By Renata Trister DO
The American Academy of Family Physicians estimates that approximately two-thirds of all office visits are due to stress-related complaints. Although stress itself is not an illness, its impact on the physiology of our bodies is immense. Impatience, anxiety, irritability are just a few of its more obvious consequences. Patients are often not sure what is wrong with them as a stressed mind has difficulty interpreting signals from the body. Under stress, people forget to eat (or overeat), are unable to sleep well, consume alcohol, become very tense and can make poor choices. The stressors have changed over time, but human physiology has remained the same and reducing the impacts of stress on the body and mind is very important.
Humans developed a powerful stress reaction living with a risk of being attacked by wild animals or hostile people. The body responds to threats by producing powerful hormones hormones that change our physiology, enhancing our ability to flee or defend ourselves. Termed “fight or flight,” this stress response causes an intense stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands resulting in faster respiration rates, increased heart rate and contraction force, higher blood pressure. There is also decrease in digestive secretions. These mechanisms are designed to divert all available resources to protect oneself from danger. In acute stress, the situation is often resolved quickly, returning to normal state. However if stress is chronic, this response can become detrimental.
The body expends a great amount of energy keeping itself in a heightened state of readiness. Prolonged stress weakens the body in a multitude of ways. Furthermore, lack of sleep, poor diet, chemical toxins in the environment compromise the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis, resulting in illness. Adaptogenic herbs have traditionally helped prevent the imbalances that can result from stress.
An adaptogen is a substance that demonstrates a nonspecific enhancement of the body’s ability to resist a stressor. The term was first introduced in 1947 by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarev. He was first to describe the unique action of a material claimed to increase nonspecific resistance of an organism to an adverse event. In 1958, I.I. Brekhman, a Russian holistic medical doctor, and his colleague I.V. Dardymov, established the following definition of an adaptogen: It “must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism, it must have a nonspecific action, and it usually has a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the pathological state.”
There are many herbs that have these properties. In keeping with the definition, an adaptogenic herbs are plants with properties that have a normalizing effect on the body. They do not stimulate nor inhibit normal body function.
The adaptogen’s main action is the ability to help the body cope more effectively with stress. Adaptogens recharge the adrenal glands, which are the key endocrine organ, responding to stress and emotional change. The adrenals, which cover the upper surface of each kidney, synthesize and store dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. These compounds are responsible for the changes that occur during the fight-or-flight reaction. An adaptogen, is used to reduce stress, both mental and physical. To put it simply: Adaptogens help you adapt.
The list of plants with adaptogenic qualities as the definition of the term is broad. considered the “gold standard” of adaptogens is red ginseng from Asia (called either Chinese, Korean, or Japanese ginseng). Other commonly accepted adaptogenic herbs include the white American ginseng, Siberian ginseng, ashwaganda, astragalus, licorice, schisandra, and Rhodiola rosea. The mushrooms reishi, shiitake and maitake are also considered as adaptogens.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is considered a chi tonic–more specifically a tonic for the yang chi–in traditional Chinese medicine. It is considered an adaptogen, providing non-specific protection against various mental, physical and environmental forms of stress. This ginseng is usually given to people who display yang deficiency–weakness in muscles, voice and constitution, for example–and is generally best avoided by those who are well muscled and large with a tendency to bursts of anger. Numerous studies support Asian ginseng’s effectiveness at improving a person’s ability to withstand stress, improve work performance and quality, and enhance mental function. It has also been shown to increase the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which stimulates an increase in adrenal hormone secretion. It also can counteract the shrinkage of the adrenal gland caused by corticosteroid drugs.
Researchers from Okayama University Medical School in Japan found that Asian ginseng extract inhibited hydroxyl radical formation. The authors postulate that this antioxidant effect may be responsible for ginseng’s wide range of pharmacological applications. In a double-blind controlled study, 36 noninsulin-dependent diabetic patients were treated with Asian ginseng for eight weeks. Patients were given either 100 mg or 200 mg of Asian ginseng or placebo. The ginseng elevated participants’ moods, improved physical activity and performance, improved glycosylated hemoglobin, and reduced fasting blood sugars and body weight.
(ref. Sotaniemi, E., et al. “Ginseng therapy in non-insulin-dependent diabetic patients,” Diabetes Care, 18(10): 1373-75, October 1995.)
Asian ginseng has been shown to increase RNA and protein content in the muscle and liver tissue of laboratory animals. That same process may be the biochemical mechanism that makes ginseng such a highly regarded tonic. Asian ginseng is said to tone the chi and the lungs while strengthening the spleen and stomach and calming the spirit. Studies show this ginseng to be antidepressant, antidiabetic and antihypertensive.
Evaluating the effect of Asian ginseng in various forms–cooked, dried and fresh root–in 1,987 cancer cases, researchers found that the risk of developing certain cancers in a population that used ginseng for at least one year was less than the risk for the general population. In the study, ginseng was found to protect against cancers of the mouth, esophagus, lung, stomach, colorectum, and pancreas. The authors conclude that ginseng has a protective effect. (ref. Yun, T.K. & Choi, S.Y. “Preventative effect of ginseng intake against various human cancers: A case-control study on 1,987 pairs,”
Cancer Epid, Biomarkers and Prev, 24(3): 221-29, June 1995.)
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), is in the same genus as Asian ginseng, is considered a yin tonic rather than a yang tonic. As such, American ginseng is indicated for a hotter, more aggressive constitution. It contains many of the same properties as its Asian counterpart and has similar effects on the body.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), as can be seen by its Latin name, is not actually a ginseng, but it has been called one because of its similar properties. Legislation passed in the US now prohibits Wucha, or “Elethero” from being labeled Siberian ginseng. It is found in Russia, Asia, northern China, Japan and Korea and, in fact, Russian researchers consider it to be even more effective than Asian ginseng. Studies of Wucha’s effects on human performance conducted in both Russia and China show that Wucha increases human tolerance to a broad range of stress factors, including heat, noise and increased exercise. Wucha, taken on a regular basis, for several months, increases work output, endurance, athletic performance and mental alertness. Wucha also shows remarkable protective benefits under conditions of serious oxygen deprivation. Wucha is popular among factory workers, miners, soldiers, deep sea divers and others who engage in physically and mentally demanding occupations.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) also called Indian ginseng. It is seemingly grouped with the ginsengs because of its similar actions. Though unrelated to other ginsengs, it appears to share their many properties and actions. Considered a tonic, an alterative, an astringent and a sedative, ashwaganda has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for more than 2,500 years. Of all the medicinal plants used in India’s several millennia old tradition of Ayurveda, Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, is the most highly prized. Recent studies show ashwaganda to be immuno-modulating and to aid in cases of anxiety and other psychological complaints.
Astragalus (Astragalus spp) is one of the more famous tonic herbs from China. In traditional Chinese medicine it is said to tonify the blood and spleen and aid the defensive chi. Astragalus is often added to formulations used to treat weak patients. It is also used in combination with other herbs to enhance recovery following an illness or prolonged stress and to boost vitality. Astragalus is said to protect and enhance the functioning of distressed organs. Numerous studies show the herb enhances immune function by increasing natural killer cell activity, increasing T cell activity, and enhancing macrophage activity  in immune-compromised patients.
(ref. Yang, Y.Z., et al. “Effect of Astragalus membranaceus on natural killer cell activity and induction with Coxsackie B viral myocarditis,” Chin Med J, 103(4): 304-7, 1990.
Zhos, K.S., et al.
“Enhancement of the immune response in mice by Astragalus membranaceus extracts,”
Immunopharmacol, 20(3): 225-33)
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra and G. uralensis), used in Chinese medicine, is said to tonify the spleen and strengthen chi. Licorice is perhaps the only herb claimed to benefit all 12 meridians in Chinese medicine. Rich in both saponins and flavonoids, it is anti-inflammatory because the saponins have a structure similar to that of corticosteroids. Licorice root also promotes or enhances immune system functioning and has a stimulating effect on the adrenal cortex.
Components of licorice exhibit numerous pharmacological actions, including aldosterone like action. Licorice root has also been used to treat addison’s disease and following steroid use. Today the primary uses of licorice root are as an expectorant for coughs and bronchial catarrh (inflammation of a mucus membrane with a free discharge), and for treating gastritis and ulcers. Glycyrrhizin, a constituent of licorice root demonstrated antiviral, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, and blood pressure-increasing effects in vitro and in vivo.
Caution: Because of its aldosterone like effect, licorice root may cause sodium retention and thus contribute to high blood pressure in some people.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis, also called wuweizi by the Chinese) can be used as an adaptogenic tonic to counter the effects of stress and fatigue. The berry of Schisandra chinensis owes its name Wu Wei Zi (five flavored berry) to the fact that it is sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent. Scientific studies show it has normalizing effects in cases of insomnia and improves mental coordination and physical endurance. Research suggests schisandra may actually influence electrical discharges in the brain.
Rhodiola Rosea is well studied adaptogen, Rhodiola defends the body overall, and protects general health and well-being. Its anti-stress and fatigue-fighting properties make it one of the most popular botanicals in all of Siberia. A 2014 study published in Journal of Phytomedicine, concluded that “Rhodiola exhibits a multi-targeted effect on transcription to regulate the cellular response, affecting the various signaling pathways and molecular networks associated with beneficial effects on emotional behavior, particularly aggressive behavior, and with psychological, neurological, cardiovascular, metabolic, endocrine, and gastrointestinal disorders. Each of the purified compounds has its own pharmacological profile, which is both similar to and different from that of the total Rhodiola extract. In general, several compounds contribute to the specific cellular or/and physiological function of the extract in various diseases”.
(ref: Phytomedicine. 2014 Sep 25;21(11):1325-48. doi: 10.1016/j.phymed.2014.07.008. Epub 2014 Aug 7.
Mechanism of action of Rhodiola, salidroside, tyrosol and triandrin in isolated neuroglial cells: an interactive pathway analysis of the downstream effects using RNA microarray data.
Panossian A1, Hamm R2, Wikman G3, Efferth T2.)