Adaptogens are stress-response modifiers that increase an organism's nonspecific resistance to stress by increasing its ability to adapt and survive. The classical reductionist model is insufficiently complex to explain the mechanistic aspects of the physiological notion of "adaptability" and the adaptogenic activity of adaptogens. Here, I demonstrate that (1) the mechanisms of action of adaptogens are impossible to rationally describe using the reductionist concept of pharmacology, whereas the network pharmacology approach is the most suitable method; and (2) the principles of systems biology and pharmacological networks appear to be more suitable for conceptualizing adaptogen function and are applicable to any phytochemical. Molecular targets, signaling pathways, and networks common to adaptogens have been identified. They are associated with stress hormones and key mediators of the regulation of homeostasis. In this context, the mechanisms of action of adaptogens are specifically related to stress-protective activity and increased adaptability of the organism. Consequently, adaptogens exhibit polyvalent beneficial effects against chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative cognitive impairment, metabolic disorders, cancer, and other aging-related diseases. Current and potential uses of adaptogens are mainly related to stress-induced fatigue and cognitive function, mental illness, and behavioral disorders. Their prophylactic use by healthy subjects to ameliorate stress and prevent age-related diseases appears to be justified. It is very unlikely that the pharmacological activity of any phytochemical is specific and associated only with one type of receptor, particularly adaptogenic compounds, which affect key mediators of the adaptive stress response at intracellular and extracellular levels of communication.
Keywords: adaptability; adaptogens; network pharmacology; specificity.
© 2017 The Authors. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published by Wiley Periodicals Inc. on behalf of The New York Academy of Sciences.