What if the word Adaptogen was synonymous with Super-microbiotic


Adaptogenic herbs are featured in a growing number of dietary supplements and are considered one of the major trends in nutraceuticals. They arouse the interest of almost all herbal medicine experts. However, when a precise definition is requested of what characterizes an adaptogenic ingredient, the concept may remain unclear for many professionals in the sector.

The definition initially put forward by a Soviet toxicologist in the 1950s was as follows [1]:

“Adaptogens are medicinal substances that induce a state of increased non-specific resistance in the body.”  Lazarev NV. (1958)

If this definition has partially evolved over time [2], it remains associated with the concept of “organism’s resilience and” non-specificity, “which ultimately gives little detail on the physiological impact which characterizes such an activity.

When we look at the molecular players potentially involved in this “non-specific increase in the organism’s resilience,” it emerges that this latter, although multiple, has a point in common that is far from being insignificant and yet rarely brought into play. Evidence: they are primarily linked to the balance of the intestinal microbiota and its interactions with the body. As an example, we note the pathways of BDNF [3], of mTOR [4], of NPY [5], or even of the more discrete RORA [6] among these.

These scientific data lead more and more to wonder if the term “adaptogen” would not, in reality, characterize medicinal plants and fungi, which would have both a direct and significant physiological effect associated with an important microbiotic influence. It is this hypothesis that we propose to explore below.


It is interesting to note that the parts of the plant used for their adaptogenic properties are very often roots (Ginseng, Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, Eleutherococcus, etc.). This specificity results in the presence of a non-negligible quantity of specific polysaccharides, in addition to the main molecules considered to be active. This element is not trivial since these same polysaccharides play a fundamental role and could be precious prebiotic support for an increased overall influence. It should be noted that the same is true for medicinal mushrooms considered to be adaptogens. Thus, Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) indeed contains ganoderic acid but also beta-glucan type polysaccharides.

Beyond the prebiotic action of polysaccharides, secondary metabolites also seem to play a role in the interactions between the body and the microbiota (salidroside seems to have a beneficial impact on the microbiota [7-8]; ginsenoside Rg3 modulates the balance Th17 / Treg at the lymphocyte level [9-10], a balance directly correlated with microbiotic balance [11], etc.), which, associated with a prebiotic supply, could well lead to an increased influence on the microbiota.

Adaptogenic herbs all appear to have multiple benefits for immunity, cognition, stress, and metabolism. This impressive range of effects is reminiscent of the major themes linked to the benefits of a microbiotic approach to health: immunobiotic, neurobiotic & metabiotic.


Do we understand if adaptogenic plants do indeed seem to have a double action on the microbiota. In addition to a prebiotic action of the polysaccharides, they have an interbiotic action. The latter balances the interactions between the body and the microbiota, whether by modulating intestinal inflammation or promoting endogenous regulatory molecules such as defensins). So their direct physiological activity, and in some cases, pharmacological is not to be forgotten. As a matter of fact, numerous studies have demonstrated the direct activity of the active molecules present in adaptogens and their benefits are probably due to a complementarity between these direct physiological effects and the indirect benefits via the microbiotic balance.


The more scientific data accumulate around the intestinal microbiota theme, the more it becomes evident that adaptogens’ role is far from being negligible in the context of natural therapies. For some medicinal plants and fungi, the microbiota could even be the main lever of efficiency. If this consideration leads to many questions about the possible synergies between medicinal plants, it also raises the relevance of extractions and other purified molecules. In fact, by isolating the active molecules with direct action, we often deprive ourselves of polysaccharide fractions. However, the latter could well be an essential element for long-term physiological activity.

When looking at a phytotherapeutic inventory through this new lens of understanding, a fascinating question also arises: How many medicinal roots are actually adaptogens? For example:

  • Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), which contains particular polysaccharides (arabinogalactans type) and echinacoside, is traditionally used in Europe for its benefits on the immune system. Across the Atlantic, it is also recommended for managing stress. Moreover, it is interesting to note that its “Asian equivalent,” the tubular Cistanche (Cistanche tubulosa), which is also a root rich in polysaccharides and echinacoside, is called “Desert Ginseng.” From there, to consider echinacea as an adaptogen, there is only one step.
  • Lake Baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) is rich in Baicalin (a glycosylated flavone) and specific polysaccharides. The plant and its constituents are recognized for their neuroprotective [12], anti-stress [13-14] and anti-inflammatory action in the intestine [15-16]. It also seems to influence the intestinal microbiota by promoting the proliferation of Akkermansia muciniphila, which modulates glycemic metabolism [17].
  • Chinese peony (Paeonia lactiflora) contains immunomodulating polysaccharides (Peonan [18]) and paeoniflorin. It is known to regulate stress [19-20] and symptoms associated with menopause [21]. It also appears to be neuroprotective [22-23], immunomodulating [24] and metabolic modulating [25-26]. Paeoniflorin also appears to modulate the gut microbiota [27].

Furthermore, the list does not stop there (Yellow Gentian, Cape Geranium, etc.). As you may understand, this “phytobiotic” approach to adaptogenic plants offers a new perspective on a myriad of medicinal roots.

This new definition of the adaptogenic category also makes it possible to understand better this part of herbal medicine’s crucial role. Many professionals in the sector tend to confine adaptogens to the accompaniment of sensitive or fatigue periods; it appears increasingly clear that these same plants should be the essential basis of almost all phytotherapeutic accompaniments.

Nevertheless, as there are so many adaptogenic plants having so much in common, how to choose the most suitable adaptogen for a given situation and/or person?

It would take too long to explain here in detail (this may be the subject of a future article). However, we must be aware that if these plants are comparable to a certain extent, they keep specificities which make that there is an adaptogen for a given situation and that this precision can even be accentuated when combining adaptogens with other plant extracts, in particular with extracts rich in polyphenols (quercetin, punicalagin, anthocyanins, OPC, chlorogenic acid, etc.).

In medical schools, it is customary to say, “When you hear the sound of hooves, think of horses, not of zebras.” Likewise, when a phytomolecular cocktail has a significant microbiotic influence and also appears to have a positive impact in a myriad of areas related to the microbiota, whether immune, neurological or metabolic, it seems more logical to consider that the activity on microbiotic balance is, at least in part, related to these other effects.

This consideration calls for rethinking the way medicinal plants are used. Without abandoning purely traditional practices, it is possible to move towards a methodology imprinted with the new scientific knowledge available, gradually leading to real clinical herbal medicine.


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