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The Indigenous History of Adaptogens

Adaptogens are natural substances (herbs, plants, roots and mushrooms) that are said to help the body adapt to stress or other specific needs within the body. Most people use adaptogens in the forms of powders, pills, teas or tinctures. Here at KIWA, we use adaptogens topically. They protect the skin from external stressors by stimulating the production of ceramides (molecules that keep the skin’s natural barrier intact). So, what is the history of these skin hydrating substances?

Although the term itself was coined in the 1940s, adaptogens have been used since approximately 3000 BCE in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic healing traditions in India. In the Charaka-Samhita (the first well-known ancient Indian text of Ayurvedic medicine), adaptogenic plants were said to be ‘valuable medicines’. Charaka, known as ‘the father of Ayurveda’, named over 350+ healing plants in the text. This included adaptogenic plants such as Holy Basil, Amla and Shilajit.

After this, adaptogenic herbs continued to pop up in Chinese medical texts such as The Shennong Ben Cao Jing and Greek medical texts such as De Materia Medica. These texts provided documentation and research about some of the earliest medical usage in China, India and across certain parts of Europe.

Western Discovery of Adaptogens

In 1948, Dr. Nikolai Lazarev coined the term ‘adaptogen’ while studying the body’s resistance to stress. Lazarev made the discovery during his attempts to make a performance tonic to aid the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He initially began using chemical substances before his colleague, Israel Brekhman, steered him towards plant-based medicine. It is said that Brekhman learnt about adaptogens from the native people of Siberia and Manchuria. The two scientists focused their research on eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) AKA ‘the prototype adaptogen’, and it was later declared an official herbal medicine by the Soviet Ministry of Health.

The 1969 Annual Review of Pharmacology included the first western review covering 15 years of adaptogen research. In this western body of research, it wasn’t uncommon for Ayurvedic medicine and research to be omitted. In fact, the term adaptogen is still not accepted in modern Western medicine. This is due to a lack of ‘good’ scientific studies and difficulties in determining the differences between adaptogens, immune system modulators, tonics, anabolic agents and antioxidants.

Adaptogens in the United States

Despite being popular among holistic health practitioners, adaptogenic recognition is not widespread in the U.S. The term ‘adaptogen’ only became allowed as a ‘functional and structural’ claim for certain products by the U.S Food and Drug Administration in 1998. In 2002, the U.S National Library of Medicine mentioned the term adaptogen when referring to plant preparations that offer immune support and anti-fatigue properties.

Adaptogens are slowly becoming popular in the U.S, as companies continue to hire private labs to conduct research on the effectiveness and quality of them as medicinal herbs. Regardless of whether you favor Western medicine or Eastern medicine, adaptogens have been proven to be a safe and effective way of reducing stress and improving general health.


Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief – David Winston and Steven Maimes


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