No matter your physical state, adaptogens can help your body meet each day’s challenges.
As most of us know all too well, everyday life presents a lot of stress. Even basic survival skills—solving small problems, filtering a barrage of mental and physical stimuli—contribute to stress levels. And if you exercise regularly, you know the health benefits of your physical fitness regimen, but you also know how difficult it can be to recover from one evening’s overzealous workout.
Not all of this stress is unhealthy, certainly. Yet any type of stress requires a healthy body in order to stay balanced. A clue to maintaining equilibrium—helping your body stay in peak form—can be found in the experiences of Russian cosmonauts. If you think that daily stressors are tough on the body, try spending months in space. How did the Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov endure 429 days on the space station Mir—the longest time period any human has spent in orbit? Part of the answer may be that, since 1961, when the Soviets launched Vostok, the first manned space flight, Russian cosmonauts have relied on a class of herbs known as adaptogens.
Choose your adaptogen
In simplest terms, adaptogens are substances that help the body return to a normal state while also increasing resistance to adverse influences, including viruses, exertion, and daily stress. Some say that adaptogen is just a fancy word for tonic; however, as we will see, recent research has revealed that adaptogens are a category all their own.
According to Norman Farnsworth, Ph.D., a leading interpreter of ginseng research, the term adaptogen was coined as early as 1947 by Russian scientist N. V. Lazarev. He used the term to refer to substances that were believed to increase the body’s “nonspecific” resistance to adverse influences. Later, the definition was refined by I. I. Brekhman, once considered the leading Soviet researcher on ginseng and related herbs. Brekhman defined an adaptogen as:
• A substance that “must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism.” In other words, an adaptogen doesn’t hurt the body, nor does it disturb the body’s normal functions.
• A substance that “must have a nonspecific action”—for example, the ability of Siberian ginseng extracts to modulate stress and improve performance under a wide variety of stressful conditions. So, an adaptogen should increase the body’s resistance to harmful physical, chemical, or biological influences—a wide range of conditions! But the point of the nonspecific work of adaptogens is that they offer general and beneficial bodily support.
• A substance that “usually has a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the pathologic state.” Or, put more simply, no matter what state the body is in—be it one of healing, of optimum health, or during athletic performance—an adaptogen must help the body function normally.
Tonics versus adaptogens
It’s not easy to find a substance that fits these criteria. Take carbonated drinks, for example. When they first appeared on the U.S. market in the late 1800s, they were touted as “tonics” that would help Americans get through their days at peak performance. In a sense, they could do just that, given their content of kola nuts and coca leaf extracts, which delivered the alkaloids caffeine and even cocaine. But they wouldn’t fit the definition of adaptogen because they don’t fit the criteria—caffeine and cocaine aren’t harmless, and they act very specifically as central nervous system stimulants.
How adaptogens work
Most of us have experienced the good feeling a moderate workout brings. Optimally, we feel energized and healthier, and our muscles feel toned. This response to exercise is an example of our bodies’ ability to adjust to outside influences. Less obvious examples include the quick reactions of our kidneys, liver, and other organs to adapt to changing conditions in order to keep the body functioning normally and free from peril.
Recently, scientists have tried to precisely characterize adaptogens’ role in helping the body function normally. Some researchers theorize that adaptogens such as Siberian ginseng enhance the ability of enzymes to transform glucose into energy. Some scientists also suggest that adaptogens activate the synthesis of proteins and nucleic acids; additionally, they say, adaptogens may possess some antioxidant powers, limiting pathways of reactive types of oxygen that, if left free to travel, would produce toxins in the body. And some researchers have proposed that adaptogens modulate the adverse reaction of proteins exposed to heat and shock.
Some also theorize that the interaction between hormones and other biochemicals produced under stress (including exercise) may play a major role in both the body’s ability to adapt to stress and adaptogens’ ability to help. The pituitary gland, the hypothalamus, and the adrenal glands each produce one or more of these hormones, and researchers have found that several adaptogens positively influence the secretion of hormones and other signal chemicals.
Finally, researchers say that adaptogens may help balance the body’s production of signal substances to help the body regain a state of equilibrium during stressful times.
However, despite hundreds of scientific studies published since the 1950s that have tried to define how adaptogens work, the effects of these plants are still poorly understood. But it appears that the effects of several herbal balancers are about to be fully explained.
Panax Ginseng: The Crown Jewel
The king of all tonic herbs is ginseng, which usually refers to the root of a specific type of ginseng, Panax ginseng, also known as Asian ginseng. Panax derives from the Greek words pan, meaning “all,” and akos, meaning “cure.” The Anglicized Chinese name “ginseng” means “essence of the earth in the form of a man,” referring to the humanlike appearance of the root.
The first known reference to ginseng is in the 2,000-year-old classic Shen-Nong Ben Cao Jing, an herbal believed to have been compiled during the first century. Written versions of this herbal describe ginseng’s tonic qualities: “It is used for repairing the five viscera, quieting the spirit, curbing the emotion, stopping agitation, removing noxious influence, brightening the eyes, enlightening the mind and increasing the wisdom. Continuous use leads one to longevity with light weight.”
In early attempts to pinpoint ginseng’s adaptogenic qualities, Brekhman, the Soviet researcher who pioneered the pharmacology of the ginseng family, gave Soviet soldiers a ginseng extract or a placebo. He found that those who took ginseng ran faster in a three-kilometer race than those who took the placebo. In another Soviet experiment, radio operators receiving ginseng extracts made fewer mistakes and transmitted text faster than those who took a placebo. The results suggest that ginseng extracts improve stamina. Brekhman also used animal experiments to confirm the results of human trials; these tests showed that mice given ginseng extracts swim longer than those not taking the herb, suggesting an anti-fatigue action.
Current research suggests that ginseng’s ginsenosides, the herb’s active components, are responsible for its health benefits. Some scientists believe that ginsenosides act on the pituitary or hypothalamus glands, but not on the adrenals. After ginseng is administered, the pituitary gland secretes corticosteroids indirectly through the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). One ginsenoside has been shown to stimulate “nerve-growth factor,” helping to produce more nerve fibers in the cerebral cortex.
Several European studies confirm these findings. Researchers have found that when humans take a ginseng extract standardized to between 4 and 7 percent ginsenosides, their reaction time to visual and auditory stimuli is shortened and their respiratory quotient, alertness, power of concentration, grasp of abstract concepts, and visual and motor coordination increase.
A recent study conducted by French researchers involved people suffering from “functional fatigue” such as being worn out and having tired, empty feelings. The double-blind, placebo-controlled study involved 232 patients between the ages of twenty-five and sixty. Participants selected five responses from a list of twenty suggestions about their feelings, then received either ginseng or a placebo and were evaluated after three and seven weeks of treatment. The results indicated that those who took a ginseng product showed significant improvement—less fatigue and anxiety, and greater concentration—compared to those who took a placebo.
Today in Germany, ginseng products—taken at doses of 1 to 2 g of dried ginseng root divided into three daily doses—are allowed by the government to be labeled as tonics to treat fatigue, reduced work capacity, poor concentration, and convalescence. Concentrated extracts standardized to ginsenoside content are usually given at doses of 100 mg daily.
Siberian Ginseng: Soviet Star
Adaptogenic action is associated with Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) more than any other herb. This state of affairs is linked to a research program in the former Soviet Union during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Soviet scientists aimed to find a low-priced, readily available substitute for expensive Asian ginseng (P. ginseng). The researchers first described Siberian ginseng as a stimulant and tonic, but by 1958 they used the term adaptogen to describe the herb’s impact on the human body.
Siberian ginseng, also called eleuthero and a member of the same botanical family to which P. ginseng belongs, grows in Siberia and adjacent regions in Asia. Its root bark has been used medicinally in China for about 2,000 years, and most of today’s commercial products contain either the whole root or stem bark.
Early pharmacological results published in 1958 prompted the Pharmacological Committee of the U.S.S.R. Ministry of Health to authorize clinical tests of eleuthero in 1959. After these tests produced positive results, the ministry approved eleuthero for human use in 1962. The results came from Brekhman’s trials, the vast majority of which used a 33 percent ethanol root extract. The trials also primarily involved athletes and showed that the extract produces increased stamina, performance, endurance, reflex response, and concentration.
The most comprehensive English-language review on eleuthero was published in 1985 by Farnsworth and colleagues at the University of Illinois, Chicago. This review referred to Soviet studies performed from the 1960s through the 1980s that involved both healthy people and some with diseases. Studies focusing on healthy people included more than 2,100 individuals, often subjected to stressful conditions. Eleuthero extract doses ranged from 2 to 16 ml, taken one to three times daily for up to sixty days, depending on the study, with two- to three-week resting periods between as many as five courses of administration.
Researchers designed the studies to measure the adaptogenic response of the eleuthero extract under adverse conditions, including high heat, noise, motion, workload increases, and exercise. The studies also measured the effects of hearing under conditions of increased auditory disturbances, as well as the effects of the extract on mental alertness, work output, and quality of work under both stress-inducing conditions and athletic performance.
The results were generally positive, with no reported side effects. And, although the people taking part in the studies were described as normal or healthy, many had highly stressful jobs, such as mountain and mine rescuers, deep sea divers, sailors in tropical seas, telegraph operators, airplane pilots, skiers, and proofreaders. Largely based on the Russian experience with eleuthero, German authorities allow products to be labeled as invigorating tonics for fatigue, convalescence, decreased work capacity, or poor concentration.
Ashwagandha: Adaptogen from India
Ashwagandha, as it is known in the Ayurvedic tradition, is the root of Withania somnifera, a member of the nightshade family native to India, where it has long been used as a sedative. According to Ayurvedic texts, its use dates back at least 3,000 years, and it has been known for centuries in Indian folk medicine as a rejuvenating tonic, especially for the elderly. Users believe it increases strength and vigor, and some say it is an aphrodisiac.
Scientists are discovering more about this traditional tonic, and their knowledge may elevate the herb to the adaptogen class. A recent pharmacological study comparing ashwagandha and ginseng showed that ashwagandha stimulates the appetite and has significant anabolic activity. Researchers found that it fought stress in a way that matches ginseng.
Tests show that isolated compounds called withanolides protect rats against stress-induced stomach ulcers, and other animal studies show that these compounds fight depression and the physical stress of prolonged swimming by interfering with monoamine metabolism in the brain. Another animal study shows that an ashwagandha extract significantly reverses cognitive deficit after a two-week treatment with the herb. The authors of this study conclude that it validates the traditional Ayurvedic use of the herb for promoting learning and memory.
Schisandra: A Chinese Tonic
The name of this herb (Schisandra chinensis) actually refers to its fruit, a traditional Chinese tonic known as wu-wei-zi, meaning “five-flavor seeds.” It was first listed in the primary class of herbs in Shen-Nong Ben Cao Jing.
Laboratory tests, coupled with clinical trials, confirm that schisandra helps improve brain efficiency, increase work capacity, stimulate the central nervous system, improve reflexes, build strength, and increase endurance of healthy people. Animal experiments show that it has a calming effect on the central nervous system and that the herb can counteract the stimulating effect of caffeine.
Most studies of schisandra have been conducted in China and published in Chinese-language journals. In Chinese medicine, the average daily dose is 1.5 to 6 g in tea or taken as a powder. Most Western-language scientific literature on the herb focuses on its potential to protect the liver.
Holy Basil: Antistress "Newcomer"
Another adaptogen candidate comes from India and is known as holy basil or tulasi (Ocimum sanctum). It grows throughout India and Pakistan, and several cultivated varieties grow in North America.
Traditionally, it is used as an expectorant, stimulant, and diaphoretic (meaning that it promotes perspiration), as well as a treatment for malaria, liver disorders, chronic fever, and dyspepsia, to name a few conditions.
Recent scientific interest has focused on its antistress properties; several animal studies show that ethanol extracts of the herb produce resistance to stomach ulcers and protect the liver. Some research also substantiates its ability to fight inflammation, relieve pain, and stimulate the immune system. But researchers have yet to identify any one compound or combination of compounds that account for holy basil’s actions.
Steven Foster, lead adviser of the Herbs for Health editorial board, is an herbalist, photographer, and author of many books about herbs, including 101 Medicinal Herbs (Interweave Press, 1998).
For a copy of the reference list for this article, write Herbs for Health, Adaptogens Reading List, 201 E. Fourth St., Loveland, CO 80537.