By Donald Yance, Jr., C.N., M.H., R.H., Well Being Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1.
All living organisms—including animals, plants, and even bacteria—survive because of their innate or acquired abilities to respond appropriately to the ever-changing environment. Remarkably, many compounds that are vital to a plant’s ability to adapt also help humans adapt to life stressors through a beneficial relationship that we are just beginning to understand.
Adaptation can be broadly classified into two categories: functional adaptation, which helps the organism to survive, and reproductive adaptation, which ensures the survival of the organism’s genetic material—an organism cannot be considered successful if its type goes extinct. Although the process of adaptation may be easier to observe in animals, adaptation is essential for all living things.
Plants’ show an amazing variability of adaptive changes. One easily observable example is the changing colors of leaves in the fall. Chlorophyll, the pigment responsible for photosynthesis, disappears as the days grow shorter. This allows an array of flavonoids, which are always present in the leaves, to appear. Flavonoids give leaves their beautiful fall colors. But these compounds provide more than just beauty. Plants produce them as an adaptive measure as sunlight diminishes and the weather cools, to aid in the storage of nutrients and to ward off damaging insects.
These strategies are an illustration of adaptation that originates in organically coded information within the organism. What is most remarkable is that this plant-based information can be directly communicated to the human genome. A plant’s adaptive capacity can be conveyed directly to us through the use of appropriate botanical medicines—specifically, by a unique class of herbs known as adaptogens. Revered in traditional medical systems, these herbs are often referred to as “elite” or “kingly,” because they enhance one’s inner vitality, encourage a state of balance, and increase endurance. In recent history, Soviet researcher Israel Brekhman gave this category of plants the name adaptogens becaue of their unique ability to help the organism adapt to the changing conditions of life.
The essence of adaptogens is that they combat the negative effects of stress and improve resistance, thereby improving our health and well-being. Essentially, adaptogens help us to live with greater mental and physical endurance and vitality, while mitigating the cost of stressors and building our reserves through enhancing our regenerative (anabolic) capacities.
An adaptogenic herb is traditionally regarded as one that meets the classical definition as described by Brekhman:
• Adaptogens are safe, having no significant side effects or contraindications.
• Adaptogens have a general, nonspecific action to improve resistance to stress.
• Adaptogens have a balancing, normalizing effect on body functions, regardless of the origin of disruption or the direction of the homeostatic disturbance.
In my clinical practice, I distinguish three main categories of adaptogens and use herbs from each of these categories in all of my formulations to achieve the best possible results:
1. Primary adaptogens: Meet the classical definition of adaptogens.
2. Secondary adaptogens: Meet most of the traditional criteria or have met all of the criteria but lack sufficient scientific validation.
3. Adaptogen companions: May not meet all of the traditional criteria but play a supporting role by enhancing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and anabolic metabolism.