PrintStress and Adaptogens: A Historical Perspective

Closeup on stressed business woman with eyeglassesScientists and health practitioners have long sought to better understand, manage, and prevent the damaging effects of stress on human health. Specifically, by targeting causes of stress whether they are personal, work, or financially related, all humans are subject to the psychological, mental, and physical effects of stress. Excessive or long-term stress can lead to physiological changes that are unhealthy. In fact, data from a variety of sources suggest that 60 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related.

Despite these damaging effects of stress on our health, we all can employ a variety of coping mechanisms to manage stress, such as relaxation techniques, yoga, hobbies, or talking with friends. Finally, we also must realize that not all stress is detrimental and that stress is indeed a normal feature of life. Mild or acute stress can even be positive; for example, exercise, starting a new job, or even the arrival of a new baby can all promote stress and yet be good for our overall well-being.

What exactly is stress? In accordance with April designated as Stress Awareness Month, the following is a review of the history of how “stress” was defined, the initial research into the effects of stress on the body, and how it led to the research and discovery of herbs called “Adaptogens” that are useful for modulating the effects of stress. Eventually, these discoveries led to the formulation of Isagenix products including Ionix® Supreme, Cleanse for Life®, e+™, and t+ Chai.

One definition of stress, put forth in 1936 by the eminent physician-scientist Dr. Hans Selye, considers stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” He emphasized “non-specificity” as the main characteristic of the “stressor” and because he was confounded by the universal mischaracterization that all stress was negative, he later proposed the term “eustress” as a way to distinguish positive stress. With those definitions began an extraordinary 40-year career focusing on stress and how stress influenced (or was influenced by) steroids, endocrine organs, and hormones.

Among other historic discoveries, Selye was the first to demonstrate the crucial role of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in the stress response. He published more than 1,000 articles and was such a giant of 20th century research that he was nominated numerous times for the Nobel Prize. And yet after all his research on stress he once told a reporter, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.”

Selye was so monumental a scientist that he even caught the attention of Soviet scientists at a time when the Cold War prevented much free exchange of scientific knowledge. One of the first Soviet scientists to embrace Selye’s ideas was Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, a pioneer in the then-emerging fields of toxicology and preventive medicine. Selye’s work was so influential, in fact, that Lazarev changed the direction of his work. He began looking for substances that could improve humans’ general resistance to toxins and was especially intrigued by a group of herbs that could be effective for increasing physical and mental capacity, reducing fatigue, and improving resistance to stress—a class of herbs he named Adaptogens.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Lazarev’s protégé, Dr. Israel Brekhman, took over the USSR research program on Adaptogens and directed his focus to two specific areas: stress research and identifying (and eventually documenting) that specific Adaptogens could improve physical and mental performance. Brekhman and his colleagues were particularly interested in Eleutherococcus senticosus, frequently referred to as “Siberian ginseng” or “eleuthero.”

He instituted a large clinical investigation into this Adaptogen using long-distance truck drivers, sailors on long voyages, and military personnel under severe stress as subjects. They found improved stamina and recovery, better performance, and improved productivity. With these studies the Soviet government fully realized that Adaptogens could boost performance and modulate stress in a variety of endeavors where optimal performance would be desirable: athletics, military personnel under extreme stress, and potentially, as medicine.

Dr. Brekhman’s research culminated in the first review to be published in the West describing 15 years of research into these wondrous plants. Subsequently, he went on to write numerous scientific studies and books on Adaptogens. Dr. Brekhman’s decades-long work cemented his moniker as the “Father of Adaptogens.”

Unfortunately, because the Soviet Union was a closed society, most of Dr. Brekhman’s breakthrough research on the potential for Adaptogens to improve human health remained unknown. But with the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, the dam holding back all of his research (and that of Russian Olympic coach Dr. Ben Tabachnik who used Adaptogens to optimize Russian athletic performance) was gone.

Who was one of the early enthusiastic receivers of this information?  Jim Coover, Isagenix President and CEO, and John Anderson, Isagenix Founder and Master Formulator. They worked with Dr. Brekhman to spearhead the development of Adaptogen-rich botanicals, specifically targeting performance and stress support.

Because of their vision, Isagenix developed Ionix Supreme and Cleanse For Life that each contain rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), and, of course, Dr. Brekhman’s most studied Adaptogen, eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Whereas Cleanse for Life was formulated to support detoxification, Ionix Supreme was designed to have a more pronounced stress-modulating effect on the body and included other well-studied adaptogenic herbs such as wolfberry (Lycium barbarum), bacopa (Bacopa monnieri), and schizandra berry (Schisandra chinensis).

More recently, Isagenix developed e+, containing the novel and unique combination of naturally sourced caffeine along with an Adaptogen blend rich in eleuthero. Another non-caffeinated alternative to e+ containing the same Adaptogen blend is t+ Chai.

The primary goal of product development for Isagenix is to incorporate scientifically supported natural substances into foods and supplements that customers can use to improve health and wellness. By following the research findings from Hans Selye and Israel Brekhman, Isagenix has done just that in the case of stress, Adaptogens, and providing health-centric solutions.



Brekhman II. Man and Biologically Active Substances: The Effect of Drugs, Diet and Pollution on Health. Pergamon Press LTD. 1980.

Panossian A, Wikman G, Wagner H. Plant Adaptogens. III. Earlier and more recent aspects and concepts on their mode of action. Phytomedicine. 1999;6:287-300.

Szabo S, Tache Y, & Somogyi A. The legacy of Hans Selye and the origins of stress research: a retrospective 75 years after his landmark brief “letter” to the editor# of nature. Stress 2012;15:472-8.