Adaptogens have been studied for their ability to exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, anti-depressive, anxiolytic, nootropic, and CNS stimulating activity. Studying these compounds at the molecular level gives a better view of how exactly they are working. Adaptogens are able to work on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis), cortisol, nitric oxide, and molecular chaperones (Proteins that assist in the assembly or disassembly of other large molecular structures.
Ingredients such as Rhodiola Rosea and Eleuthero contain chemical compounds in them that closely resemble the catecholamines, which mediate the SympathoAdrenal System (SAS). In the SAS, catecholamines are released into the blood by nerve fibers, which is responsible for the 'fight-or-flight' response. The SAS works to return the body to homeostasis through activation or inactivation of the adrenal gland. The 'catecholamine-like' compounds found in Rhodiola Rosea and Eleuthero are able to transmit responses through the adrenal gland similarly to how the catecholamines do, this is the mechanism by which these ingredients can exert many of their benefits.
Other chemical compounds found in these adaptogen ingredients closely resemble the structure of the corticosteroids, which are stress hormones that are involved in protective inactivation of the stress system. These compounds are able to effect the glucocorticoid receptors, which are what cortisol binds to in order to display its effects.