From Surviving to Thriving

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 an ancient and 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 have undergone adaptation since they first appeared on Earth, and their survival strategies are exemplified by their amazing variability of adaptive changes. One easily observable example is the changing colors of leaves in the fall. Chlorophyll, the green 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 colors provide more than just beauty. Plants produce these compounds 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. For example, instead of having to live on the frozen tundra in order to increase our capacity for hardiness, 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 Dr. Israel Brekhman gave this category of plants the name adaptogens for their unique ability to help the organism adapt to the changing conditions of life.


The core 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 with 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.

Primary adaptogens: Meet the classical definition of adaptogens.

Secondary adaptogens: Meet most of the traditional criteria or have met all of the criteria but lack sufficient scientific validation.

Adaptogen companions: May not meet all of the traditional criteria but play a supporting role by enhancing the HPA axis and anabolic metabolism.

Primary Adaptogens

Primary adaptogens meet very specific criteria, have solid scientific research validating their use as adaptogens, enhance the general resistance of the entire body, act in a nonspecific manner, and have a normalizing effect against all forms of stress.

The activity of primary adaptogens is focused on metabolic  regulation  through  their  proven effects on  the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis during stress-adaptation responses. They have an ability to maintain or restore homeostasis and allostasis and encourage anabolic restoration. Primary adaptogens enable better response and recovery because they help to smooth out the highs and lows of the neuroendocrine stress response by regulating and normalizing the hormones involved. Primary adaptogens strengthen all systems, promote optimal response and hasten recovery of function, and help to regulate energy use by enhancing cellular energy transfer. Adaptogens enable us to make more efficient use of oxygen, glucose, lipids, and proteins.

Some specific positive results of the HPA regulation provided by primary  adaptogens include the following:

  • Increasing  and  modulating  the  flow  of energy throughout the day
    • Decreasing feelings of stress
  • Increasing endurance
  • Supporting mental alertness
  • Promoting deep, restful sleep

Secondary Adaptogens

I classify herbs as secondary adaptogens when they meet most, but not all, of the criteria of primary adaptogens. Although secondary adaptogens demonstrate some  normalizing activity, especially of the immune, nervous, and hormonal systems, they may not directly support the HPA axis.

The protective effects of secondary adaptogens come with regular use when combined with primary adaptogens. Secondary adaptogens share the following attributes:

  • Their normalizing activity focuses on the immune, nervous, or endocrine systems.
  • Their activity may not directly support the HPA axis.
  • While they may meet some, or most, of the qualifications of primary adaptogens, they have yet to be studied extensively.
  • Many of these plants are rich in fatty acids, sterols, and phenolic compounds.
  • Many of these plants enhance anabolic metabolism

Herbal Adaptogen Companions

While this third group of herbs has demonstrated enormous general health benefits similar to those of primary and secondary adaptogens,  they  do not meet the criteria to be officially termed adaptogens. Thus, I call them adaptogen companions, because their actions enhance or synergize the effects of primary and secondary adaptogens. An herb such as green tea falls under this classification. I also include specific nutri- tional agents in this classification.

This elite group of herbs and nutritional com- pounds is used in a supporting role to potentiate primary herbs, harmonize formulations,  and, most often, to add high nutritive value. When combined with primary and secondary adaptogens they will significantly increase life span and quality of life.