Fresh Clips: All About Adaptogens

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This standout group of herbs, which includes licorice root, can balance your body in the face of stress.

A mysterious group of herbs can increase stamina, fight off infection and lower blood pressure. Some of these herbs reduce inflammation and alleviate the side effects of chemotherapeutic drugs. These herbal wonders are known as adaptogens.

Stress is unavoidable, but too much stress for a prolonged period of time can have physiological and psychological effects. Precisely how stress will affect your body is hard to determine because the impact depends on factors such as body type, personality and family history, as well as the intensity, severity, timing and duration of the stress. Even pleasurable events can put stress on the system. The genius of adaptogens is that many of them can support the body in modulating and regulating stress hormones and help the neuroendocrine and immune systems maintain a balance. This group of herbs doesn’t just beef up immune defense, they can help balance the body during a stressful time.

The name adaptogen was coined in the former Soviet Union, where much of the early modern research on this group of plants took place. Beginning in the late 1940s, scientists there began searching for a product to increase performance for athletes, soldiers, political officers and chess players. However, many adaptogens have been in use since the ancient days of human history.

To put it simply, an adaptogen is any nontoxic substance that defends the body against stress and restores its natural balance. This loose definition makes it difficult to say how many adaptogens exist. We do know they have been around a long time–Ayurvedic and Chinese physicians have trusted in their healing qualities for thousands of years.

Here are some prominent herbal adaptogens:

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Eleuthero, also known as Siberian ginseng in the United States, is one of the most commonly used herbs worldwide. The herb strengthens the immune system and wards off colds and the flu. Eleuthero has been used to help radiation victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus). Considered an important tonic herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine, astragalus improves poor appetite, diarrhea and general weakness. Astragalus is often included in cancer protocols.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). The Vikings used this herb to improve physical and mental endurance. Rhodiola treats immune depletion caused by physical training and overwork. It can reduce fatigue, enhance alertness and is sometimes used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum). This herb, used daily in India, is said to promote goodness, virtue and joy in humans.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Not to be confused with the candy, this flavorful herb is a common component of many cough syrups. Licorice, pictured above, is used to stop diarrhea and relieve gastric irritation, fatigue and lack of appetite.

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). This classic herb for longevity in Traditional Chinese Medicine is valued in Western medicine for its stimulating effect, which can treat exhaustion. This herb is also good for normalizing the immune system.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Like its cousin, Asian ginseng, American ginseng has a normalizing effect on the immune system. This means it can enhance a depleted immune system, but it can also reduce excessive immune response, such as in an allergy attack or some autoimmune conditions.

These herbal adaptogens may be available at your local health food store. 

Did You Know?

In 1943, the People’s Commissars Council in the former USSR issued an order regarding the goal of finding “tonic substances” for Russian workers and soldiers. From that research came much information about adaptogens, according to the book Adaptogens (Healing Arts Press, 2007).

Justine Patton is an intern at The Herb Companion.

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