Adaptogens: The Original Preventives

Natural Healing

| September/October 2003

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.

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