How Do Adaptogens Work?
In order to officially be called an 'adaptogen', the ingredient must meet the following 3 requirements:
1 Adaptogens must be non-specific and must assist the human body in resisting a wide range of adverse conditions, such as physical, chemical or biological stress.
2. Adaptogens must maintain homeostasis in humans, that is, these substances can offset or resist physical disorders caused by external stress.
3. Adaptogens must not harm the normal functions of the human body
Adaptogens can function in different ways, but the main way adaptogens function is by effecting either the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis or Sympatho Adrenal System (SAS) in response to stimulation by external stress.
Adaptogens that effect the SAS system have a stimulatory effect. This is due to the specific chemical structure of the compounds in the ingredients that can effect the SAS. Perhaps the most common examples of these compounds are the rosavins and salidrosides found in Rhodiola Rosea. Since these molecules have a similar structure to the catecholamines, which are the hormones our body releases during the fight or flight response such as dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.
These kind of adaptogens which work on the adrenal system can usually provide a noticeable response with a single dose. With rhodiola being one of the most potent of these adaptogens, results can be noticed within 30 minutes after ingestion and last for 4 to 6 hours.
Rosavins, salidrosides, and other complex phenolic molecules found in different adaptogen can function on the adrenal system to have a similar stimulatory effect as the catecholamines. The rapid response these molecules can provide gives a rapid response mechanism to control the acute reaction of an organism to the stressor.
Adaptogens that effect the HPA axis have more of a calming effect. This is again due to the specific chemical structure of the compounds in the ingredients that can effect the HPA. A common example of an ingredient containing these compounds is Reishi mushroom, which usually contains a high amount of triterpenoids. These triterpenoids are similar in chemical structure to corticosteroids, and are able to bind to glucocorticoid receptors and can control cortisol levels.
Adaptogens that effect the HPA also benefit the immune system, as we can see with Reishi mushroom.
With these two different classifications of adaptogen influence having opposing effects, it is important to remember that these effects take place by specific chemical compounds found in ingredients. It is not uncommon for ingredients to contain chemical compounds that both effect the SAS and HPA, so they can exhibit both stimulating and calming effects. Rhodiola is another example of an ingredient that has both of these effects due to the effects of different active chemical compounds.
Check out the video that discusses this topic in more detail: