ADAPTOGENS EXPLAINED – Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola And The Science Of Stress

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ADAPTOGENS EXPLAINED - Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola And The Science Of Stress
ADAPTOGENS EXPLAINED – Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola And The Science Of Stress Graphic © Background photo: Pixabay (PD)

With the hustle and bustle of life, it’s common to feel worn out and fatigued. As such, many people are looking for ways to manage their anxiety and stress—which might explain the proliferation of coffee shops. The problem is that a caffeine fix is followed by a crash and can subject you to a rollercoaster of energetic (and emotional) highs and lows.

Fortunately, there’s a supposedly healthier solution to managing stress. Adaptogens are gaining popularity for their potential benefits in reducing the negative effects of stress. Let’s get acquainted with the science behind how these valuable herbs work!

What Are Adaptogens?

As the name implies, adaptogens help the body adapt to stressors. One group of scientists defined adaptogens as natural bioregulators that minimize “the bodily response to stress, reducing the negative reactions during the alarm phase and eliminating, or at least decreasing, the onset of the exhaustion phase that is part of the so-called general adaptation syndrome.” [1]

Adaptogens may be enjoying new-found fame in the west, but as mentioned by Dorian Wilson in his comprehensive video explanation, they have in fact been staples in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for centuries. The term “adaptogen” itself was coined in the 1990s by scientist N. Lazarev.

It’s important to understand that the term “adaptogen” does not refer to a specific chemical. It’s more about how the substances affect the body. Adaptogens are non-specific, with widespread influence in many bodily systems. The effects of an adaptogen may differ from one person to the next—but they typically help your body cope with mental or physical stress. [1]

How Do Adaptogens Work to Counter the Effects of Stress?

According to a study published in the journal Chinese Medicine, adaptogens may help people suffering from hormonal imbalances, sleep problems, inflammation, and fatigue (mental and physical). [1] The researchers suggest that adaptogens may confer these health benefits through their influence on a process known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS).

GAS (no, not that kind of gas ;)but maybe that too) happens when your body responds to mental or physical stressors. There are three stages, namely:

• Alarm
• Resistance
• Exhaustion

That crash you feel during a stressful event may be a result of progressing to the “exhaustion” phase. Adaptogens are believed to manage stress by prolonging the “resistance” stage—hence delaying exhaustion.

Research also suggests that adaptogens may achieve their unique benefits by interacting with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. [2][3]

The HPA axis plays an important role in controlling the release of certain hormones. When your body is exposed to stress, the HPA axis is activated—prompting the release of hormones such as cortisol (also known as the “stress hormone”). [4] This helps prepare your body to tackle the emergency or stressor.

While cortisol is important and necessary in the short term, it may have negative effects when its levels are frequently elevated—which may be caused by a constantly activated HPA axis. [5] And this is where adaptogens come in.

The stress-protective activity of adaptogens is linked to their ability to regulate the HPA axis. [6] They may help curb the negative effects of an out-of-control stress response and restore homeostasis.

Some research also suggests that adaptogens may play a role in improving our ability to produce the energy-carrying molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—whose depletion is linked to oxidative stress. [6][7]

Examples of Adaptogens for Stress

Some of the most popular and well-researched adaptogens include:


The name ginseng in fact refers to several different varieties of short herbs with fleshy roots. Research shows that ginseng may help reduce oxidative stress, ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression, enhance physical performance, and fight fatigue. [8][9][10] One study appearing in the Journal of Pharmacological Sciences concluded that the ginseng extracts “possess significant anti-stress properties and can be used for the treatment of stress-induced disorders.” [11] The adaptogen can be taken raw, steamed, or as a supplement.

Further Pharmacological and Medicinal Insights into Panax Ginseng:

Anticancer Potential in Osteosarcoma:

Recent studies have highlighted the anticancer activity of Panax ginseng, particularly against osteosarcoma (OS). Network pharmacology analysis reveals that phytochemicals like Fumarine and Inermin in P. ginseng target multiple pathways involved in OS progression. These compounds regulate gene expression and interact with human CDKL3, showing promising pharmacokinetic and toxicological characteristics, despite a high risk of hepatotoxicity. [12]

Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective and Modern Pharmacology: Panax ginseng, a key herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is categorized into groups based on structural similarity. Its ‘Yin and Yang’ balancing properties are reflected in its diverse biological activities. Modern pharmacology has validated its antihyperglycemic effect, beneficial for type II diabetes, and its potential in treating Parkinson’s disease (PD). Ginseng’s aphrodisiac and cardiovascular effects, particularly through nitric oxide modulation, are notable. Additionally, its role as an adjuvant in cancer therapy, enhancing immune activity and life quality, is significant. [13]

Neuroprotective Effects: P. ginseng’s therapeutic potential in treating neuronal damage has been explored through in silico analysis. The herb contains compounds that target proteins associated with neuronal damage. These interactions suggest a role in regulating biological processes like JUN kinase activity and toll-like receptor signaling, offering hope for neurodegenerative diseases. [14]

Cardioprotective Properties: Ginseng has shown cardioprotective properties in experimental models and some clinical evidence. Its bioactive components, particularly ginsenosides, contribute to its therapeutic effects against ischemic and reperfusion injury. The antioxidant properties of ginseng play a significant role in this cardioprotection. [15]


Ashwagandha is arguably one of the most popular adaptogens. The herb has been an important part of Ayurveda for centuries—and is admired for its potential ability to improve concentration, increase energy levels, relieve stress, and reduce anxiety. [16] A 2019 study claimed that ashwagandha may help reduce the activity of the HPA axis and control mediators of stress such as cortisol, stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK-1), and heat shock proteins (Hsp70). [17]

Some Further Pharmacological and Medicinal Properties of Ashwagandha:

Ashwagandha, scientifically known as Withania somnifera, is a prominent herb in Ayurvedic medicine, renowned for its versatile medicinal properties. It is used to treat a wide array of conditions, including asthma, diabetes, tumors, cancer, and inflammation. The entire plant, from root to fruit, possesses medicinal qualities, making it a comprehensive therapeutic agent.

Broad Spectrum of Pharmacological Actions: Ashwagandha exhibits a broad spectrum of pharmacological actions. It is recognized for its neuroprotective, anti-stress, anti-arthritic, antitumor, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory properties. These diverse effects underscore its role in improving the quality of life and performance in various aspects of health. [18]

Adaptogenic and Neuroprotective Qualities: One of the key features of Ashwagandha is its adaptogenic property, which helps the body manage stress. It also shows significant neuroprotective activities, beneficial in conditions like neuritic atrophy and synaptic loss. This makes it a potential candidate for neurodegenerative diseases. [19]

Immunomodulatory and Antioxidant Effects: Ashwagandha has been found to exert strong antioxidant protection and stimulate the activation of immune system cells, such as lymphocytes and phagocytes. This immunomodulatory effect is crucial in combating various diseases and enhancing overall health. [20]

Potential in Mental Health Treatment: The herb has shown promising results in the treatment of mental health conditions. Its anxiolytic and adaptogen properties make it a valuable herb in managing stress, anxiety, and related disorders. Additionally, its memory-enhancing and antiparkinsonian properties contribute to its therapeutic potential in neurocognitive disorders. [21]


Rhodiola rosea, also commonly known as golden root or roseroot, is a perennial plant traditionally used for its wide range of medicinal properties. Its adaptogenic qualities, which help the body adapt to stress, are particularly notable. It has been used to address depression, fatigue, and anxiety for centuries in Scandinavian countries. Research shows that the plant may help improve stress-related burnout, boost energy metabolism, alleviate fatigue, and improve physical performance, making it a popular choice for combating fatigue and improving concentration and productivity. [22][23][24]

Phytochemical Composition and Health Benefits: The phytochemical analysis of Rhodiola rosea reveals a complex composition, including the primary active compound salidroside. This compound, along with others in the plant, exhibits multiple pharmacological effects such as antioxidant, antidepressant, and immunomodulatory properties. These effects contribute to Rhodiola rosea’s ability to mitigate stress-related conditions, including depression and anxiety, and its potential in treating cardiovascular and neurological diseases. [21]

Mechanisms of Action: Studies have identified several mechanisms through which Rhodiola rosea exerts its effects. These include stress resistance, anti-aging, and potential anti-cancer properties. The plant’s extracts and salidroside have been shown to target multiple pathways, indicating a holistic approach to health improvement. This multi-targeted effect is crucial in understanding the adaptogenic and therapeutic potential of Rhodiola rosea. [26][27]

Cardiovascular Health: Rhodiola rosea has shown promise in the arena of cardiovascular diseases. Its chemical components have been found to possess properties beneficial for heart health, including anti-myocardial ischemia-reperfusion injury, lipid-lowering, antithrombotic, and antiarrhythmic effects. These findings suggest that Rhodiola rosea could be a valuable addition to cardiovascular disease treatment strategies. [28]


Research suggests that adaptogens such as Rhodiola, ashwagandha, and ginseng can help people better handle fatigue, stress, and anxiety. But as always, talk to your doctor before adding new supplements to your health routine – and make sure you buy high-quality supplements from trustworthy sources.



[1] Liao, L. Y., He, Y. F., Li, L., Meng, H., Dong, Y. M., Yi, F., & Xiao, P. G. (2018). A preliminary review of studies on adaptogens: comparison of their bioactivity in TCM with that of ginseng-like herbs used worldwide. Chinese medicine, 13(1), 1-12:

[2] Lopresti, A. L., Smith, S. J., Malvi, H., & Kodgule, R. (2019). An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine, 98(37):

[3] Smith, S. M., & Vale, W. W. (2022). The role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in neuroendocrine responses to stress. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience:

[4] Thau, L., Gandhi, J., & Sharma, S. (2022). Physiology, Cortisol. [Updated 2021 Sep 6]. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing:

[5] Hannibal, K. E., & Bishop, M. D. (2014). Chronic stress, cortisol dysfunction, and pain: a psychoneuroendocrine rationale for stress management in pain rehabilitation. Physical therapy, 94(12), 1816-1825:

[6] Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress—protective activity. Pharmaceuticals, 3(1), 188-224:

[7] Tiwari, B. S., Belenghi, B., & Levine, A. (2002). Oxidative stress increased respiration and generation of reactive oxygen species, resulting in ATP depletion, opening of mitochondrial permeability transition, and programmed cell death. Plant physiology, 128(4), 1271-1281:

[8] Seo, S. K., Hong, Y., Yun, B. H., Chon, S. J., Jung, Y. S., Park, J. H., … & Lee, B. S. (2014). Antioxidative effects of Korean red ginseng in postmenopausal women: a double-blind randomized controlled trial. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 154(3), 753-757:

[9] Lee, S., & Rhee, D. K. (2017). Effects of ginseng on stress-related depression, anxiety, and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. Journal of ginseng research, 41(4), 589-594:

[10] Bach, H. V., Kim, J., Myung, S. K., & Cho, Y. A. (2016). Efficacy of ginseng supplements on fatigue and physical performance: a meta-analysis. Journal of Korean Medical Science, 31(12), 1879-1886:

[11] Rai, Deepak, Gitika Bhatia, Tuhinadri Sen, and Gautam Palit. “Anti-stress effects of Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng: a comparative study.” Journal of pharmacological sciences 93, no. 4 (2003): 458-464:

[12] “Network pharmacology analysis with molecular docking of phytochemicals of Panax ginseng against osteosarcoma” (2022) –

[13] “Current evaluation of the millennium phytomedicine- ginseng (II): Collected chemical entities, modern pharmacology, and clinical applications emanated from traditional Chinese medicine.” (2009)

[14] “Target molecular-based neuroactivity screening of Panax ginseng through network pharmacology integrated molecular docking” (2022) –

[15] “Cardioprotection by ginseng: experimental and clinical evidence and underlying mechanisms.” (2018) –

[16] Tandon, N., & Yadav, S. S. (2020). Safety and clinical effectiveness of Withania Somnifera (Linn.) Dunal root in human ailments. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 255, 112768:

[17] Salve, J., Pate, S., Debnath, K., & Langade, D. (2019). Adaptogenic and anxiolytic effects of ashwagandha root extract in healthy adults: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical study. Cureus, 11(12):

[18] “Medicinal Activities of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha)” (2022) –

[19] “Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) – a herb with versatile medicinal properties empowering human physical and mental health” (2021) –,141582,0,2.html

[20] “Development and evaluation of topical formulations of Ashwagandha for antibacterial and antifungal studies” (2021) –


[22] Kasper, S., & Dienel, A. (2017). Multicenter, open-label, exploratory clinical trial with Rhodiola rosea extract in patients suffering from burnout symptoms. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 13, 889:

[23] Anghelescu, I. G., Edwards, D., Seifritz, E., & Kasper, S. (2018). Stress management and the role of Rhodiola rosea: a review. International journal of psychiatry in clinical practice, 22(4), 242-252:

[24] Lekomtseva, Y., Zhukova, I., & Wacker, A. (2017). Rhodiola rosea in subjects with prolonged or chronic fatigue symptoms: results of an open-label clinical trial. Complementary medicine research, 24(1), 46-52:

[25] “GC-MS analysis of the lipophilic compounds of medicinal plant Rhodiola rosea L.” (2019) –

[26] “Chemistry, pharmacology and medicinal property of Rhodiola rosea from the selection of traditional applications to the novel phytotherapy for the prevention and treatment of serious diseases” (2015) –

[27] “Systems pharmacology approach to investigate the molecular mechanisms of herb Rhodiola rosea L. radix” (2018) –

[28] “Rhodiola rosea: A Therapeutic Candidate on Cardiovascular Diseases” (2022) –

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