Adaptogens and adaptogen supplements are herbs and herbal products believed to normalize body functions and strengthen systems compromised by stress. Some of the popular and better known herbs and herb-based supplements contain Withania somnifera (Aswagandha), Ocimum sanctum or tulsi, Ginseng, Astragalus, Rhodiola rosea, Lepedium meinii (maca), Schisandra chinensis and Glycyrrhiza glabra or licorice. This is not an exclusive list though.
The history of adaptogens and their use by humans goes back to the dawn of human history. Ocimum sanctum (synonym Ocimum tenuiflorum) is referred to in ancient Hindu texts as “the elixir of life." The plant is said to bring tranquility to the mind, assisting in meditation and concentration.
The herb is mentioned in the ancient Hindu compendium of medicine—Charaka Samhita (circa second century BC). There are monographs on O. tenuiflorum published in the Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India (Vol. II, 1999, and Vol. IV, 2004), Unani Pharmacopoeia of India (Vol. V, 2008), Thai Herbal Pharmacopoeia (Vol. I, 1995), Vietnamese Pharmacopoeia (1st ed., 1983), and World Health Organization (WHO) Monographs (Vol. 2, 2002).
Ginseng is another a popular ancient adaptogen. It has been in use in Chinese medicine for millennia. Ginseng comes from the fleshy roots of perennial slow-growing plants belonging to 11 different species and two different genera. There are three popular varieties: Asian, American and Siberian.
Asian or Korean ginseng is the oldest. The most famous and commonly found of the ginseng comes from Panax ginseng. American ginseng comes from Panax quinquefolius. Siberian ginseng is from a different genera—Eleutherococcus senticosus.
Outside of this family, but still called ginseng are the Malaysian ginseng (Eurycoma longifolia), Peruvian ginseng (Lepidium meyenii), Southern ginseng (Gynostemma pentaphyllum), Brazilian ginseng (Pfaffia paniculata), Kerala ginseng (Trichopus zeylanicus), Thai ginseng (Kaempferia parviflora), Nam ginseng (Dracena angustifolia), Ashwangandha or Indian ginseng (Withania somnifera). A cheap substitute for Panax ginseng comes from Codonopsis pilosula.
There are 3,944 prescriptions with ginseng as an ingredient in the Korean Clinical Pharmacopeia that has been in place since 1610 AD.
The herb was popular with Chinese emperors, who paid for it in gold. In America, Native American tribes like the Iroquois, Menomonee, Cherokee and the Creeks all valued the herb for its curative powers, but cultivation of ginseng in the United States began in 20th century only.
Traditionally, ginseng is regarded as both a physical and mental restorant. It is said to improve the cognitive ability of patients, improve the quality of life and behavior. Ginsenoides and other constituents in ginseng possess immune-suppressive properties.
Studies conducted on healthy individuals given Panax ginseng doses of 200 mg of extract daily showed increased QTc interval (a measurement of the heart’s electrical cycle) and decreased diastolic blood pressure two hours after ingestion on the first day of therapy.1
Cognitive enhancement ability tests with herbal treatment with Panax ginseng were conducted on healthy volunteers who had fasted overnight. The results confirmed the herb’s glucoregulatory and cognitive performance-enhancing properties.2
It has also been shown that a dose dependent improvement in memory quality was seen in experiments conducted on volunteers who were administered Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng treatment.3,4 The highest improvement was observed in those who were given the highest dose.
Positive results were also observed when Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng was given to the volunteer patients with neurasthenic complaints.5
Similarly, ocimumosides A, B and ocimarin are three compounds isolated from extract of leaves of holy basil that were proven to have anti-stress effects. The anti-stress and neuroprotective properties of the herb have been validated in multiple studies.6
The antioxidant properties of Ocimum tenuliforum (tulsi) was observed by Subramanian M et al7 and Samson J et al, who also observed that it caused a reduction in oxidative stress in the brain.8 Later research noted tulsi possesses amelioration property when the sciatic nerve was cut to induce neuro dysfunction in rats.9 This property could have value in finding treatments in the dysfunctions caused by damage to the nerves.
While adaptogens have not yet been accepted in mainstream medicine, the popularity of this class of natural products-based supplements is more acceptable when compared to chemical-based stimulating anabolic and nootropic drugs. These have been found to influence the pituitary-adrenal axis. Some of these possess immunomodulatory and or anabolic activities.10
Some of the plants studied for their adaptogen properties include Rhodiola rosea, Schizandra chinensis and Eleutherococcus senticosus.11 The subject is vast and there exists a vast body of scientific literature exploring multiple aspects of this class of natural products based supplement building blocks.
It is a matter of time when industry will succeed in demonstrating the value of adaptogenic herbs to human health through human clinical trials. When that happens, FDA will be compelled to accord its approval and a new chapter in herbal medicine will emerge.
Sudhir Ahluwalia is a business consultant. He has been management consulting head of Tata Consultancy Services, an IT outsourcing company in Asia, business advisor to multiple companies, columnist and author of upcoming book on herb, “Holy Herbs." He has been a member of the Indian Forest Service.
- Caron M et al. “Electrocardiographic and Hemodynamic Effects of Panax Ginseng." Annals of Pharmacotherapy. 2002;36(5):758-63.
- Scholey AB et al. “Effects of Panax ginseng, consumed with and without glucose, on blood glucose levels and cognitive performance during sustained ‘mentally demanding’ tasks." Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2006;20(6):771-81.
- Kennedy DO, Scholey AB, Wesnes KA. “The dose-dependent cognitive effects of acute administration of Gingko biloba to healthy volunteers." Psychopharmacology. 2000;151:416-23.
- Kennedy DO, Scholey AB, Wesnes KA. “Differential, dose-dependent changes in cognitive performance and mood following acute administration of ginseng to healthy young volunteers." Nutr Neurosci. 2001a;4:295-310.
- Wesnes KA et al. “The cognitive, subjective, and physical effects of a ginkgo biloba/panax ginseng combination in healthy volunteers with neurasthenic complaints." Psychopharmacol Bull. 1997;33(4):677-83.
- Navratilova Z, Patokca L. “Holy basil and its effects on the nervous system." Psychiatrie. 2015;2:85-89.
- Subramanian M, Chintalwar GJ, Chattopadhyay S. “Antioxidant and radioprotective properties of an Ocimum sanctum polysaccharide." Redox Report. 2005;10(5):257-64.
- Samson J, Sheeladevi R, Rajan R. “Oxidative stress in brain and antioxidant activity of Ocimum sanctum in noise exposure." Neurotoxicology. 2007;28(3):679-85.
- Muthuraman A et al. “Ameliorative effects of Ocimum sanctum in sciatic nerve transection-induced neuropathy in rats." Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2008;120(1):56-62.
- Wagner H, Nörr H, Winterhoff H. "Plant adaptogens." Phytomedicine. 1994;1(1):63-76.
- Panossian, Alexander, and H. Wagner. "Stimulating effect of adaptogens: an overview with particular reference to their efficacy following single dose administration." Phytotherapy Research. 2005;19(10):819-838.