herbalists have used the power of adaptogens to treat a wide array of ailments. And although the mechanism of adaptogens has never been clearly defined, many Chinese and modern herbal preparations include adaptogens in specifically targeted formulas for balance. In order to be considered an adaptogen, a supplement or ingredient must meet three criteria:

- Creates only minimal disorders in the physiological functions in the body
- Produces a non-specific action
- Produces normalizing action regardless of the direction of the pathological state

Supplements that cause adaptive reactions appear to increase State of Non-specifically Increased Resistance (SNIR) in the human body, protecting against various stresses. Researchers have suggested that adaptogens serve as mediators of a body's defense system, which may decrease the damaging effects of various stressors (Panossian et al., 1999). One of the major actions of an adaptogen is an increased resistance to the catabolic effects of stress, including physical stress such as strenuous exercise, possibly by exerting favorable effects on the secretion of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that is released by the adrenal cortex, which is affected by adaptogens. Cortisol�s main function in the body is to reduce the catabolic effects of intense exercise and stress. Considering this case for defining adaptogens, you can clearly see how these substances could potentially increase the effectiveness of training and competition performance for a wide spectrum of athletes.

What will an adaptogen do for me? As you increase your training you increase the physiological stresses put on your body. These added stresses force your body to use its natural defense mechanisms to help repair and replace any damage that has occurred. Using adaptogens essentially allows this defense mechanism to work more efficiently. As defined above, you can expect your body to adapt positively to intense stress put on by exercise, allowing you to train at a higher level. It's like preparing your car for a cold winter season: adding the right grade oil, snow tires, anti-freeze and a tune up prepares your car for frigid temperatures and winter driving. Taking adaptogens throughout your intense training prepares and protects your body from the added stress of exercise, allowing you to train and race at a higher level. Ginseng, ashwagandha, schisandra, rhodiola, cordyceps, reishi and maitake are all well studied adaptogens.

New Research supports adaptogens for athletes.

Research on Rhodiola and Coryceps has supported their ability to increase performance in athletes. In fact, four recent studies done on Cordyceps and Rhodiola have shown improvements in key physiological mechanisms (1,2,11,15). These new studies showed significant improvement in time to exhaustion, peak oxygen volume VOpeak, pulmonary ventilation, C-reactive protein and creatine kinase activity. These new studies are helping athletes and researchers further understand the benefits of adaptogens for endurance athletes. Through its modulation of the adrenal response, these Rhodiola and Cordyceps can aid in the prevention of overtraining syndrome while protecting athletes from inflammation and infection. Herbs like Rhodiola have been known to slow glycogen utilization and increase fatty acid utilization, hence reducing lactic acid build-up, leading to improved athletic performance. (3,5,6,8,11,14,15,16,17,18,21)

Who can benefit from adaptogens? A recent studie on Cordyceps and Rhodiola showed significant improvement in VOpeak and time to exhaustion, which are both effective measures of aerobic capacity in athletes and non-athletes. Anyone training at a high elite level or training for the first time will feel the benefits of adaptogens, although people who train simply to stay in shape or maintain a constant level may not see as much benefit. The reason is this: when training at an elite level, the body is pushed to and above its limit day in and day out. Similarly, anyone starting a new training program - perhaps someone training for a first 10K or marathon - puts added stress on the body. Roy Shephard demonstrates this relationship using the graph below. Starting on the far left side of the graph, you can see that your ability to fight off infection is improved as you begin an exercise program. As the volume and intensity of your workout increases, incidence of infection increases and ability to handle stress is greatly reduced. Any workout program that falls into the right side of the graph would benefit from supplementation by adaptogens. Additionally, athletes traveling to altitude have been shown to significantly adapt to the stress of reduced oxygen when using the adaptogen rhodiola.

Roy J. Shephard, MD, PhD, DPE; Pang N. Shek, PhD Exercise, Immunity, and Susceptibility to Infection: A J-Shaped Relationship? The Physician and Sportsmedicine - Vol 27 - No. 6 - June 1999

Are all adaptogens the same? As a class of ingredients, adaptogens are all very safe as noted in the definition: they cannot result in anything beyond minimal disorders in the physiological functions in the body. Focused on keeping body functions �normal,� adaptogens work to reduce lactic acid during states of maximum lactate build up. Some adaptogens work better at a given set of functions than others. Ginseng may have the longest list of adaptive properties, including recovery from traumatic events, exercise, chronic fatigue. Rhodiola and Cordyceps CS-4 have clearly been shown to 'adapt' to the stresses brought on by intense physical activity.


The stimulating affect of Rhodiola is also clearly manifested in the performance of physical work as stated by Dr. S. F. Tuzov. Dr. Tuzov studied the influence of extracts of Rhodiola on the capacity of athletes for muscular work in the performance of physical loads of great and maximal intensity with varied physiological characteristics. Maximal intensity accomplished within tenths of a second is characterized by the maximal rate of muscle movements and by oxygen consumption at the level of 90% - 100% of maximal oxygen consumption. This offers maximal stress to the CNS, which may induce the development of protective inhibition. A relatively large oxygen debt is characteristic for it, although oxygen demand is comparatively fairly small. The rapid accumulation of the intracellular lactate leads to auto-inhibition of the process. Under the influence of Rhodiola extract the volume of repeat work performed after proceeding proportioned work increase by 28%. After administering Rhodiola rosea in an experiment on 140 athletes, 74% of the test subjects obtained their best results in a 3,000 meter run. It was concluded that Rhodiola rosea extract increased physical work capacity, decreased fatigue and improved the general mental and physical state of the test subjects.

1. Abidoff1 Musa1, Grachev Sergey2, Seifulla Roshen3, Tim N. Ziegenfuss4 Rhodiola rosea root extract Rhodax reduces inflammatory plasma C-reactive protein and Creatine kinase in healthy volunteers: a placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trial*. Experimental Biology and Medicine, 2004, in press.

2. Abidoff1 Musa, Krendal Felix2, Grachev Sergey2, Seifulla Roshen3, Tim Ziegenfuss4 (2003) Effect of Rhodiola rosea and Rhodiola crenulata (Crassulaceae) root extracts on ATP content in Muscle Mitochondria. Experimental Biology and Medicine, 2003, Vol. 136, N12, pp 667-669

3. Akinobu Tsunoo, Naoki Taketomo, Hiroshi Tsuboi, Masayuki Kamijo, Atsushi Nemoto, Hajime Sasaki, Masyuki Uchida; Meiji institute of Health Science. Cordyceps Sinensis: Its diverse effects on mammals in vitro and in vivo. Third International Symposium of the Mycological Society of Japan, 1995.

4. Anderson, RA, Polansky MM, Bryden NA. Effects of carbohydrate loading and underwater exercise on circulating cortisol, insulin and urinary losses of chromium and zinc. Eur Journal of Applied Physiology, 1991;3:289-293.

5. Burke, Edmund R. Herbs Enhance Lactate Metabolism. Nutrition Science News, V.3; N.9 P. 458 (1998)

6. Chinese fungus and World Record Runners: American Entomologist pp. 235-236 (winter, 1994)

7. Cheng XJ; Di L; Wu Y; Zhao QC; Du GZ; Liu YQ (1993) Studies on the hypoglycemic effect of Rhodiola sachelinensis A. Bor. Polysaccharides Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Meteria Medica of Jilin Province, Changchun. Chung Kuo Ching Yao Tsa Chih, 18(9): 557-559.

8. Georges M. Halpern: Cordyceps, Chinese Healing Mushroom, Avery Publishing, 1999.

9. Germano, Carl RD, CNS, LDN; Vitamin Retailer (August, 1998 pp54-56) �Rhodiola: Not just another adaptogen�

10. Germano C, Ramazanov Z. Arctic Root-Rhodiola Rosea. 1999, Kensington Books.

11. Katrien De Bock, et al., Acute Rhodiola Intake can improve Endurance Exercise Performance. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2004. 14, 298-307. 2004 Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.

12. Kurukov AG., Aisikov MI and Pakhimov SS (1986) Pharmacology of the plant polyphenol epigaloxin from Rhodiola. Pharmacology and Toxicology 1986; 49(2): 45-8

13. Lou Y, Liao X, Lu Y. Cardiovascular pharmacological studies of ethanol extracts of Cordyceps mycelia and Cordyceps fermentation solution. Chinese Traditional and Herbal Drugs 1986; 17(5): 17-21, 209-213.

14. Maslova LV; Kondrateve Biu; Maslov LN; Lishamon IB (1994) The cardioprotective and antiadrenergic activity of an extract of Rhodiola rosea in stress Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology, 57(6): 61-3 Nov Dec.

15. Medicinal Mushrooms May Increase Stamina. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. July 2004.

16. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise abstract published in 2001;33:S164. Cordyceps CS-4: Poster presented at The ACSM annual meeting, Baltimore, MD, June 2001. Poster presented at The Experimental Biology 2001 (FASEB meeting), Orlando, FL, April 3, 2001.

17. Medicine &. Science in Sports & Exercise abstract published in 1999;31(5):S174. Cordyceps CS-4 Poster presented at The Experimental Biology 2001 (FASEB meeting), Orlando, FL, April 1, 2001. Paper published in Chinese J Gerontology 2001;20(4):297-298.

18. Noboru Manabe et. Al.; Effects of the Mycelial Extract of Cultured Cordyceps Sinensis on In Vivo Hepatic Energy Metabolism in the Mouse. Japanese Journal of Pharmacology 70, 85-88 (1996).

19. Plozny AV., Revyakina NV., Kim EF., Sviridova TF. 1985 Rhodiola Rosea or Golden-root. Biology of Siberian plants requiring protection. Novosibirsk.p.85-114.

20. Qian Yancong, et al., Survey of research on Rhodiola kirilowii, Acta Chinese Medicine and Pharmacology 1999; (5): 34-35.

21. Ramazanov, Dr. Zakir and Dr Maria del Mar Bernal Suarez; Using Rhodiola Rosea and Rhododendron Caucasicum.(1999) ATN/Safe Goods Publishing.

22. Rege, NN et al; Phytotherapy Research; Ayurvedic Research Centre, Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Seth GS Medical College, Parel, Mumbai, India. 1999 June; 13(4): 275-291.

23. Saratikov AS., Salnik BU., Revina TA 1968. Biochemical Characteristics of the Stimulative action of Rodosine during prescribed muscular workloads. Proceedings of Siberian Department of Academy of sciences of the USSR. Biological Sciences, 5: 108-115.

24. Saratikov AS and Krasnov EA. Rhodiola rosea-valuable medicinal plant. Chapter VIII �Clinical Study of Rhodiola Rosea� Medicinal Academy of Sciences, Tomsk 1987

25. Wang Liang, Progress of research on the pharmacology of rhodiola, Li Shizhen Medicine and Materia Medica Research 1999; 10(4): 295-296.

26. Xu J; Xie J; Feng P; Su Z; Oxygen transfer characteristics in the compact callus aggregates of Rhodiola. Chinese Journal of Biotechnology; 1998; 14(2): 99-107.

27. Xiu; Journal of China Sports Medicine (Vol 15, No.4. 1996)

28. Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi; The effect of Rhodiola on oxygen consumption of myocardium and coronary artery blood flow in dogs. 1998 Feb; 23(2): 104-106

29. Zhang Weiyun, Recent development on application of Rhodiola spp. and its preparations, Journal of the Gansu College of Traditional Chinese Medicine 1997; 14(4); 41-42.

30. Zhu, J, G.M. Halpern and K.Jones: The Scientific Rediscovery of and Ancient Chinese Herbal Medicine: Cordyceps sinesis, Alternative & Complementary Therapies, 4(3-4),289-303,429-457.

31. Zhu, X. 1990. Immunosuppressive effect of cultured Cordyceps sinensis on cellular immune response. Chinese Journal of Modern Developments in Traditional Medicine 10:485-487,4540


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