Adaptogens are herbal pharmaceuticals. They work to counteract the effects of stress in the body. Stress causes very real physical changes in the body, including harming the neurological, endocrine, and immune systems. Adaptogens have stimulant properties that help counteract those harmful effects.

Adaptogens were first developed and studied during World War II. Scientists were looking for a way to help healthy pilots work at even greater levels. Basically, they were looking for a “superhero” pill that’d let the pilots fly better, faster, and for longer periods of time. And they thought they found it in the form of adaptogens.

The Soviet Union published military studies about a stimulant called Schisandra chinensis that was used. It was found that berries and seeds eaten by Nanai hunters reduced their thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. It even improved their ability to see at night.

Adaptogens work at a molecular level by regulating a stable balance in the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands. These are involved in the stress response. They work by “hacking” the stress response in the body. Typically, when our bodies are stressed, we go through three stages of stress:

  • alarm phase
  • phase of resistance
  • phase of exhaustion

As we encounter a stressor — say we start lifting weights — our body responds by kicking out hormones like adrenaline that improve muscle performance and increase our ability to concentrate and pay attention to the task at hand in the phase of resistance. Our body is literally resisting the stressor, so we feel energized and clearer, thanks to our body giving us a boost to fight the stressor.

And then, as we fatigue, we enter in the exhaustion phase. Adaptogens basically stretch out that “sweet spot” in the middle — the phase of resistance — allowing us to hang out in the powerful part longer.

Adaptogens have been studied in both animals and isolated neuronal cells. Researchers have found they have several effects on the body:

  • neuroprotective elements
  • anti-fatigue properties
  • antidepressive effects
  • stimulant for central nervous system

Oh, and they increase mental work capacity, enhance attention, and prevent stress and fatigue.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, according to research on adaptogens, they might actually be as good as they sound.

Three main adaptogenic herbs have been studied and found to be both safe and nontoxic: Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng), Rhodiola rosea (Arctic root), and Schisandra chinensis.

Siberian ginseng: This herb isn’t actually ginseng, but it works in similar ways. One study found that it may help ward off fatigue, depression, and stress.

Artic root: This is sometimes referred to as “rose root” and grows in cold climates in Asia and Europe. It’s a historical herb that’s been used in Russia and Scandinavia to treat minor health ailments like headaches and flu.

Schisandra: This herb is most useful for promoting liver health and stabilizing blood sugars, as well as acting as an adaptogen.

One study review found that adaptogens really can be used to promote health for general well-being and when used as a supplement with other traditional medications for specific conditions and health problems. They’ve been shown to help people with cardiovascular health and certain neurological disorders, especially ones that may happen more frequently as individuals age.

The herbs are associated with boosting mental clarity for people with many health conditions. In that same study review, Arctic root was found to help boost activity and productivity when used alongside antidepressants while having no serious documented side effects. It also helps people bounce back more quickly and feel more energized after illnesses like the flu.

Schisandra was found to be most helpful when used in people who had overall exhaustion and low physical and mental performance. It’s also been found to be especially helpful with certain neurological disorders, mental disorders like schizophrenia, and in improving lung function. One of the unique properties of schisandra is that, unlike other stimulants like caffeine, the body doesn’t become tolerant to it quickly, so it can be used in the same doses effectively.

The available studies suggest that adaptogens really are helpful in decreasing symptoms of fatigue and exhaustion and may be most helpful when used alongside other therapies for people with chronic and acute medical conditions. So, while your doctor may not encourage you to take an adaptogen every day for no reason, it may be helpful if you experience low energy as a result of a chronic medical condition.

While there are some health benefits to adaptogens, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t monitor the quality or purity of herbs and supplements like over-the-counter products. Talk with your doctor before taking adaptogens.

Adaptogens aren’t a new concept. They’ve been studied throughout history as a way to improve the body’s ability to respond to stress, increase energy and attention, and fight off fatigue. New research is looking at how adaptogens may be helpful in treating chronic diseases, like respiratory and heart conditions.