Adaptogens & New Insights Hiding in Plain Sight
This is the first in a series of blogs on Optygen & OptygenHP, long-time staples in the First Endurance arsenal. In fact, Optygen was the First Endurance’s first product almost 20 years ago, and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
In this blog, Dr. Bucci discusses adaptogens, which are key components of the Optygen formulas. He examines the misunderstandings that have plagued the oft-misunderstood substances and explains how new insights from human research on them opened up new avenues for improving performance.
Adaptogens constitute a catch-all category lumping together various herbs and traditional medicines that have a long history of keeping humans healthy under periods of stress, both physical and mental. There are many definitions of “adaptogen,” but the simplest may be any substance that helps the body function effectively while under stress. That’s a simple concept – when you are under stress that adversely affects your life, adaptogens help you adapt to maintain your health and homeostasis (in other words, a return to normal). But how that happens – how adaptogens “work” – is where adaptogens are misunderstood, especially by modern science and medicine.
Adaptogens are scientifically supported for benefits, especially for strenuous physical exercise, beyond placebo responses. This is the unvarnished truth, and it explains their historic and present popularity. But exaggerations (for commercial gain) and shoddy science (also for commercial gain) have confused perceptions about adaptogens. Understanding adaptogens revolves around each person’s perception of what stress is compared to what the body’s actual response to real life is, second-by-second, day-by-day, month-by-month, and year-by-year.
Luke Bucci PhD
Chief Scientific Officer
What Are Adaptogens
Adaptogens have been and are a small number of herbal foodstuffs used by traditional medicine systems for centuries and are still a huge part of medicinal practices around the world. Given that history as folk practice, a somewhat reverent, religious belief has been built around adaptogens that often gives them the appearance of being inexplicable and unscientific. Roots that look like humans and funky fungal headpieces of dead caterpillars sound more like lore than science.
That assumption has been compounded by reductionist, single-target inhibition (Magic Bullet) approaches to studying adaptogens in humans, which have often been used to show how unscientific and useless these gnarly weeds are, so you have probably heard polar opposite opinions about whether or not adaptogens work or do miracles. Adaptogens are Wonder Drugs! Adaptogens are useless and dangerous! As always, the reality is in the middle, and that is what adaptogens are – a jack-of-all-trades and master of many. And to make a definitive statement about them: Yes, you can benefit from them for keeping you healthy and at peak performance levels during periods of physical and mental stress.
Adaptogens Have Rules in Order to Work
Adaptogens are broad-based multi-taskers with multiple active compounds, multiple bioactivities, multiple mechanisms of action, and multiple targets. They house many types of compounds, including polyphenols, triterpenoids, alkaloids, amino acids, peptides, nucleotides, polysaccharides (beta-glucans, for example), microRNAs – in short, similar compounds to what your cells already have and thus know how to use. In spite of all this complexity, adaptogens do have rules that give you benefits if followed, and understanding how to use them beneficially means understanding these rules.
- You need to be under considerable physical, mental, emotional or spiritual stress, enough to not be your usual self;
- The further from your usual self (homeostasis) the better adaptogens work;
- Adaptogens are not stimulants or fuel;
- Adaptogens need to be taken regularly and consistently to work best – give them time;
- You need to take enough adaptogen for antistress effects;
- More adaptogens taken together work better than a single adaptogen;
- Adaptogens cannot rescue you from bad lifestyle decisions – they are not antidotes for stupidity;
- Adaptogens are called “non-specific” – they work on your entire body and find the weakest links to improve rather than targeting specific locations or systems;
- Adaptogens work with your gut microbiome, helping to normalize it, too; and
- Adaptogens can fix many deviations simultaneously in different ways.
Adaptogens & Homeostatic Deviations
Stress is a deviation from normal metabolism, which constitutes a general deviation from health and wellness. Our bodies have in-built ways to stay in or get back to normal metabolism, of course, and adaptogens work by supplying a plethora of regulatory signals that your body already has (and can utilize more of) or that mimic what your body uses to control and overcome deviations, getting back to health and homeostasis. By having numerous mechanisms that are supportive rather than demanding, they contribute multiple extra nudges to help bring your body back to normal.
One reason for the undeserved reputation for adaptogens being ineffective is that this concept is different from our modern drug and direct treatment mentality: take this exact substance for that exact symptom. Given their non-specific, holistic effect, the case is often that you can take adaptogens for everything, and if that symptom is related to one of the metabolic deviations falling under the adaptogens’ umbrella, it will also get better. But again, that can be a tricky proposition to understand and effectively take advantage of.
Through the Nonsense to the Truth
Serious, intense, long-term endurance exercise is definitely a significant stress. Do adaptogens work for exercising persons? Do they keep me healthier? Do they keep me moving? When used according to the rules laid out above, the answer to all of these questions is yes. Why can we say this? The science – rather, let me rephrase that – the good science supports it.
As an example of how the literature on any topic can be misinterpreted and twisted to one’s personal biases, let’s take a look at ginseng (Panax ginseng), the poster child for adaptogens. Critical, careful, and thorough looks at the research on adaptogens for ginseng and exercise yield a bigger picture that supports efficacy for adaptogens and human performance, but studies often produced contradictory results by limiting things like scope, dosage, or outcome measurements.
In 2004, I was invited with coauthors to write a review on ginseng in sports for an academic book on nutrients as ergogenic aids (Bucci, 2004). We did not have commercial interest in ginseng – we did not really care if it “worked” or not for exercise. But we were curious about the polarity of obvious biases, and kept an open mind.
In preparing the chapter, we noticed diametrically opposed results from the same substances, similar subjects, similar exercises, and similar settings. We smelled a rat and dug deeper. We found many experimental designs that missed the mark of what they were aiming for. Shoddy science (fewer subjects, shorter time periods, and insensitive measurements) led predictably to find conclusions of no or lesser effect.
In our analysis, we clearly showed:
- studies with larger numbers of subjects showed positive results for physical performance;
- studies lasting longer than 8 weeks showed significant positive results for mental and physical performance; and
- doses were less important (as would be expected from knowing how adaptogens work).
Conversely, we found that studies with fewer subjects (<13) or shorter durations (<8 weeks) usually did not find effects. Researchers call these latter kinds of studies “quick and dirty” – meaning they are not definitive because they have a high risk for a Type II error. In plain English, they have a tendency to not find an effect that is actually there because they are self-limiting.
And yet, these are the studies most cited as “proof” adaptogens do not work. In other words, many human studies on adaptogens were doomed to fail before they even started. Or even worse, potentially designed to fail to support an entrenched position or belief, because studies looking at more intense, longer-term exercise found better results. Reviews like ours can also produce those specious results; if they are not thorough and/or carefully select biased and poorly designed studies, then they poison the science and perception.
In reality, hundreds of beneficial outcomes by administration of adaptogens to cells and animals under stress strongly support efficacy, and they also illuminate how and why adaptogens work. While human studies on adaptogens are actually much more likely to be poorly designed and also to be misinterpreted along lines of bias, it’s much easier to stress cells and animals in a controlled, monitored manner. Incidentally, such studies have been valuable sources of insight.
New Insights on Adaptogens
These learnings can be applied to other anti-stress adaptogens, either as single agents or as combinations. That expanding universe of knowledge is supported by more and more studies finding out exactly how adaptogens affect our bodies to keep us healthier and performing better, and the entire enterprise is benefiting from improvements in practical matters – farming, shipping, quality control, and availability (see the Table below).
New Insights on Adaptogens & Exercise
|Better Identification of Plant/Fungal Species and Strains||DNA technology used to ensure identity, choosing strains with more bioactivity, evidence of safety, prevents counterfeiting & adulteration, determining mechanisms of actions, finding new active compounds, finding more ways they work|
|More Devoted Farming or Culturing||Sustainability, improved supply for demand, better pricing, consistency of materials, increased jobs and job stability|
|Better Stress Measurement Tools||More sensitivity to find effects in human studies, more targets to observe, better applicability to real-life settings, newly found mechanisms of action|
|More Human Clinicals||Support for benefits, new uses, determining dosages, documenting mechanisms of action, evidence of safety|
|Genetics, Epigenetics, Polymorphisms||Evidence of safety, support benefits, responders vs. non-responders, explaining the spectrum of efficacy|
Research shows that adaptogen sources contain key components that can be standardized, ensuring reproducible potency. These key components have different effects simultaneously on the body – antioxidant, mental calming, energy metabolism, cell signaling, receptor binding, enzyme interactions, and so on. Stress simultaneously causes cell signaling in your body that affects antioxidants, mental calming, energy metabolism, receptor binding, enzyme interactions, and so on. In general, the addition of adaptogens as counter-forces to those stress signals tends to allow your body to resist stress effects.
This conclusion suggests that long-time, consistent use of adaptogens helps your body have the tools it needs to resolve stress. Future blogs will take a closer look at each adaptogen in Optygen and OptygenHP. You’ll see the “how” that explains why these are so popular!
Bucci LR, Turpin AA, Beer C, Feliciano J. Ginseng, Ch 20 in Nutritional Ergogenic Aids, Wolinsky I, Driskell JA, Editors, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 2004, pp. 379-410.