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Scientists in the former USSR laid the groundwork for adaptogenic research, publishing more than 1,000 studies on the herbs during the 1960s and ’70s. Therefore, the original Soviet definition of an adaptogen is considered the gold standard.
An herb is adaptogenic if it meets three criteria: First, it’s nontoxic, meaning it’s safe for everyone. Second, its benefits are nonspecific, meaning it improves the entire body’s resistance to stress, not just one particular system or organ. Third, it balances bodily functions, regardless of where the disruption may originate.
In other words, an adaptogen works like a tuning fork on your body: It helps bring your system back into harmony after a day of discord.
Roughly a dozen herbs are thought to be true adaptogens.
The star adaptogen, ginseng, has up to 38 active ingredients, called ginsenosides. Some improve digestion, some strengthen immunity, others boost sexual function. The potency of ginsenosides varies by ginseng species, the root’s age, and how it was grown and harvested.
Herbalists like Russell and Amanda Howell believe the power of an adaptogen lies in the synergy of its active components. For that reason, "the whole herb or a whole-herb extract is more powerful than a product that contains a single isolated ingredient." In other words, you can’t expect the same benefit from sucking on ginseng-laced candy as you would from taking a whole-herb tincture.