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Adaptogens - Plant Compounds that Provide Resilience

Adaptogens - Plant Compounds that Provide Resilience

Photo credit: Andrei Armiagov/

By Kim Ross, DCN, CNS, IFMCP
Reviewed by Deanna Minich, PhD, CNS, IFMCP

June 19, 2023

In the 1950s, the term “adaptogen” was coined by a Russian physician and pharmacist conducting research on botanicals. While the term is relatively new, using plants and herbs for human health is rooted in history across many cultures. Adaptogens refer to substances that have the ability to increase non-specific resistance to stress and maintain normal metabolic functions (1,2). It is worth noting that there are two classes of adaptogens: plant and synthetic. Synthetic adaptogens were first introduced in the 1970s with the development of bemethyl, with others that followed (1). Bemethyl (also called bemitil), is sold as a dietary supplement in some parts of the world and has evidence of improved physical performance and reduced recovery time. However, in 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency listed it as a banned substance (3).

This blog focuses on plant adaptogens, which are naturally-occurring compounds or extracts from plants.

Since the discovery of plant adaptogens, scientific evidence has expanded our knowledge of the pharmacological and molecular mechanisms of action (2).

In general, these features define adaptogens: (1,2)

  • They help with the physiological response to various physical, chemical, or even biological factors.

  • They are non-toxic compounds that assist with cellular activities, allowing them to be optimized for adaptability and survival.

  • They protect against environmental assaults and psychological distress.

  • They help with increased attention and endurance in states of fatigue.

  • They can increase energy.

  • They work through the endocrine system to modulate stress' physical, mental, and emotional effects and increase resistance to physiological imbalances and disease by strengthening the immune system.

"Adaptogens are natural compounds or plant extracts that increase adaptability, resilience, and survival of organisms to stress." (2)

chart of adaptive range and adaptogenic effect

Image 1: Adaptogenic effect on homeostasis.
Image Adapted From: Panossian AG, Efferth T, Shikov AN, et al. Evolution of the adaptogenic concept from traditional use to medical systems: Pharmacology of stress- and aging-related diseases. Med Res Rev. 2021;41(1):630-703. doi:10.1002/med.21743.

While the mechanism of action is not fully understood, they are described to have effects on the neuroendocrine-immune system (2) and it is accepted that adaptogens (1,2,4):

  • influence and support the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

  • display anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

  • activate the cerebral cortex for the release of norepinephrine and serotonin.

  • impact some stress mediators, such as cortisol and nitric oxide.

  • influence gene regulation modulating multiple pathways involved in stress regulation and cell signaling and pathways involved in detoxification (2).  

Additionally, plant adaptogens have a rich phytochemical composition that varies based on each plant but may include ginsenosides, flavonoids, lignans, saponins, phenols, and phenolic acids (1). Not only do these phytochemicals display multiple physiological functions, such as acting as an anti-inflammatory agent, but they are also structurally similar to hormones and catecholamines. For example, flavonoids are structurally similar to estradiol and other steroid hormones, and lignans are structurally similar to catecholamines (5,6).

Adaptogens are widely used in traditional Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Ayurvedic medicines (1,2), with some of the reported health benefits including (1):

Table 1: Reported health benefits of adaptogens


  • Increase in glutathione and glutathione reductase

  • Improved quality of life

Neurological factors

  • Improved sleep

  • Improved mood, emotional stability, and calmness (including decreased depression)

  • Reduced physical and mental fatigue

  • Improved neuroprotection (increased oxygen uptake, removed glutamatergic excitotoxicity, decreased blood glucose levels)

Cardiometabolic factors

  • Decreased lipid profiles

  • Decreased glucose and insulin levels

  • Decreased body weight

Physical performance*

  • Increased endurance time

  • Improved physical endurance and performance

  • Improved recovery between workouts

Endocrine system

  • Decreased hot flashes, sweating, and heart rate

  • Decreased cortisone levels

  • Decreased and increased cortisol

*Due to the positive effect that some adaptogens have on physical performance, some are included on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibited substances list, though they are primarily synthetic adaptogens rather than plant adaptogens (1).

Adaptogens vs. Stimulants

chart of how to distinguish between a stimulant and an adaptogen

Image 2: Distinguishing between stimulants and adaptogens

Sometimes the implication of an adaptogen is that it is intended for use as a stimulant in a similar way that caffeine may be used. On the contrary, there is quite a difference between a stimulant and an adaptogen. Prolonged stimulant use (such as caffeine) can cause tolerance and addiction, whereas adaptogens do not (2).

Likewise, confusion can occur in the thinking that adaptogens simply “balance” and don’t stimulate.

When an adaptogen supports the body, it is the body that provides what is needed to restore homeostasis (balance) rather than the adaptogen itself.

Sometimes also called a “tonic”, adaptogens can provide balance to the body by either up-regulating/stimulating or down-regulating the function of an organ or body system based on a person's individual needs (2,4). For example, ashwagandha can promote energy but also provide a calming effect, depending on a person’s needs. The desired result of using this adaptogen depends on what the body needs and the time of day it is taken.

chart of adaptogens vs. stimulants performance over time

Image 3: Adaptogens vs. Stimulants

Stress, the Adrenal Glands, and Adaptogens

It is increasingly known and accepted that chronic stress contributes to a plethora of health concerns, including but not limited to sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal distress, cardiovascular issues, anxiety, and depression (7).

Stress, defined as a “disturbance in an individual’s homeostatic balance” (7), can be

  • Acute – immediate response to stress, such as jumping out of the way of a moving vehicle as you cross the road.

  • Chronic – constant response to a stressor/stimulus, such as financial concerns, social isolation, traumatic events, difficult relationships (personal or work), or physical illnesses.

The human body has an adaptive stress response built in as a survival mechanism. This is the body’s ability to resist the damage caused by stress through prior exposures. For example, a mild exercise stressor can activate cellular signaling to aid in reducing chronic inflammation and promote healthy aging (2).  

The body is equipped to deal with stress through the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands comprise the adrenal cortex (80-90%) and the adrenal medulla (10-20%), with each area having distinct roles. Within seconds of an acute stress response, the adrenal medulla secretes catecholamines, which include epinephrine and norepinephrine, to prepare for the familiar “fight or flight” response (8). Each of the three layers of the cortex is responsible for releasing specific hormones, including cortisol, DHEA, and aldosterone. Extra cortisol is released from the adrenals within minutes to hours of the stressful event to support the intricate stress adaptation response.

Table 2: Adrenal hormone descriptions

Adrenal Hormone Description


A glucocorticoid synthesized from cholesterol, regulated by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, has an impact on almost all body systems, though most known for its ability to mediate stress (9).


An adrenal androgen that is a byproduct of cortisol that converts to sex steroids and declines with aging (10).


A mineralocorticoid hormone created from cholesterol that influences the regulation of water, sodium, and potassium by the kidneys (11).

Epinephrine (adrenaline) & Norepinephrine (noradrenaline)

Adrenal catecholamines that are responsible for the “fight or flight” stress response (10).

In addition to the release of hormones, the body responds to stress in a number of physiological ways:

human body diagram of effects of cortisol on various organs

Image 2: Effects of Cortisol
Image Credit: Effects of Cortisol on Human Body. Vector ID 1431043022

When the body cannot keep up with the demands of the various stressors, adrenal dysfunction and multiple health concerns can present, such as increased blood pressure, increased blood glucose, and the suppression of the immune system (8).

There are three phases to the stress response, according to Hans Selye’s theory of stress and adaptation (4):

  1. The alarm phase: Sometimes called “stressed and wired” or “stressed and worried”, this phase is often accompanied by increased cortisol and DHEA output (12,13). During this stage, sleeplessness, and an inability to calm down is common.

  2. The resistance phase: This phase may present with lowering DHEA levels, while cortisol levels may remain within normal ranges or begin to shift downward. Symptoms of the alarm phase or exhaustion phase can present.

  3. The exhaustion phase: Sometimes called “stressed and mentally exhausted” or “stressed and tired”. Both low DHEA and cortisol levels are often present (14). As the name implies, individuals feel exhausted and have little energy for daily tasks, often sleep longer, may get sick more often due to a suppressed immune system, and may experience increased pain and inflammation (8).

In 2021,109 plants have been classified as having adaptogenic activity (2).

Table 3: Partial list of plants classified as adaptogens

Partial list of plants classified as adaptogens

Scientific Name Common Name

Astragulus membranaceus

Astragalus root

Cordyceps sinensis


Eleutherococcus senticosus

Eleuthero root or Siberian Ginseng

Glycyrrhiza glabra

Licorice root

Lepidium peruvianum


Ocimum sanctum

Holy basil

Panax ginseng*

Korean/Red Ginseng

Panax quinque folius

American Ginseng root

Rhodiola rosea*

Rhodiola root/Golden root

Schisandra chinensis*

Schisandra seed/fruit/berry

Withania somnifera

Ashwagandha root

*Official medicine in Russia (where adaptogens were first described) (2)

Extensive literature reports the multiple benefits each adaptogenic plant can provide to the body. Depending on the plant, this includes, but is not limited to, cognitive function, cardiovascular health, prevention of and reducing the duration of the common cold, positive effects on glucose, and insulin levels, improvement in energy and physical and mental performance, and reducing inflammation (2).

Assessing Stress

Multiple options are available to assess the level of stress an individual is experiencing, with only a sample of possible assessments provided below (7).

Table 4: Clinical assessments of stress

Subjective Questionnaires Biomarkers

Perceived Stress Questionnaire (PSQ)

Cortisol levels

Perceived Stress Scale (PSS)


Visual Analog Scale for Stress (VASS)

Plasma catecholamines

COPE Inventory

Copeptin and prolactin levels

Holmes and Rahe Stress Inventory

Respiration rate, Heart Rate Variability (HRV), and blood pressure

Maca-GO® and Maca-OG™ - more than an adrenal modulator

Most traditional plant adaptogens (including standard maca products) modify the stress response through the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, primarily impacting cortisol output.

Why are Femmenessence® and Revolution Macalibrium® so different?

The Femmenessence® line contains a proprietary Lepidium peruvianum phenotype combination called Maca-GO®, formulated specifically for women that nourishes the hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid-adrenal-ovarian (HPTAO) axis.

The published clinical trials using Maca-GO® (Femmenessence®) demonstrated improvements that expand past adrenal health (cortisol) and into ovarian health (estradiol, progesterone), pituitary health (ACTH, FSH), and thyroid health (T3), making it an endocrine modulator.

Revolution Macalibrium® contains a proprietary Lepidium peruvianum phenotype combination, called Maca-OG™, formulated specifically for men that supports the hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid-adrenal-testes (HPTAT) axis. As a result, Revolution Macalibrium® supports the body’s production of hormones, such as testosterone, while also supporting adrenal health.

Additional Support for the Stress Response

Support for healthy stress response and adrenal health extends past adaptogens. As mentioned earlier, aldosterone is a hormone that is released by the adrenal glands and is responsible for the regulation of water, sodium, and potassium. During stress, alterations can lead to an imbalance between these two electrolytes, impacting overall cellular health throughout the body. One of the many needs of the body’s cells is the proper balance between intra- and extra-cellular fluids. This dynamic allows for the necessary communication to occur within the cell and between cells. The main electrolyte in intracellular fluid is potassium, whereas sodium is the main electrolyte in extracellular fluid. Alterations in either of these will impact the other. These changes may also be indicative of adrenal function.

Biomarkers trends for hydration and adrenal status: (15–17)

biomarkers trends for hydration and adrenal status

*This statement is not meant to diagnose.

High-quality salt and hydration are paramount to supporting adrenal and cellular health, which is why choosing the “right kind of salt” is important. Ensure adequate hydration using sole (made from Original Himalayan Crystal Salt®). More details can be found in this blog.

In supporting adrenal health from a holistic perspective, these are some general clinical guidelines:

  • Macronutrients: Support healthy blood sugar with increased dietary fiber & reduced processed sugars. Choose low-glycemic carbohydrates, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, and high-quality protein and fat sources.

  • Micronutrients: Assess nutritional insufficiencies or deficiencies related to adrenal needs, such as B vitamins and vitamin C. Support the immune system with minerals like zinc and vitamin D.

  • Activity: Encourage lighter, more restorative activities such as walking in nature, yin yoga, and gentle stretching and resistance exercises.

  • Mental Focus: Introduce meditation, breathwork, journaling, or creative activities to balance the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

  • Sleep: Cortisol and melatonin have an inverse relationship. When cortisol is elevated, melatonin is suppressed. Support a healthy circadian rhythm with Herbatonin®.

All nutritional and supplemental recommendations should be personalized for your individual client or patient.


Stress is an unavoidable reality in everyone’s life. Supporting the body’s ability to cope with stress more effectively and cultivating resilience through the use of adaptogens and other nutritional and lifestyle factors need to be the clinical goals. Symphony Natural Health provides a product line to help achieve these goals, including the Femmenessence® suite, Revolution Macalibrium®, Herbatonin®, and Sole made from the Original Himalayan Crystal Salts®.

chart of supporting a healthy stress response with Femmenessence, Revolution Macalibrium, Herbatonin, and Sole

These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.


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