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The history of adaptogens

Written by Jason Irving

Adaptogens have been hailed as a panacea for many of our modern struggles. They are wonderful for fatigue, stress and building resilience. However, they are relatively new to science. This article explains the fascinating history behind these medicines.

Introduction

The term adaptogen was first used by scientist Nikolay Lazarev in 1947 to describe substances that can improve an organisms ‘non-specific’ resistance to stress (1). In 1968 the definition was elaborated by fellow Soviet pharmacologists Brekham and Dardymov to mean a substance that (2)

  • is non-toxic, and causes minimal disturbance to the organism
  • is non-specific in pharmacological action, improving the organisms resistance to a broad range of stressors
  • tend to have a ‘normalising’ effect on body systems – reducing excess, and raising deficiency

This reflected an attempt to provide scientific support for a common theme in holistic herbal medicine – restoring balance and supporting the body’s natural adaptive resilience.

Not surprisingly herbs with these reported adaptogenic properties remain an attractive prospect for herbalists and patients. As would be expected from such a broad action adaptogens are employed for a whole host of conditions. However, the main therapeutic focus is reducing the extent of the body’s stress response, and improving recovery. Relatedly they will be used to improve stamina and support people with chronic conditions, and improve concentration.

While the word adaptogen is a very recent term, it is not without precedent in the long history of herbal medicine – the preservation and adaptation of herbal uses on which much pharmacological investigation is based. Exploring the histories of the most well known adaptogens shows the connections between their classifications in a variety of herbal traditions and their reinterpretation as adaptogens in the twentieth century.

Jason Irving is a PhD student at the University of Kent, researching the contemporary and historical trade in medicinal plants between Jamaica and the UK.
He teaches foraging courses in London, worked at Kew Gardens on a database of medicinal plant names and studied herbal medicine at the University of East London.

Jason Irving

Jason Irving is a PhD student at the University of Kent, researching the contemporary and historical trade in medicinal plants between Jamaica and the UK.
He teaches foraging courses in London, worked at Kew Gardens on a database of medicinal plant names and studied herbal medicine at the University of East London.

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