From the Andes Cordillera and the mountains of Tibet to the Ganges plain and the Siberian steppes, plants have been used for thousands of years for their ability to increase energy levels, and boost resistance to high altitudes, stress and hormone problems. These plants help to re-establish balance by making the body both stronger and more relaxed.
It was only in the 1940s, however, that while researching ways of boosting the physical and cognitive abilities of USSR soldiers and workers, Russian scientist Nikolai Lazarev, discovered the benefits of Schisandra chinensis and formalised the concept of adaptogenic plants (1).
Since these early discoveries, the concept has spread across the globe, with a concomitant increase in scientific research (more than a thousand studies have been conducted on adaptogenic plants over the last 60 years), with the following definition now widely-accepted (2).
An adaptogenic plant is one which:
Here are the 8 best adaptogenic plants as identified by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA).
A long, twining and particularly hardy vine that grows in wooded areas, Chinese schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) has been used for thousands of years both in cooking and in traditional Chinese medicine.
Also known as 5-flavour-fruit (its berries being simultaneously sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy), Indian ginseng or vitality fruit, Chinese schisandra was notably used as a sex stimulant, for boosting libido, as well as for improving physical and cognitive performance, and for combatting insomnia and stress.
In short: it perfectly embodies the notion of the adaptogenic plant; indeed, it’s the very plant Nikolai Lazarev was studying when he formalised the concept.
However, it was only in 1951 that the adaptogenic benefits of Schisandra chinensis were found to come from a specific active ingredient called schisandrin and its derivative gamma-schisandrin, as well as from its many lignans (gomisin A, B, C, D, E, F).
These lignans are believed to protect tissues (especially in the skin, brain, heart, kidneys and liver) against oxidative stress by, in particular, boosting the function of glutathione (3).
In addition to its adaptogenic benefits, Schisandra chinensis:
The many benefits of this ‘fruit of vitality’ are thus now available in the form of dietary supplements (such as Schisandra Chinensis, standardised to 9% schisandrin).
A cornerstone of the traditional Indian pharmacopoeia, Withania somnifera is a robust plant which can grow in even the driest regions of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In Sanskrit, ashwagandha means ‘smell of horse’, reflecting the odour emitted by its roots.
Known as ‘healing leaf’ in Yemen, ashwagandha also meets the criteria for an adaptogenic plant. It was actually used in Ayurvedic medicine as a multi-purpose remedy for insomnia, stress, arthritic inflammation, anxiety, respiratory problems, etc.
Following the identification of its most important active principles (withanolides, aspartic acid, glycine, tyrosine, alanine, proline, tryptophan, glutamic acid, cysteine... as well as numerous flavonoids), several patents were filed relating to ashwagandha’s potential for improving the response to mental health problems (4).
Ashwagandha supports, in particular:
That’s why you’ll find Withania somnifera featured in dietary supplements (such as Super Ashwagandha).
A vine originating from India, long pepper (Piper longum) is a key plant of Ayurvedic medicine, with tiny seeds contained in hazelnut-like catkins.
Long pepper is traditionally used in India for its numerous benefits, including those of boosting the body’s resistance to stress, relieving respiratory problemsand supporting the digestive system
These effects are thought to be due to its piperine content, an alkaloid responsible for the piquant nature of Piper longum and which has a positive effect on a number of the body’s functions (5).
A supreme plant of traditional Asian pharmacopoeia (Chinese, Korean, Indian), ginseng is part of the botanical genus Panax, a Greek word meaning ‘all-healing, panacea’. Indeed its adaptogenic properties were known about long before Nikolai Lazarev’s discoveries.
However, recent research has shown that ginseng’s benefits are due to the plant’s active principles, ginsenosides, though their mechanisms of action have yet to be established by scientists (6).
In short: ginseng is without doubt a key adaptogen and dietary supplement no home should be without (try the product Ginseng 30%, standardised to 30% ginsenosides).
A spiny shrub from the Elaeagnus family, the berries of which are normally edible and widely used in forest gardens, sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) grows in temperate regions in Europe and Asia.
The edible, tart fruits of the sea buckthorn shrub, rich in vitamin C (5 times higher than kiwi fruit), as well as in vitamins A, E, F and P, have been consumed for at least 1200 years in Europe, China and Russia for their de-worming, tonic, anti-infection, and wound-healing benefits, particularly burns, etc. (7)
Sea buckthorn supports:
Its benefits are thus very well matched to the body’s needs, making it a natural choice for supplementation (try, for example, Sea Buckthorn Extract, sea buckthorn oil in softgel form).
A particularly hardy bush from Siberia and Asia, bearing clusters of black berries, eleutherococcus is known as Siberian ginseng because of its adaptogenic properties: indeed it was consumed by athletes from the former Soviet Union, though its traditional use dates back more than 4000 years.
Eleutheroside B, an antioxidant and antimicrobial syringin, is thought to be its most powerful active principle. In particular, the plant supports:
A perennial plant from the Fabaceae family (which also includes lentils and chickpeas), astragalus is a small leguminous plant from China bearing clusters of yellow flowers, of which there are more than 2500 species.
Astragalus root has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years for its immune-stimulant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Its many virtues are believed to be due to its high content of polysaccharides, a type of fibre that stimulates immunity in the gut (9).
These adaptogenic properties and multiple benefits make astragalus the perfect dietary supplement (try, for example Astragalus Extract).
Arctic root, golden root, roseroot: Rhodiola rosea is a small succulent from the Crassulaceae family, the name of which comes from the rose-like smell that emanates from its roots. It is primarily found in Siberia and Scandinavia.
People in these regions have long attributed it with multiple health benefits: physical endurance, longevity, sexual vigour, memory, etc, all of which make it another excellent example of an adaptogenic plant.
In fact, rhodiola is rich in rosavin and salidroside, two glycosides that act on the nervous system but which also offer a number of bioactive effects (10).
Like all the adaptogenic plants listed by the EFSA, rhodiola is an excellent choice as a dietary supplement (you can find it in capsule form, standardised to 5% rosavin and 1.8% salidroside, in the supplement Rhodiola rosea).
To gain maximum benefit from these adaptogenic plants with recognised properties, you can, of course, opt for synergistic formulations in which they are combined for optimal effects:
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