Adaptogens: Natural Protection for Stress

Adaptogens: Natural Protection for Stress

By Ward Dean, M.D. and Ben Tabachnik, Ph.D.

Stress and stress-related disorders are a significant cause of disease in modern man, contributing to perhaps 75% of all illnesses. Western medicine has developed multiple approaches to coping with stress, including pharmaceutical drugs, exercise, and relaxation techniques like meditation. While these methods can provide some benefits, results are mixed and often unsatisfactory. In the East, researchers have also struggled to find solutions to stress-related problems. In Russia, after years of scientific investigation, scientists developed a unique approach to stress reduction and the prevention of stress-related symptoms.

The Information Curtain

Prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, information was a carefully regulated commodity in the Soviet Union. Ideas of a political or social nature were severely restricted from entering the USSR. On the other hand, Soviet scientists had unlimited access to the latest scientific ideas and breakthroughs from around the world. In a manner of speaking, the iron curtain was more like a one-way mirror – Russian researchers could look out and observe everything, but the West, looking inward, could only see itself. In fact, special Soviet scientific information centers were dedicated to the collection, analysis, and translation of a wide variety of international scientific publications. Vital information was immediately rushed to leading Soviet scientists, helping the Soviets to develop new advances in space science, weaponry, and other scientific fields. This dedication to the acquisition and dissemination of data meant that in many cases Soviet researchers had better access to western science data than their western counterparts.

Hans Selye and Stress

One important western name that caught the attention of Soviet scientists was that of Hans Selye. Dr. Selye, a Canadian professor and leading pioneer in stress research, is internationally acknowledged as the father of stress. Prior to his death in 1982, Dr. Selye had written more than 1700 scholarly papers and 39 books on stress, and he is still by far the worlds most frequently cited author on the topic. Selyes research was to have a profound influence on Soviet scientists doing research for the military, sports and space programs.

Russia Embraces Selye

Whereas western scientists were slow to accept Selyes ideas of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), his concept was readily accepted by leading Russian researchers, perhaps because they shared common educational backgrounds. Selye had earned his medical degree in Czechoslovakia, and later studied under a number of famous Russian physiologists, including luminaries like Pavlov, Vedenski, and Orbeli. Consequently, Selyes name became well known in the Soviet medical community following the publication of his first article on stress in 1936. In Russia, Selyes name is as closely related to the subject of stress as Freuds is with psychology.

General Adaptation Syndrome

Among the most memorable of Selyes work was his General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Selye first described GAS in 1936. The GAS involves three progressive stages (Adrendal Maladaptation Syndrome, VRP Nutritional News, Vol. 12, No. 5, June, 1998). The first stage, the alarm reaction, is characterized by surprise and anxiety when exposed to a new situation. During this stage the body reacts by producing epinephrine and norepinephrine Ñ the flight or fight hormones. Additionally, the adrenal cortex is stimulated to produce additional hydrocortisone and related hormones. The second stage, resistance, is characterized by adaptation, whereby the body learns to efficiently cope with the stressor. Ideally, this adaptive stage continues until the stressful situation is resolved, leading to a rapid return to the resting state. Unfortunately, our capacity for adaptation is limited and highly individualized (i.e. what is stimulating to one person may be devastating to another). Just as a chain breaks at its weakest link, so too can exhaustion of our adaptive capacity result in stress-induced disease. In the presence of long-term exposure to the same stressor, we enter the third stage of GAS, exhaustion. Exhaustion is characterized by a depletion of energy reserves and loss of adaptational ability, leading to fatigue or other symptoms or diseases. This third stage is sometimes referred to as the adrenal maladaptation, or hyperadaptosis (Dilman and Dean, 1992). Adrenal dysfunction may be manifest by (1) an excess or inadequacy of cortisone, DHEA, ACTH and/or CRF; (2) relative imbalances of these hormones and releasing factors, and (3) loss of sensitivity of the hypothalamus and pituitary to the normal inhibiting effects of these hormones.

Dr. Nicholai Lazarev

One of the first Soviet scientists to embrace Selyes ideas was Dr. Nicholai Lazarev, a pioneer in the then-emerging fields of toxicology and preventive medicine. Lazarev grew up in Russia during and following the Revolution. During this period Soviet leaders were aggressively transforming Russia from an agrarian to an industrial society. This extreme transition was driven by a desperate desire to not only catch up with the West, but to dominate the world – scientifically, politically, and militarily. Accompanying these rapid advances were many damaging consequences of industrialization. Shortly after graduating from medical school in 1928, Lazarev started working on ways to prevent the damaging effects of new industrial chemicals on humans. Lazarev and his scientific team identified over 400 previously unknown chemical compounds in the new factories, and studied the effects of these toxic industrial byproducts on humans. In 1932, Lazarev discovered that different industrial chemicals, even in mild concentrations and small dosages, can cause similar alarm reactions, and that if exposure is prolonged, the body will adapt by altering its physiological response (resistance). This adaptive reaction tends to gradually disturb homeostasis, which is damaging to health. Dilman elaborated these concepts in his Neuroendocrine Theory of Aging, hypothesizing that similar shifts in homeostasis result in growth and aging. Likewise, Lazarev documented some 60 years ago that even mild industrial chemicals that do not have any noticeable short term effect may eventually result in illnesses and accelerated aging. Lazarev found that Selyes publication on stress confirmed his own findings. Selye proved that a wide variety of stressors – not just chemical stressors – can cause non-specific stress reactions. Selyes work was so influential, in fact, that Lazarev changed the direction of his work. He began looking not only for substances that could improve humans general resistance to toxins, but could also correct the general adaptation reaction to all kinds of stressors. In the course of this research, Lazarev switched his emphasis from toxicology to pharmacology. In fact, by the late 1930s, Lazarev had become the Soviet Unions leading pharmacologist.

WWII Research

From the beginning of the second World War, the Soviet government drafted all Soviet scientist – including Dr. Lazarev – to work on military projects. Lazarevs efforts again shifted-this time to finding substances which could help soldiers overcome fatigue and improve their performance on the battlefield. His research resulted in the discovery of many effective stimulants. The Soviet military found that these drugs successfully improved the soldiers productivity and performance in battle. With the soldiers as unknowing guinea pigs for amphetamines and other stimulants, Lazarev learned that many of the drugs were very effective in improving performance in response to great challenges in extreme situations for very short terms. However, he realized that the stimulants were not as beneficial in a peaceful environment as they were in wartime, and were harmful when used for prolonged periods. When WWII ended, Lazarev resumed his research on substances with non-specific, broad ranges of action. His search was not limited to the modern conventional practices used today to develop synthetic drugs. He also investigated century-old methods of ancient preventive medical systems.

Dibazol – The First Adaptogen

In 1947, after 2 years of research, Russian scientists produced Dibazol, a synthetic corticosteroid. Intensive testing conclusively confirmed that Dibazol enhanced general resistance to a wide range of stressors, and improved both physical and mental performance. It was tested on mice which were subjected to a wide range of stressors, including bacteria, radiation, toxins, and viruses. Dibazol was used by tens of thousands of Soviet people during flu epidemics with very positive results.

The creation of Dibazol was a major breakthrough for Soviet medicine. It was the first drug with a broad range of non-specific actions which could support the bodys ability to adapt to a variety of challenges. Lazarev was confident that Dibazol was but the first of a number of similar remedies. He believed that the answer to improving general resistance lay not in conventional medicines and drugs but rather in preventive systems.

Traditional Herbs

Lazarev was especially intrigued by a group of herbs that ancient medical traditions referred to as elite or kingly. In traditional Chinese medicine these herbs were classified as effective for increasing physical and mental capacity, reducing fatigue, improving resistance to disease, and promoting life extension. In China these herbs were used by soldiers directly before battle. In Siberia they were used by hunters before long and dangerous journeys. Despite countless legends, thousands of years of use by people in China, Russia, Japan, Korea and Europe, the benefits of these plants had never been scientifically studied. In 1948 Lazarev and his protege, Dr. Israel Brekhman, undertook the challenge of researching the utility and effectiveness of this group of plants. Lazarev named this group of supplements adaptogens.

Brekhmans Contribution

Being a long distance runner, Brekhman choose stamina as an index of vitality. One cold morning in April 1948, 100 soldiers set out to run a 3-kilometer race. Prior to the race, half of them had been given an extract of ginseng, while the others received a placebo. Soldiers given the ginseng extract finished the race an average of 53 seconds ahead of the placebo group. These results were beyond Brekhmans wildest expectations. For the first time he and his team had scientifically proven the effectiveness of this ancient Chinese herb. Unfortunately, researchers reported that ginseng had drawbacks, including its poor availability and high cost. Brekhman also found that its effectiveness varied among different people. For example, men responded to ginseng better than women, and the elderly benefited more when compared to the young and middle-aged. Furthermore, even a variation in dosing could lead to overstimulation.


Because of these imperfections, Brekhman and his team began to look for alternative plants. First they selected herbs able to survive in harsh environments. Russian scientists were convinced that the unique composition of biologically active substances of these herbs helped them to adapt and survive for millions of years through many cataclysmic changes in nature. Soon, one of the members of Brekhmans scientific group brought to his attention the herb Eleutherococcus. Preliminary studies were promising and soon led to a massive testing program with clinical trials being conducted across the USSR. Testing was performed on factory workers, long distance truck drivers, sailors on long voyages, and military personnel under severe stress.(1) Stress studies conducted with this new adaptogen, Eleutherococcus, included:

Study: Soviet Olympic teams and other sports teams during challenging training and competition.
Result: Improved stamina and recovery, increased oxygen intake and better performance.(2)
Study: 1,000 mining workers in Siberia.
Result: Incidence of cases during influenza epidemic dropped by two-thirds.(3)
Study: 1,200 long distance truck drivers.
Result: Improved productivity; the number of influenza cases during an epidemic was reduced by 30%.(4)
Study: 14,000 auto factory workers.
Result: 30% decrease in total reported symptoms; 40% drop in symptoms of high blood pressure and heart disease.(4)
Study: 107 patients receiving anti-cancer drugs for gastric cancer.
Result: 50% less damage to immunity, 50% decrease in drug dosage.(5)

Altogether, more than 1,000 scientific papers were published on the subject of adaptogens. In 1962, Eleutherococcus, the prototype adaptogen, was declared an official herbal medicine by the USSR Minister of Health and was included in the National Drug Guide, the pharmacopoeia of the USSR. Eleutherococcus was soon widely available and was taken regularly as a restorative by patients, athletes, astronauts, and soldiers. The Soviet government realized that this new class of natural remedies could give the Soviets an advantage in many areas, including sports, the arts, space, military, and medicine. Consequently, they strongly supported the scientific projects of Lazarev and Brekhman.Soon, Brekhman and his growing team of hundreds of scientists introduced a whole new range of remarkable natural adaptogenic substances such as Rhaponticum carthamoides, Shizandra chinensis, Rhodeola rosea, and Aralia mandshurica. (6,7,8)

Mechanism of Action

The mechanism by which adaptogens achieve their stress-protecting, normalizing action is well researched (mostly in the USSR and Japan). When under stress, adaptogens help the adrenal glands to mount an immediate hormonal response, by manufacturing and releasing more stress hormones.9 But when stress stops, the adaptogens help the adrenal glands shut down more quickly. If stress is prolonged and severe, the glands reserve their resources by reducing the amount of hormones released due to adaptogenic restoration of hypothalamic receptor sensitivity. This conserved energy is available to continue the bodys response to stressors, thereby delaying adrenal exhaustion. A very large amount of biochemical work was carried out in the USSR by Brekhmans colleague, Dr. I.V. Dardymov. Dardymov has given further clues as to how the body becomes more efficient, and especially, how we can achieve the extra stamina and energy that results from the use of adaptogens. He showed that the biological machinery that handles energy in the body is stimulated by adaptogens. Consequently, during challenge or stress, more sugar (glucose) is released into the blood from the bodys storehouses. This glucose is quickly taken up by the tissues to carry-out their work. Adaptogens help glucose to cross cellular membranes more easily. In the blood, the levels of sugar return more quickly to normal, confirmed by studies in Professor Farnsworths laboratory at the University of Chicago.



In the seventies, information about these remarkable herbs with adaptogenic properties began to cross the Soviet border. Soon scientists from Germany, Sweden, Japan, and the US confirmed their effectiveness, and proved that:

  • Adaptogens make the stress response less damaging
  • Adaptogens help to maintain homeostasis in the face of stress by regulating the bodys adaptive reactions
  • Adaptogens reduce most signs of the alarm stage of the stress response, and delay or promote avoidance of the exhaustion stage
  • The use of adaptogens eliminates or significantly decreases the classical signs of the prolonged stress reaction described by Hans Selye as the stress triad
  • Adaptogens help the body utilize fuel more efficiently, with fewer toxic or waste byproducts (like lactic acid), which can contribute to fatigue and reduced function
  • Efficient use of energy means greater reserves are more readily available when needed for performing difficult tasks.(10)

The Authors: Ben Tabachnik, Ph.D., and co-author Ward Dean, M.D., are well versed in the work of Russian scientists. While conducting research for his book, Stress, Adaptation, and Adaptogens, Tabachnik uncovered research not previously known to western scientists. Simultaneously, and coincidentally, Dean encountered Dr. Lazarevs work while updating his book The Neuroendocrine Theory of Aging, co-authored with Vladimir Dilman, M.D.


Gubchenko, P.P. and N.K. Fruentov. Comparative Study of the Effectiveness of Eleutherococcus and Other Plant Adaptogens as Remedies for Increasing the Work Capacity of Flight Personnel. New Data on Eleutherococcus: Proceedings of the 2nd International Symposium on Eleutherococcus (Moscow, 1984). Vladivostok. Far East Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1986, 240.

Asano, K., T. Takakhsi, K.H. Kugo, M. Kuboyama. The Influence of Eleutherococcus on Muscle Work Capacity in Humans. New Data on Eleutherococcus: Proceedings of the 2nd International Symposium on Eleutherococcus (Moscow, 1984). Vladivostok. Far East Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1986, 166.

Brekhman, I.I. Eleutherococcus, Leningrad: Nauka, 1968.

Schezin, A.K., V.I. Zinkovich, and L.K. Galanova. Eleutherococcus in Prevention of Influenza, Hypertonia and Ischemia in Drivers of the Bolzhsky Automobile Factory. New Data on Eleutherococcus: Proceedings of the 1st International Symposium on Eleutherococcus (Hamburg, 1980). Vladivostok. Far East Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1981, 93.

Brekhman, I.I., I.V. Dardymov. New Substances of Plant Origin which Increase Nonspecific Resistance. Annual Review of Pharmacology, v.9.1969,

A. A. Lebedev. On the Pharmacology of Schizandra Chinensis. Materials for the Study of Ginseng and Schizandra Chinensis, Issue 3. Leningrad, 1958, 170.

Kurkin, V.A. and G.G. Zapesochnaya. Chemical Composition and Pharmacological Properties of Rhodiola Rosea. Khimiko-Garmatsevtichesky Zhurnal (Chemical Pharmaceutical Journal), 20(10). 1986. 1231-1244.

Saratikov, A.S., and E.A. Krasnov. Rhodiola Rosea is a Valuable Medicinal Plant. Tomsk, 1986, 85.

Wahlstrom, Mikael. Adaptogens: Natures Key to Well-Being. Goteborg; Skandinavisk Bok, 1987.

Blokhin, B.N. The Influence of Eleutherococcus Root and Leaf Extract on Human Work Capacity under Static and Dynamic Workloads. Eleutherococcus and Other Adaptogens from Far East Plants. Vladivostok: Siberian Department of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. 1966, 191.

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