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Adaptogens for stress and fatigue

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

The use of substances to enhance mental and physical performance in healthy people can be traced back to World War II when stimulants were given to pilots and those working in submarines. From this, the idea that herbal medicine could increase stamina and survival in harsh environments was born [1]. The term adaptogen was coined in 1940 by a scientist from the USSR, N. Lazarev to describe Schisandra chinensis [2]. The stimulating and tonic effects of Schisandra have been described in Soviet Union World War II journals [1]. Today, adaptogens continue to be researched for their constituents, mechanisms of action, clinical applications and product development [1]. 

In order to be an adaptogen, 3 criteria must be met [2]:

  1. They are non-specific and help the body resist adverse conditions – physical, chemical and biological stresses

  2. Maintain homeostasis (or equilibrium) in humans meaning that they can prevent physical disorders from developing due to external factors/stresses

  3. Must not harm the human body’s normal functions

How do they work? In response to external stress, adaptogens affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) and regulate several molecules involved in the stress response [1].

How can they benefit you? Based on evidence from clinical trials, adaptogens increase attention and endurance when fatigued, decrease stress-related impairments and conditions associated with disruptions to the neuroendocrine and immune systems [1].

A few examples of adaptogenic herbs:

  1. Schisandra chinensis

  2. Panax ginseng

  3. Withania somnifera (featured in the display picture)

  4. Rhodiola rosea

  5. Eleutherococcus senticosus

I usually prepare teas with adaptogenic herbs but it’s important to select the right ones for you as an individual and to consider medication interactions.


  1. Panossian, A. and Wikman, G. 2010. Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress – Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals. 3: 188-224.

  2. Liao, LY., He, YF., Li, L., Meng, H., Dong, YM., Yi, F. and Xiao, PG. 2018. Chinese Medicine. 13:57.


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