Adaptogens: wonders of mother nature

Adaptogens and homeostasis

For millennia adaptogens have been used for good reason for prevention and treatment of diseases in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic Medicine, and Tibetan Medicine. Their effectivity was based on empirical experience rather than on scientific evidence based on technological devices.  

As the famous alchemist and physician Paracelsus said five-hundred years ago:

“Experience is the judge; if something stands the test of experience, it should be accepted; if it does not stand this test, it should be rejected.”

The first research on adaptogens was done in the 1940s by Russian scholar Lazarov, who studied chemical compounds which promote health in the case of acute and chronic illnesses, provide a non-specific optimal adaptive response to stressful situations, and improve resistance to chronic fatigue.

As far back as 1936, scholar Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome theory addressed stress as a significant cause of illness and disease.

Nowadays it is well known that the body’s ability to manage stress successfully is critical to health and vitality.

Regarding the first definition of adaptogens, a non-specific response to stressful situations means that adaptogens promote a natural healing reaction by the body in multiple ways.

More precisely, an adaptive response enables the body to adapt to the influence of stressors, which are agents or events that threaten the body’s survival mechanism named homeostasis.

Homeostasis is an organism’s self-regulating process by which the body’s systems, work to their maximum potential while adjusting to challenging, sometimes life threatening conditions.

Homeostasis enhances the body’s best condition and optimizes all kinds of bodily functions.

The term “adaptogens” indicates those natural substances (mushrooms, roots, leaves) whose active ingredients improve the natural reaction to stress and have a ‘normalizing’ action on the different systems of the organism, i.e. what C. Perth named the neuro-endocrine-immune system.

An adaptogenic substance helps the body to reach an optimal health condition without damaging it with any side effects or creating intoxication.  

Among the most famous adaptogens,  one can mention Reishi (ganoderma lucidum), Chaga (inototus obliquus), Turkey tail (tremetes versicolor), Lion’s mane (hericium erinaceus) Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps sinens, Cordyceps militaris) and  Shilajit (asphaltum), Morinda (morinda citrifolia) and Turmeric (Curcuma longa).

I realized after many years of research that some entheogens can be also considered adaptogens, such as the secretion of the Phyllomedusa bicolor.

Tabernanthe Iboga interacts with dopamine circuits  like, for instance, Agaricus Blazei does.

It is not a coincidence that both can help with depression.

The brain receptors can be activated by any bio-active substance that resonates with them and enhances their sensitivity and number.

Kambo, Iboga and other entheogens strengthen the brain receptors in the same way as adaptogens do.

The secretion of Kambo shares the same adaptogenic properties as Reishi and interacts with the same brain receptors related to the hypotalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and the sympatho-adrenal system (SAS).

Therefore, both work with depression, anxiety, and addiction.

By studying Reishi I realized that regarding their “normalizing” effects on hyperpressure, hyperglicemy, immune system and endocrinal hormonal disorders, the healing effects of Phyllomedusa bicolor peptides are exactly the same as Reishi.

Kambo and Reishi share similar antiviral and antibacterial properties, as well. Scientific research has shown that both have anticancerogenic properties regarding breast and prostrate cancer.

List of stressors

Biological stressors: exposure to virus, bacteria, parasites, fungi etc.

Chemical stressors: exposure to chemicals including pesticides, heavy metals, pharmaceutical drugs.

Environmental stressors: exposure to extreme temperatures (heat, cold, dryness), electromagnetic influences, noise.

Nutritional stressors: highly processed foods, food that causes allergies, alcohol, rancid fats, preservatives, processed meat, drug use.

Physical stressors: physical trauma, sleep deprivation, severe illnesses, giving birth, breastfeeding, surgery.

Emotional stressors: anger, fear, anxiety, worry, grief, depression, overwhelming responsibility, emotional stress, emotional trauma.

Spiritual stressors: sense of loss of meaning in one’s soul, disconnection from Spirit.

A natural response to stress and chronic fatigue.

Adaptogens have a decreasing effect on physical and emotional stress, working both by optimizing the body’s natural response to stressful situations and by building up a reserve of adaptive energy which the body uses during prolonged stressful situations.

When this adaptive reserve is finished, the body shows the common symptoms of chronic fatigue and exhaustion (burn-out).

In case of chronic fatigue, adaptogens work as tonics, i.e., medicinal substances that gives a feeling of vigor and well-being. 

Adaptogenic tonics help the body to cope with the physical and emotional effects of ongoing stress and the resulting depleted energy reserves. Adaptogenic tonics such as Cordyceps, Panax Ginseng, and Shilajit don’t have the negative physical side-effects of stimulants, nor are they toxic.

Adaptogens non-toxicity, even if ingested in high dosages, is another of their properties. Stimulants (such as caffeine, nicotine, black tea, colas, guaranà, amphetamine etc.) and most tonic herbs are not adaptogenic.

Stimulants and tonic herbs amplify a specific imbalance or disease in the body, such as hyperpressure and compulsivity.

The regular use of stimulants is usually followed by fatigue, adrenal depletion, and addiction.

Adaptogens, on the contrary, don’t create addiction. Some of them reduce craving and withdrawal and can be a valid support in addiction therapy.

Adaptogens ‘normalize’ any kind of imbalances in the body. Some researchers have spoken about them as having a natural intelligence.

Chronic stress suppresses the immune system’s ability to do its regular job.

Research indicates that prolonged production of cortisol – the stress hormone –  promotes degeneration and death of nerve cells along with decreased focus and memory, depletion of the immune system, impaired circulation, hypertension, poor digestion, insomnia, and sexual disfunction. There is a difference between acute (short-lived) stress and chronic (ongoing) stress. In 1939, H. Selye discovered that the human adaptive response to stress has three stages: first there is an alarm state, then resistance to stress and increased energy and finally, after a long period of resistance, exhaustion occurs.

During the alarm stage the defense response activates the HPA and SAS, i.e., the adrenal glands and the sympathetic system.

In order to perform difficult tasks without the interference of the logical mind, during unexpected threatening situations the autonomic nervous system takes control of the body’s reactions.

Bodily movements, timing and strength happen in a much faster and flowing way than we are used to.

During the resistance stage the body provides increased capacity to cope with stress and an increased flow of energy coming from the sugar released by the liver.

The exhaustion stage occurs when there is a HPA depletion of the natural resistance response.

After having activated the alarm system for a prolonged time, the organism is damaged and the body loses its ability to adapt to stress due to the exhaustion of vital energy.

While the neuroendocrine system reacts to stress in seconds (for instance during situations which take a great amount of concentration) the immune system takes hours or days to react and fight pathogens.

Adaptogens improve the reaction to stressful situations and help counter immune system depletion.

Adaptogens are bidirectional

Adaptogens have both an immune-modulating and immune-nourishing effect.

They strengthen the neuro-endocrine-immune system when it is weak; they calm it when it is in an overreactive mode.

According to TCM, adaptogens are useful for both excess conditions (allergies, autoimmune diseases) and deficiency conditions such as immune-system depletion (cancer, HIV, Lyme disease).

The immune system is a network of specialized cells, tissues and organs that protects the body from pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, tumors, and infections.

It includes the lymph nodes, lymphatic vessels, bone marrow, spleen, thymus, tonsils, and the intestinal microbiome.

When pathogens invade the body, the inflammation provides a message to send white blood cells (lymphocites) to destroy the pathogens.

Lymphocites are formed in lymphatic tissue (lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, bone marrow).

Adaptogens are multifunctional

Adaptogens such as Kambo peptides rarely have an effect on only one system or organ. They are multitaskers.

Adaptogens provide a balancing effect regardless of whether the system imbalance is hyper- or hypo (systems being cardiovascular, immune, endocrine for thyroid issues, and nervous systems).

The Western mainstream medicine concept of ‘one drug for one disease’ doesn’t fit with the use of adaptogens: their aim is not to destroy a pathological symptom but to optimize the healing response of the body.

In contrast with pharmaceutical drugs, which have an immediate effect, adaptogens’ impact on the body is slow and chaotic.

They gradually build up a healing response in the whole body, therefore they need prolonged  and daily use in order to be effective.

Their effect stops as soon as someone doesn’t ingest them anymore, in the same way physical training loses its effect when somebody quits training.

The wide range of health benefits adaptogens offer covers almost every area of the body.

Because of their broad-ranging biological response, adaptogens can be an effective part of protocols for treating a wide array of stress-induced and chronic diseases, including chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome (CFIDS), fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, hypertension, chronic inflammation, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, allergies, insomnia, drug addiction and withdrawal.

“They may also be useful in slowing the process of aging” (David Winston, Adaptogens).

Ivo Bianchi mentions other pathologies which adaptogens can be used for: prevention and cure of skin problems, viral and bacterial diseases, sexuality issues, arthrosis, osteoporosis, migraine,  asthma, leukemia, Alzheimer’s and obesity (Ivo Bianchi, Guarire con i funghi medicinali).

Adaptogens and the nervous-endocrine-immune system

The first definition of ‘adaptogens’ was formulated in the 60s by Russian scholars Brehkman, Petrov and Schole:

“A class of metabolic regulators that increase resistance to a wide variety of stressors, thus preventing disorders of the neuro-endocrine-immune system”.

Adaptogens mainly support the neuro-endocrine-immune system It is well known that stress and negative emotions cause an alteration in hormone level (cortisol and corticosteroids), a weakening of the immune-, cardiac- and gastrointestinal-system.

Prolonged stress has damaging effects on specific organs such as heart, liver, stomach, and intestines. 

TCM’s scholar G. Maciocia wrote that the impact on the body of stressful events depends on intensity, severity, and duration of the stressful condition (Maciocia, Foundation of TCM). Trauma is an extreme modality of stress and it is related with very intense and prolonged negative emotions, above all fear, powerlessness, and hopelessness.

According to TCM, trauma is the most intensive emotion the body and the psyche can experience. Indeed, trauma has the most destructive impact on the neuro-endocrine-immune system by releasing a large amount of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Cortisol in itself is essential for the metabolism and the body’s reaction to stress.

It helps metabolize foods, heal damaged tissue, and regulate blood pressure. Adaptogens strengthen the immune and nervous systems and ‘normalize’ the endocrine system’s imbalances.

It is well known in the scientific world that the pituitary gland, which regulates the endocrine system oversees the release of 75% of the body’s hormones.

Hormonal unbalances include a wide array of symptoms, such as sleep, weight, sexual and emotional disorders. Many people who feel fatigued eat more to provide additional energy.

Thus, adrenal fatigue can promote obesity and risks on the heart.

Anxiety and depression are among the most common diseases of our times. In Western society next to antibiotics and painkillers, antidepressants are one of the most used pharmaceutical medications, Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the States and in most Western countries.

Different kinds of anxiety disorders include panic attacks disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

General symptoms of depression include anxiety, poor appetite or overeating, insomnia, low energy or fatigue, muscle pain, low self-esteem, poor concentration, difficult in making decisions, and feeling hopelessness.

Recent studies indicate that chronic emotional stress triggers changes in the immune system, blood sugar regulation, blood pressure, sleep patterns, and digestive functions.

People suffering from depression also have a higher risk of having heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, and hormonal disorders.

For mammals and, specifically, human beings, emotional health is crucial to staying in a healthy condition. Some adaptogens are used in TCM because of their antidepressant properties and mood enhancing ability.

Adaptogens interact mainly with the HPA and SAS. The HPA axis is ruled by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, the so-called Mastergland.

The Mastergland regulates the endocrine system, immune system, cardio-vascular system, metabolic system, adrenal glands, and sexual organs.

The hypothalamus has two outputs to signal stress response: the endocrine signals to the pituitary, adrenal glands and neural signals to the sympathetic nervous system.

This is the well-known fight or flight mechanism. The fight-or-flight response can be set by more stressors and triggers a wide array of physical responses: immediate state of vigilance, raised heart rate, deep respiration, increased blood flow and blood sugar level, oxygen consumption, dilated pupils, tensed muscles.

The pituitary gland is divided in two lobes. The anterior lobe regulates the activity of the thyroid, adrenals and reproductive glands, the posterior lobe secretes two hormones, oxytocin and antidiuretic hormone (ACTH), known as vasopressin.

The antidiuric hormone displays a self-regulating function which keeps in balance excessive amount of water and dehydration in the body.

For instance, if the body is losing a lot of liquids, this hormone reduces the amount of water or damp the body loses through breath, skin, urine, and saliva.

Next to their normalizing action on the different systems of the body, some adaptogens have a strengthening and nourishing effect on the liver, heart, kidneys, spleen, and pancreas.

Thanks to adaptogens, the pancreatic metabolism of sugar and the liver promotion of glucose production improve.

This means an increased amount of energy available for the body to perform different tasks.

Like a car needs fuel to move, glucose represents the organic fuel that gives energy to cells to perform their functions.

Some adaptogens have significant hepatoprotective, cardioprotective and pancreasprotective (hypoglycemy) properties. Reishi, one of the most complete adaptogen, which in TCM has been named “medicine number one”, helps the liver to detox from toxic substances such as chemicals contained in drugs and preservatives, induce pancreatic insulin production and reduces hypertension.

Environment where adaptogens grow

One of the reasons why adaptogens share so many powerful healing properties is due to the specific environments where they grow.

Adaptogens have been discovered all over the globe: China, Japan, Russia, Europe, North and South America, India, Africa, Australia.

“Adaptogenic plants and herbs have successfully adapted to their native habitats, which in many cases are rather harsh environments”. (Winston, Adaptogens).

They show a strong adaptive ability to survive in extreme weather and tough environmental condition such as altitudes with poor oxygen levels, desert, rugged mountain regions, extreme cold, and dry weather. In many cases the environment where they grow is very peculiar.

Considered remedy number one in Ayurvedic medicine, Shilajit (meaning the destroyer of all weaknesses)is a blackish-dark brown half-mineral half-vegetable hard resin which grows on Himalayan cliffs. The most effective Shilajit grows at an altitude of 1800 feet above sea level.

Chaga grows on tree bark. Its consistency is as hard as the bark it grows on. Cordyceps grows on the dead or alive larvae of insects.

This ability to survive almost any conditions and to grow in a very unusual environment might explain the reason for their specific and powerful properties.

“Rhodiola is an example of a plant that has adapted to harsh environmental conditions, including high altitude, extreme cold, low oxygen, and intense irradiation from the sun. This conditioning certainly has affected the plant’s chemistry and its effects when used as herbal medicine” (Winston, Adaptogens, pp. 28-29).

Chaga and Cordyceps

Scientific research on adaptogenic substances has never been carried out by pharmaceutical companies, which have been clear about not promoting natural substances with powerful therapeutic properties.

Scientific research was initiated by scientists and researchers not in the pay of big pharma, who pioneered the scientific basis for the properties of folk remedies used for millennia with excellent results in ancient medical traditions such as Ayurveda or Chinese Traditional Medicine – traditions vastly older than Western allopathic medicine, which was started by Rockfeller during the twenties of the last century.

Some adaptogenic mushrooms have become famous through non-mainstream aligned publications and even sports performances – in any case, events outside the circuits of dominant medical research.

This was the case with Chaga, an adaptogenic mushroom used by the Khanty population, Siberian inhabitants of the province of Olonyets.

Chaga is used by this population as a folk remedy to treat inflammation, ulcers, gastritis, tuberculosis, and some types of cancer, as well as to eliminate parasites. The mushroom in question, totally unknown in the West, was made famous by the 1967 autobiographical novel by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward, in which the Russian writer recounts how the story’s protagonist was cured of lung cancer by consuming this miraculous mushroom.

Another mushroom, Cordyceps sinensis, gained global fame during the 1993 Beijing Olympics when Chinese athletes smashed nine swimming and track and field world records (including for the 10,000 m) and plundered a large number of gold and silver medals, astonishing the world with their extraordinary sporting performance.

It was the champions themselves who declared in a post-victory interview that they were taking a cocktail of Chinese herbs from Traditional Chinese Medicine, in which this adaptogenic mushroom with powerful tonic properties played a key role.

Being an adaptogenic substance – that is, a food-grade substance which doesn’t leave residues in the body (unlike steroid hormones), Cordyceps is not subject to doping controls.

Among the mushroom’s characteristic effects highlighted by preclinical studies on animal subjects, Cordyceps provides an increase in oxygen circulating in the body, powerfully stimulates the adrenal glands and sexuality and leads to cardiac hypotension.

A significant increase in strength (stamina) and fatigue resistance was shown in clinical tests, ranging from a 30% to 73% improvement depending on the dose administered.

According to Prof. Ivo Bianchi, Cordyceps stimulates an effect on the hormones related to male and female sexuality and strengthens the body in cases of stress exhaustion.

Ivo Bianchi states,

“A polysaccharide has been isolated from Cordyceps which provides strong antioxidant activities and protection against damage induced by free radicals, especially in the brain”.

From this statement, Cordyceps’ detoxifying potential for the pineal gland may be indirectly deduced, since the pineal gland very exposed to calcification due to chemical substances.

Cordyceps sinensis is a powerful immunostimulant and it is undoubtedly the best convalescent tonic, useful in treating symptoms of deficiency and immune system exhaustion.

The fungus is widely used for its inhibitive effects on the replicative activity of some viruses, including AIDS and hepatitis B and C.

The mammalian brain

According to scientific research, emotional and physical stress is perceived by the mammalian brain. In the scientific world, the mammalian brain has been named the limbic brain because it carries emotions that are crucial for mammals’ survival.

The limbic brain is a highly sophisticated part of the body which, during its filogenetic evolution, was designed by Mother Nature to bring balance when it is threatened by pain, fear, or injury.

The mammalian brain produces antistress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin, which are essential for an optimal condition and well-being.

In the mammalian brain DMT is also produced daily. Alongside its self-regulating therapeutic function, DMT also represents a bridge connecting body and Spirit. Aside from these hormones, the mammalian brain also contains the highest percentage of opioid receptors.

Through the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, the mammalian brain is in charge of sending the body pain relieving beta endorphins (a substance very similar to morphine), which reduces emotional and physical stress.

According to psychiatrist Gabor Maté, endorphins act as catalyst for the essential emotions that make the life of mammals possible.

Thanks to endorphins, the brain of newborn baby mammals reaches maturation. Unlike for our reptilian ancestors, emotions represents the fundamental survival experience for mammals.

We can easily see how a negative emotional environment can create life-long suffering for a child.

The mammalian brain definitely represents highly-developed self-regulating protection for body and psyche.

It starts to work in cases in which the body’s survival is challenged by stressful situations, viral attacks, severe environmental conditions such as heat and dryness, and by painful emotions caused by natural and social attacks.

In the mammalian brain the nervous system, which rules involuntary functions of the body, HPA axis and immune system, work together as one interrelated system.

Adaptogens and drugs

According to research, adaptogens can greatly increase the effectiveness of some drugs, including antibiotics, anxiolytics, antidepressants, and chemotherapy.

In China, over the last sixty years, adaptogens are used in Fu Zhung therapy in order to prevent the severe side-effects of chemo and radiation.

From the Chinese perspective, it is considered unethical to give powerful drugs such as chemotherapy that cause severe side effects without trying to mitigate those effects.

Not only does Fu Zhung therapy prevent or mitigate immune system suppression, kidney, liver and heart damage, but it has also been shown to enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy.

In Japanese hospitals, Reishi, Maitake and Shitake are given to people so they can recover as soon as possible from chemotherapy.

Recent testimonials show that the intake of adaptogens before chemo prevents its heavy side effects and enhances the effectiveness of this invasive treatment.

Among the side effects of chemo are immune system suppression, hair loss, nausea; fatigue; diarrhea; bleeding; lack of appetite; kidney, liver, heart damage; spreading of cancer and even death. Side effects of chemo such as the spreading of cancer cells has been related by non-aligned researchers to the strong acidification of the organism due to this treatment.

Another common property of adaptogenic mushrooms, leaves or roots is that on the whole, adaptogenic substances work better than their extract. For instance, turmeric versus curcumin.

Adaptogenic mushrooms can be better taken as formulas than alone, i.e. as a combination of more adaptogens.

This combination enhances their healing effect exponentially.

Adaptogenic mushrooms reinforce each other and can improve each other’s absorption.

Daily use of adaptogens is necessary in order to maintain their adaptive state.

We can imagine a combination of more adaptogens as a football team. Each player has a specific role but in their specific uniqueness they all play for the same team with one aim: homeostasis.

Adaptogens have been showed to help reverse immune suppression caused by drugs.

According to  D. Winston, not everybody needs adaptogens. 

In order to know if someone needs adaptogens, information is necessary about that person’s age; gender; hot, cold, dry, or damp constitution; strength or weakness; lifestyles, health issues, medications.

It’s very important to understand that adaptogens are not replacements for the basic foundations of health, i.e. healthy diet, good sleep, laughter, and physical exercise.

On the contrary adaptogens are not effective as they are supposed to if someone smokes, eat junk-food and sit all day all front of a pc.

Adaptogens’ properties

  1. a normalizing effect on the different systems of the body (cardiovascular, metabolic, immune, nervous, endocrine);
  2. a strengthening and balancing effect on the immune system;
  3. adaptogens aren’t toxic, they do not have side-effects, and do not damage the organism even if taken in large quantities;
  4. an increasing effect on focus;
  5. a stabilizing effect on mood and emotions;
  6. adaptogens reduce tiredness and insomnia;
  7. adaptogens increase endurance and stamina;
  8. adaptogens have anti-age, antioxidant properties, they share a free radical scavenging effect;
  9. adaptogens have anti-inflammatory effect;
  10. adaptogens improve blood sugar metabolism;
  11. adaptogens do not cause addiction, on the contrary some of them may heal addictions by reducing withdrawal and craving;
  12. allergic reactions are completely excluded, on the contrary they improve allergic conditions;
  13. adaptogens help the body to resist environmental influences (extreme heat, cold, exposure to chemicals, low oxygen intake)
  14. adaptogen intake is compatible with pharmaceuticals: by detoxing the liver they limit the scope of action of toxic substances. On the other hand, they optimize the main-effect of specific pharmaceuticals (for instance chemo and radio treatments);
  15. they share anti-carcinogenic properties;
  16. adaptogens balance hypertension and hypotension;
  17. prolonged ingestion over time, even over a lifetime, doesn’t affect their impact;
  18. some adaptogens improve physical performances and enhance the recovery after exhaustive physical work.
  19. adaptogens have very few limitations in their use.



All information of this article are coming from:

“Adaptogens, Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief”, by David Winston and

“Guarire con in funghi medicinali” by Ivo Bianchi.