What exactly is an adaptogen? Here's the low-down.

Sometimes a health term becomes so intertwined with the way we talk about nutrition – let alone our core food philosophies – we can lose sight of the actual meaning. Such is the case with “adaptogens.” Adaptogens are very much a buzz-word in the superfood world, with “adaptogenic benefits” increasingly listed alongside other (much more quantifiable) assets, such as “high in calcium,” etc. So we can certainly assume adaptogens are good ... but what exactly are they, anyway?

While it's easy to get into the weeds on the science of adaptogens, their simple definition rolls off the tongue a bit more easily. At their essence, adaptogens are what they sound like: special foods that can help us biologically adapt or adjust to our environment, through aiding the way we physically respond to and manage stress. It's important to note that this is not a trait many foods have: only 1 in about 4000 types of plants is considered an adaptogen, so it's a rather special quality. Some of the most popular adaptogenic edible plants include:

  • maca

  • goji berries

  • ginseng

  • holy basil

  • licorice

  • some medicinal mushrooms, like reishi and lion's mane

These foods are touted to help increase energy and endurance, as well as balance hormones (particularly cortisol). Simply put: when you think adaptogens, think “balancing” and “normalizing.” (1)

But let's look at these beneficial traits a little more closely. The concept of adaptogens was first introduced in 1947 by Soviet physicians, and formally defined in 1969 by scientists Israel Brekhman and Igor Dardymov. These experts outlined three main points on what adaptogens do: (2)

  1. An adaptogen causes a non-specific response, i.e. an increase in resistance to several stress factors, including physical, chemical and biological factors.

  2. An adaptogen has a normalizing impact on physiology, irrespective of in which direction from normal that the stressor acts (i.e. too low or too high).

  3. An adaptogen does not interfere with the normal functioning of the organism more than is necessary to increase a non-specific resistance.