Adaptogenic herbs finally have garnered mainstream recognition for their ability to treat acute and chronic health problems with remarkable success. But taking herbs only when you get sick is akin to calling up a dear friend only when you need help moving. Just as you should also rely on that friend to improve your day-to-day quality of life, so too should you turn to herbs to help your body function more efficiently and to stave off illness before it has a chance to grab hold.
There exists a mysterious group of herbs that help strengthen the body against physical, emotional and environmental stresses. Called adaptogens, they are the original preventives; taking them regularly is like raising the bar that disease has to jump over in order to get to you.
What is an Adaptogen?
For an herb to be considered an adaptogen, it must fulfill three criteria: it must be safe and not cause further strain on any organ system; it must increase resistance to stressful influences by a wide range of physical and chemical factors; and it must restore balance to the system regardless of the direction of the illness (for example, an adaptogen would work equally well in a depleted condition as it would in a condition of excess ). As I said — mysterious.
Generally speaking, herbalists believe adaptogens work by supporting adrenal function, enabling cells access to more energy and helping them eliminate toxic metabolic byproducts. Adaptogens also help the body use oxygen more efficiently and improve the regulation of the body’s natural rhythms. Though they all work in these similar ways, each adaptogen has a distinct personality and unique medicinal qualities.
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
This herb (the artist formerly known as Siberian ginseng) is, in many ways, the rock star of Western adaptogens. Of them, eleuthero is the most widely studied and recognized, due, in part, to its reputation for being particularly good for anyone who is overstressed — by which I mean to say, everyone. It enhances an otherwise-healthy person’s resistance to illness by bolstering nonspecific immune responses and is beneficial to anyone facing chronic immune challenges, including herpes, AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome and autoimmune disorders. Eleuthero is used for cancer patients as well, as it improves the efficacy of chemotherapy and reduces its side effects.
Eleuthero is slightly warming (although far more neutral than other ginsengs), and because of its gentleness, is good for the elderly, those convalescing and anyone who wants a daily tonic. Its effects can be noticed within a few weeks, but it can be taken safely for years.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
This popular flavoring in confections is also a powerful healer widely used in Western, Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions. It has an affinity for the adrenal glands and mucous membranes, which makes it a great tonic for those who push themselves too hard (long work days, too much coffee, always on the go), especially when that stress manifests in the gut.
There is nothing like licorice for ulcers and the inflammation caused by food sensitivities, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis and stress. Licorice’s ability to soothe inflammation is due in part to its cooling, sweet nature, and also to the fact that it mimics one of the body’s natural anti-inflammatory chemicals, aldosterone. This makes it an ally for anyone trying to wean themselves off of doctor-prescribed steroids. As a result of licorice’s ability to impersonate aldosterone, the herb can, when taken for long periods, raise blood pressure. If you have problems with hypertension and are interested in taking licorice, it’s best to consult an herbalist or a physician who’s knowledgeable about herbs.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
The most calming of the medicinal mushrooms, reishi is thought to increase longevity and pacify the spirit. My favorite account of its powers comes from Chinese folklore, recounted in the textbook Phytotherapy & Materia Medica (1998) by Amanda McQuade Crawford: “A magical mushroom of deathlessness was being carried in ravens’ beaks to a distant site of massacre where the forces of evil or disharmony had cruelly vanquished the defenders of the Way of Peace. The reishi was placed on the corpses’ faces, whereupon they immediately sat up, restored to life so harmony and goodness were re-established.”
From a Western point of view, reishi is a remarkable organ tonic. It improves circulation and oxygenation of the heart, and lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. It also protects and enhances the functioning of the liver, kidneys, lungs, stomach, nervous system and immune system. Reishi also shows excellent promise as a cancer preventive.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera)
Often referred to as “the ginseng of India,” few herbs are as prized by Ayurvedic practitioners as ashwaganda. The herb is considered a rejuvenative of the highest order and is used for all conditions of weakness — anything from nervous exhaustion and overwork to malnourishment and cachexia, the muscle wasting often experienced in the more advanced stages of cancer.
For strengthening and building, ashwaganda is unparalleled. It’s also revered for its ability to tone the reproductive system (particularly in men). The species name somnifera comes from the Latin somnus, which means “to sleep” — an allusion to the herb’s nervine and sedative properties. This warming herb also has shown marked anti-tumor and antioxidant properties.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
This acutely sour-tasting berry is warming and astringent in action. It has remarkable liver-protective properties — it’s one of the most effective herbs in the treatment of hepatitis. Schisandra berries help balance the immune and nervous systems, making the herb good for autoimmune disorders and insomnia. Schisandra’s effect on the nervous system extends to the enhancement of memory, the quickening of reflexes and the heightening of learning ability.
Schisandra has also been found to be one of the best remedies for neurasthenia, a term used to describe the host of symptoms often related to chronic fatigue syndrome, including nerve weakness, lack of concentration and pallor. Schisandra’s effects are paradoxical in that the herb is mildly stimulating but also calming to the mind, in a way that can only be described as an “alert calm.”
Almost Too Good to be True
As I researched this article, I found myself thinking that these herbs seem almost too good to be true. How can there be a whole category of plants whose job it is to help our bodies function more efficiently and to take some of the weight of the world off our physiological shoulders? But there is — because Nature provides. And Nature has given us adaptogens, these remedies for the modern age of 60-hour workweeks, five hours of sleep per night, three cups of coffee, fast food, not enough downtime and far too much worry. Certainly, it should be said that lifestyle changes are in order for most of us, but no matter how well we live, we cannot escape the daily pressures of life. For these pressures, we have adaptogens, and by using them for prevention and self-healing, we embrace the true spirit of herbal medicine.
Jennifer Rabin is a clinical herbalist and freelance writer. She lives, writes, practices and teaches herbal medicine in Portland, Oregon.