Part 1: Adaptogens 101: What They Are, How They Work and Their Potential Benefits



In this episode, Wilson speaks to David Winston of Herbalist & Alchemist, who is the world’s leading expert on adaptogens. In this episode, they discuss:

2:00: The history of adaptogens.

3:00: The historical definition of what an adaptogen is.

4:40: Practitioners still use old definitions of adaptogens.

5:30: We need to define adaptogens correctly. There are only 9.

6:12: Classifying other herbs with adaptogenic properties.

7:46: Using adaptogens in marketing messages.

9:00: The nine plants that are actually adaptogens.

11:12: Herbs and plants that are possible adaptogens, but more research is needed.

12:20: What truly makes a herb or plant an adaptogen.

13:25: How adaptogens also work on a cellular level.

16:55: Secondary sets of adaptogen characteristics.

19:27: TCM, Ayurveda, Unani Tibb, Campo, Jamu, Sidha, Tibetan medicine, physiomedicalism, herbs are used in complex formulas.

20:00: People are complex, and have complex problems, compounding herbs is key.

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Good morning, David, how are you doing today?



I'm wonderful, Wilson, how are you?


Excellent. Thank you for joining me on Herbal Explorations to discuss all things adaptogens. For those that don't know David Winston's work, he's a herbalist and teacher that blends herbs from many different herbal traditions to create what I consider truly unique formulas at Herbalist & Alchemist. I consider him the foremost expert on adaptogens. Prior to reading your book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, it's no longer my opinion, but fact.



So the first question today is really that people often think about herbal knowledge as being ancient, but adaptogens are a relatively developed category. What is the history of adaptogens, David?



Well, the use of tonic remedies, superior remedies, whether we're talking about TCM or Ayurveda, and we'll talk more about that in a little bit, is ancient. So many of the herbs that are known as adaptogens have been used for hundreds of years, sometimes millennia. But the concept of adaptogens, the idea of adaptogens, is relatively modern.


The first research on adaptogens started in 1947 in the old Soviet Union. And while the research was interesting, the underlying reasons were not entirely benign, meaning the Soviets were looking for substances, initially pharmaceutical substances, not herbs, that could make better soldiers and better workers and better cosmonauts so they could do what Khrushchev said, and that was to bury the West.


The initial research is done by a Soviet researcher named Dr. Lazarov, and then the research switches over to a man who's considered to be the father of adaptogenic research, and that is a man named Israel Breckman. Breckman, in 1961, published the first paper on a, quote/unquote, "adaptogenic substance." Initially, when he starts looking at adaptogens, he starts researching Asian ginseng, which of course is grown in both Korea as well as in China. But the challenge is, at the time, even though the Chinese government and the Russians were both socialist republics, they were not friends. And, in fact, they had the two largest standing armies in the world on each other's borders. And so the idea of having to pay hard-earned Western currency to the Chinese was not something that the Russians were interested in doing.


And they did not grow panax in Russia, and it was expensive, and so they started searching for indigenous Russian plants that they could look at. And what they came up with is the plant in China that's called Acanthopanax senticosus, and everywhere else in the world is called Eeutherococcus senticosus. So Breckman publishes the first word on eleutherococcus as a substance that enhances what they call a non-specific state of resistance in 1961.


In 1969, Breckman and another professor, Professor Dartimov, created the first definition of what is an adaptogen. So their initial definition, which was formulated more than 50 years ago, was, number one, an adaptogen is a substance that is relatively non-toxic in a normal therapeutic dose.


Number two, it creates a non-specific state of resistance, meaning it helps you to resist stress regardless of the cause. So it could be psychological stress, environmental stress, physiological stress. It doesn't matter what the cause, it helps you to handle stress more effectively and more appropriately. And thirdly, it has what would be considered a systemic amphoteric effect, meaning it helps to normalize systemic function on a wide range of organs and tissues in the body.


So that was the initial definition of an adaptogen, but, and one of the challenges is, is that a lot of people are still using that definition for what is or is not an adaptogen. But as I said, that definition was created more than 50 years ago, and time has not stood still. And in the intervening, at this point, 53 years, there have been additional factors that have been added in because we now know more about what makes something an adaptogen.


In fact, the book that you mentioned, the book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, originally the first edition was published in 2007. The second edition in 2019. And the reason I originally wrote that book, or at least one of the major reasons, was I got tired of people calling herbs adaptogens, that aren't adaptogens.


And, in fact, people will be very surprised to know there are only eight or nine herbs that are well researched adaptogens, meaning we have really good evidence that they indeed are adaptogens. We have another maybe five or six that I would call probable adaptogens, meaning the evidence is not quite as strong, but I strongly suspect based on what research there is that they are indeed adaptogens.


And then we have maybe another 10 or 12 herbs, and the list is actually probably slightly larger than that, but there's some very obscure plants that may be adaptogens but are just not widely available. But there's another 10 or 12, including things like maca and reishi, which everybody thinks is an adaptogen. I call them possible adaptogens because the evidence for them actually being adaptogens is really poor. Now, this doesn't mean they're not great herbs. It just means they do not fit the actual definition of an adaptogen.


And one of the challenges is, and I see this a lot in the herbal community and probably in the TCM community and whatever, and in the general public for sure, is that people have this idea, well, I'm going to sort of define it however I want to. Well, the challenge is this term adaptogens didn't come from TCM.


It didn't come from Ayurveda. It didn't come from Unani Tibb. It didn't come from the herbal community. It came from science. And so somebody said to me one time, well, why do scientists get to determine what an adaptogen is? Because they came up with the whole concept in the first place.


And so it is really, I think, vitally important, and that of course is another reason why I wrote the book, is to define what is, and is not, an adaptogen. When I started to see people calling cranberries adaptogens, or I see all these products in the marketplace, and there are shampoos with adaptogens in them. Adaptogens for the most part are not going to help your hair or your scalp.



You and I, you and I. I think one of the things that we see from a marketing point of view is that they want to say everything is something. And they tend to misclassify things. And I think you said it very succinctly. Just because it's a hybrid car doesn't make it an electric car. Those are two different things.


They both have the capacity to run on electricity. Each has its own advantages, but it doesn't make it the same thing. We can't conflate the two, although they both use electricity to run the system. And in fact, even a gas powered car uses electricity to run some of the systems. Still not the same thing.


So I think what's really key is like, hey, what are we really talking about? And just like you, probably some things that drive me nuts is this overuse of things that don't really make sense. Sure, is there adaptogen in your shampoo? Yes. But will it work as an adaptation? No. I see a label, like the water's gluten free. Well, where's the gluten coming from in this water? Did you add it in? It's mind boggling. But back to adaptogens. In your book, you mentioned eight or nine for sure adaptogens. Can you just list them off quickly just so the audience has an idea, and then they can read more about what they are?



Absolutely. So we have Asian ginseng, and some people, you know, will say Korean ginseng, Chinese ginseng. They're the same plant. There's different strains and there's different processing techniques, whether it's red or white ginseng, and within China, there's different grades of ginseng and things like that. So number one, Asian ginseng. American ginseng, the Panax quinquefolius. Ashwagandha from India. Then we have schisandra from China.


We have eleuthero, when it was first introduced to the United States, they called it Siberian ginseng, which is a misnomer. It is not a Panax species. Even though it is in the Araliaceae family, it is not ginseng. But, of course, since people knew ginseng, attaching the name, again, was good marketing.


Well, I could call it that. For sale, you cannot call it that. They actually passed a law going back some years, pushed by the Wisconsin ginseng growers, to make it illegal to call eleuthero  Siberian ginseng, which I'm fine with because it, again, is not a ginseng. Then we have the Ayurvedic herb shilajit. We also have rhodiola. We have rhaponticum. And what am I leaving out? Oh, cordyceps.



Cordyceps, yeah.



So those are basically the well researched adaptogens. Now, there are a number of other plants that there is preliminary evidence suggesting they are indeed adaptogens. So for instance, holy basil would be in that category. Or we also have things like suo yang/cynomorium and rou cong rong/cistanche.


Those are all probable adaptogens. Shatavari from the Ayurvedic tradition. I would say all of those are most likely adaptogens, we just don't have the same level of evidence we have for those first eight or nine plants. And then as I said, there's a whole bunch of things that are possible adaptogens, but the evidence is really poor. And then what I did when I wrote the second edition of the book, I said, well, you know, there's all these plants that are really wonderful, great remedies. And in fact, maybe in a moment, I'll talk a little bit more about that. They're these great remedies, but they just don't fit the definition of adaptogen, which I guess I should actually give everybody.


So what is an adaptogen? Okay. So we started off by talking about the fact that the initial definition, non-toxic in normal therapeutic dose, and we're not talking about allergic reaction, because anybody can have an idiosyncratic or allergic reaction to anything. But for the average person, it is non-toxic in the normal therapeutic dose. It creates a nonspecific state of resistance, and it has a systemic balancing or amphoteric effect. That is all still true, but that is not enough to make something an adaptogen. Many plants that are not adaptogens will do all three of those things.


So what makes it an adaptogen? Number one, it works through one of the two master control systems in the body, the HPA axis, that's the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, which is the interface between the endocrine system, the nervous system, the immune system, the gut/brain so the digestive system, male and female reproductive system, cardiovascular system including the hormonal aspect of the heart which was only discovered about 25 or 30 years ago.


All that interface is the HPA axis. And then the SAS is the other control system, which is the sympatho adrenal system, which is your fight or flight. So the HPA deals with chronic stress primarily whereas the SAS primarily deals with acute stress. So adaptogens work through one or both of those systems. So that information came out in the 1990s. Then they discovered around 2009, it was just a couple years after I published the first edition of the book.


Around 2009 to 2012, they came up with some additional information about what makes something an adaptogen. And what they figured out was adaptogens also work on a cellular level. So not just through organs or the endocrine system, but they're also working individually on a cellular level. And what they do is they upregulate what are called molecular chaperones, specifically heat shock proteins. There are four heat shock proteins that it's known to upregulate. A forkhead protein known as FOXO, neuropeptide Y.


And what do these things do? When you are under stress, your body increases production of all of these compounds, and it protects you from stress. And so what we now understand is adaptogens work a little bit like a stress vaccine. So unlike a vaccine, the effect is not necessarily long lasting. You stop taking adaptogens, and the effect over a couple of weeks is going to wear off.


So it's not a long lasting effect. But it basically says to your body, "Stress is coming. Get ready," and it increases the production of all these compounds, which have a broad reaching effect on the body. They inhibit addiction. They reduce pain. They help prevent misfolding of proteins when you're doing DNA synthesis. They increase neuroplasticity, especially neuropeptide Y. They have a wide range of activities in the body.


So for an herb to be an adaptogen, it also has to upregulate these compounds, and in the process, they do one other thing. Because stress will upregulate those things, but stress also increases production of stress hormones, such as cortisol. One of the things adaptogens do is they prevent increase of cortisol levels, and they help prevent elevated cortisol induced mitochondrial dysfunction.


With a lot of conditions, like chronic fatigue, immune deficiency syndrome, or fibromyalgia, which at their root, at least clinically from my perspective, but there's also research to back this up, are really chronic sleep disorders and HPA axis disorders. And so basically that's one of the reasons adaptogens can be so incredibly useful for treating those types of conditions.



And now that you mentioned that, there's a lot of research coming out about red ginseng, Panax araliaceae that's been steamed, and how it helps improve the quality of sleep and through that same kind of mechanism. And I think one thing that's really interesting from me being based in TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine, there's the difference between red and white ginseng, and American ginseng.


American ginseng is actually a different species, but especially with the white and red ginseng, whether it's from Korea, China, or wherever it may be grown, but those are the two primary places. Now Russia has a little bit of ginseng growing there as well. But really is it that we really should be looking at these adaptogens not, okay, if it's a true adaption, like one of the ginsengs, are we also looking at a secondary set of characteristics?


Like American ginseng is good for this. White Chinese ginseng is good for that. Red Chinese ginseng is good for that. To pick the right adaptogen for your needs, right? For the particular person's needs. It's not just, hey, let me just get any adaptogen. Let me just get some shilajit or something. It's really about picking the right one for your condition and what your needs are.



Well, that was another reason I wrote the book. Prior to COVID, I used to go over and teach in Europe almost every year. I'd be in Ireland, or the UK, or some other country. And when I would teach in the UK, there still are some really good herbal programs. If we were in the UK, it would be herbal. It would be herbal programs.


But a lot of times, their use of the material medica, the materials of medicine, was a little bit, how shall I say this, unsophisticated. So somebody would say, "Oh, you need an adaptogen. Let’s give you eleuthero." It was like eleuthero was the standard adaptogen for everybody. Adaptogens, like any category of herbs, are not a one size fits all phenomenon. So does everybody need an adaptogen? No. If you are healthy, and you're not in a really stressful situation, you probably don't need any adaptogens.


So it's not like everybody needs an adaptogen. But if you do need an adaptogen, then you have to look at who needs it. So it's more about treating the person rather than the disease. It relates to individualizing treatment. We have adaptogens that are heating. We have adaptogens that are cooling. We have adaptogens that are stimulating. We have adaptogens that are calming. We have adaptogens that are nourishing. We have adaptogens that are moistening. We have adaptogens that are drawing.



So give an example, rhodiola. Rhodiola is a stimulating adaptogen. In fact, red ginseng and rhodiola are the two most stimulating adaptogens, but they're very different. Red ginseng is deeply nourishing, and so that balances out the stimulating effect, because it's also deeply nourishing to the body. But rhodiola is not nourishing at all. It's just stimulating.


And so rhodiola, for instance, if you have a patient, and they are the kind of person who tells you if they have even a cup of tea after lunch, or they eat a little square of chocolate, they're so stimulated they can't sleep at night. Don't give rhodiola to that person. They'll be up all night. Rhodiola is also incredibly drying, so if you have anybody with yin deficiency, dryness, dry skin, dry mouth, dry eyes, vaginal dryness, lack of synovial fluid in the joints, dry cough, furred tongue ... If you have patterns like that, rhodiola is really inappropriate for that person.


And so it's about figuring out which adaptogen. And then the other thing I would point out is that, in all traditional systems of medicine, whether we are talking about TCM, Ayurveda, Unani Tibb, Campo, Jamu, Sidha, Tibetan medicine, physiomedicalism, herbs are used in complex formulas.


Why? Because we're dealing with complex people with complex problems. And so the Western idea of using a single herb at a time is great in the sense of research. For research, it's really useful, because it really gives you clear information about a specific herb. But clinically, herbs are used in formulas, and so you're probably going to be using not only an adaptogen, but you're also going to probably mix it in with other herbs that it works well with. And I call them companion herbs.


So, for instance, some of the categories of companion nerves for adaptogens are what are known as nervines, which are the nerve tonics. We have things like nootropics, which are cerebral tonics. We have the category which I kind of created, which I call restorative tonics, and restorative tonics are many of them. They're great herbs. Huang qi, astragalus, is a great restorative tonic. It just isn't an adaptogen. Or shu di huang, processed rehmannia, great herb, just not an adaptogen. Amla fruit, goji berry, wonderful herbs. The fact that they're not adaptogens, that they don't meet the definition of adaptogen, doesn't make them any less useful.


So I, in a sense in the book, created my own category to just say, okay, there are these wonderful herbs that are really useful, and they may be kidney yang tonics, or qi tonics in TCM, or rasāyana in Ayurveda, and that's the point I actually wanted to make earlier. In TCM, kidney yang tonics, qi tonics, blood tonics, these are classic categories. In Ayurveda, you have rasāyanas and Medhya rasāyanas, and they're classic categories. Some of the herbs in each of those categories are adaptogens, but many herbs that are in those categories are also not adaptogens. And so you cannot make that assumption based on tradition what is and is not an adaptogen.