Adaptogenic herbs are one of the most important groups of herbs to take into the 21st century. Adaptogens not only increase the resistance to the adverse effects of long-term stress, but the majority are also tonifying, immune-stimulating and increase the general sense of well-being.1,2
The term adaptogen was first defined by Russian pharmacologist Nikolai Lazarev in 1947. These herbs were classified as a group of substances that could improve the body’s nonspecific resistance after being exposed to various stressing factors, promoting a state of adaptation to that exceptional situation. Israel Brekhman, his successor, established that a plant should meet four requirements in order to be considered an adaptogen: (1) it is harmless to the host; (2) it has a general, nonspecific effect; (3) it increases the resistance of the recipient to a variety of physical, chemical, or biological stressors; and (4) it acts as a general stabilizer/normalizer.3
By 1984 Russian scientists had published in excess of 1,500 pharmacological and clinical studies on adaptogenic herbs, and research continues today with little doubt that adaptogens increase an organism’s adaptation to stress and have a normalizing influence on our physiology.3
The various phases of hormonal change, such as monthly premenstrual time, the perimenopause transition and pregnancy, can challenge a woman’s stress adaptation mechanisms. The "hallmark" hormone of stress, cortisol, is synthesized in the adrenal cortex and regulated via the HPA axis. The effects of cortisol are felt virtually throughout the entire body and impact several mechanisms--especially the regulation of hormone balance in women. For example, chronic stress suppresses gonadotropin hormones from the pituitary that act on the ovaries and testes, which can lead to the disruption of a normal menstrual cycle and eventually lead to the complete impairment of reproductive function.4
There are several adaptogenic herbs that have been studied extensively and proven very effective in the support of the body during times of increased demands and stress.3 Most notable are rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and maca (Lepidium meyenii). Rhodiola will be the focus of this article.
Rhodiola rosea (also known as golden root and Arctic root) has been categorized as an adaptogen by Russian researchers due to its ability to increase resistance to a variety of chemical, biological and physical stressors. It has been used in the traditional medicine systems of Eastern Europe and Asia for more than 3,000 years with a reputation for stimulating the nervous system, improving depression, enhancing work performance, improving sleep, eliminating fatigue and preventing high-altitude sickness.3 Rhodiola seems to help the body adapt to stress by affecting the levels and activity of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.3 It is believed that the changes in the above monoamine levels are due to inhibition of the activity of the enzymes responsible for monoamine degradation and facilitation of neurotransmitter transport within the brain.7
Rhodiola appears to offer an advantage over other adaptogens due to its ability to exert relaxation and antianxiety in periods of acute stress. In one randomized, placebo-controlled trial of 60 patients with stress-related fatigue, rhodiola was found to have an antifatigue effect that increased mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate; it also decreased the cortisol response to the stress of awakening from sleep.5
Rhodiola may also enhance fertility. It has been shown to enhance thyroid function in animal studies as well as improve egg maturation. This led to a study of 40 women with amenorrhea and infertility to be treated with 100 mg of rhodiola twice daily for two weeks. Normal menses were restored in 25 women, 11 of whom became pregnant.6
Rhodiola has a very low level of toxicity. Rhodiola is not recommended for individuals with bipolar disorder.3
How can manufacturers and retailers increase awareness of adaptogens among wellness-focused shoppers?
- Reflection Paper on the Adaptogenic Concept. European Medicines Agency. London, July 5, 2007.
- Brekhman II and Dardymov IV. New Substances of Plant Origin which increase Nonspecific Resistance. Annu Rev Pharmacol. 1969;9:419-30.
- Head, Katheleen A. and Kelly, Gregory S. Nutrients and Botanicals for Treatment of Stress: Adrenal Fatigue, Neurotransmitter Imbalance, Anxiety, and Restless Sleep. Alternative Medicine Review. 2009;14(2):114-40.
- Oakley AE, Breen KM et al. Cortisol reduces gonadotropin-releasing hormone pulse frequency in follicular phase ewes: influence of ovarian steroids. Endocrinology. 2009 Jan;150(1):341-9.
- Olsson EM, von Scheele B, Panossian AG. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardized extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Planta Medica. 2009 Feb;75(2):105-112.
- Hudson, Tori. Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. McGraw-Hill. 2008.
- Alternative Medicine Review – Monograph Rhodiola rosea. 2002. Volume 7, Number 5.