What are adaptogens?
"Adaptogen" is a term for certain foods and supplements that are said to help the body cope with "stress." Stress may be psychologic (in the mind), but also may be physical (in the body), and caused by infections or toxins. The concept of adaptogens originated when researchers were looking for ways to improve endurance and decrease fatigue during extreme physical activity and adverse environments. They began studying a variety of products derived from plants and foods.
Advocates later expanded possible roles for adaptogens, including improvement of energy and mood, correction of hormonal problems, stabilization of blood sugar, enhancement of memory and thought processes, slowing of aging, and numerous other beneficial things, even perhaps extending lifespan and treating cancer.
Substances often referred to as adaptogens include
Do adaptogens work?
Because there are so many very different substances considered adaptogens, it is not possible to do research on the whole class. Each adaptogen needs to be evaluated on its own.
Also, just what "stress" is remains vague. For example, there is
Mental stress, such as the pressures of family and work (what most people think of as "stress")
Physical stress, such as hiking long distances or coping with extreme cold or heat
Cellular stress, where our cells respond to attacks by microorganisms or toxins, or to lack of oxygen or nutrients
These stresses are so different that it is unlikely that a single food or substance might affect each one similarly.
Much of the scientific research claiming to support adaptogens involves measuring chemicals that cells release in response to stress (such as cortisol). The assumption is that anything that decreases the stress-response chemicals is good. But whether that is true is not clear. Cells (and the body) need to respond to stress (indeed, some degree of stress is widely thought to be beneficial), and substances that reduce the stress-response chemicals may in fact just be stopping cells from defending themselves.
Other substances studied in adaptogen research can include neurologic system proteins such as neuropeptide Y, different enzymes, certain neurotransmitters (such as serotonin or dopamine), immune system boosters, and substances that decrease inflammation (such as antioxidants). But all research limited to measuring substances in a glass tube of cells must be followed by research that confirms actual improvement in people. There is much less of that confirmatory kind of research on adaptogens, and the research that is done is often of low quality that does not provide firm answers.
In general, people should assume that the more separate claims are made for a substance, the less likely they all are to be true. Supplements and foods that claim to fix many of the things that are wrong with life are unlikely to do so. For individual adaptogens, people should review the evidence backing the specific claims made for them.
At best, adaptogens may have weak evidence of benefit. At worst, some adaptogens may not be safe. Remember that good health depends mainly on healthy nutrition and physical activity. Taking supplements or botanical products thought to be adaptogens does not make up for unhealthy nutrition or lack of physical activity.