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 Herbal Medicine: Adaptogens -- Herbal Gems to Help Us Adapt  
A dog is barking outside your window, and after two sleepless nights, patience is short. You get up, open the door and yell "be quiet", but to no avail--the dog answers with renewed enthusiasm. Back in bed, the hands on the clock seem in slow motion. The next day you have a cold.

Our health depends on our ability to adapt--whether it be the specific, close-up everyday environment of our home, workplace or office, the wider environment of the Amazon jungles, or the planet on which we live. Dorland's medical dictionary defines 'adaptation' as "the adjustment of an organism to its environment, or the process by which it enhances such fitness."

We read daily about the vast changes in our planetary environment--the increased radiation coming through a weakened ozone layer; the greenhouse effect, subsequent to the destruction of the rain forests and the poisoning of the oceans, with the changes in temperature and devastation of crops. Electromagnetic lines of force radiate from electric power lines; and heavy metals from automobile exhaust and industrial waste abound.

Fortunately, our bodies are amazingly adaptable. We have come through perhaps 500 thousand years on our evolutionary path, adjusting to unimaginable changes in environmental conditions.

One could truly say that health (and ultimately, survival) is the ability to adapt to our environment; the ability to respond.

Hans Seyle, the Canadian medical researcher who wrote the best-known book on the subject, "The Stress of Life" spent many years observing what happens to living systems under stress. Seyle and many other modern researchers have been able to demonstrate that most diseases are precipitated or enhanced by various stressors.

Here are only a few of the stress related diseases that have been documented:
  • It is thought that PMS and all the attendant symptoms are very much influenced by failure to adapt to stress (menstruation can become irregular or even stop). In men, stress may reduce the sexual urge and sperm production.
  • The digestive tract is especially sensitive to stress. Digestive irritation, painful digestion, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and of course, ulcers, may be among the first signs of a general adverse reaction to stress.
  • Obesity, or being uncomfortably overweight is a result of maladaptation to stress. When we eat, blood rushes to our digestive organs, drawing blood and energy from our brain, which may need sedating because of worry, anxiety, sorrow, loneliness, or any strong emotion.
  • Cancer tends to develop at the sites of chronic stress in the body. Pipe smokers, for instance, are prone to lip cancer.
  • Adrenal cortical hormones can suppress immune system functions such as lymphocyte production and antibody formation. The study of how psychological variables can affect our immune system, psychoneuroimmunology, is currently of intense interest. The work that is being done in this field reveals that, unlike the flight or fight response, which is immediate, immune responses may take several days or weeks to occur. This has important implications; if we have a stressful day, the ensuing cold or flu a week later may not seem connected. Several studies performed over the last year have highlighted the effect of emotional stress on immune function. (include Ref's) In one of the studies, researchers at Ohio State University College of Medicine found examination stress among college students decreased the quantity and responsiveness of T-helper lymphocytes. T-helper cells act as a vital communication link between immune cell populations (such as the macrophages and T-killer cells) in the body's defense efforts. T-helper cells are one population of immune cells strongly affected by the AIDS virus.

The Adaptogens--Food for adaptation
Fortunately for us, nature has provided plant substances that relieve the adverse effects of human stress. These natural substances are called 'adaptogens', a name coined by the Russian scientist, N.V. Lazarov, teacher of the famous researcher, I.I. Brekhman of Vladivostok, who brought adaptogens to the attention of the world.

Brekhman first began research on Eleutherococcus senticosus (also called Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng), the best-known of the adaptogens, in the early 1950's. He was looking for a more abundant substitute for Panax ginseng (another adaptogenic herb). Panax was already quite popular as a health tonic and longevity herb in Russia.

According to Brekhman, an adaptogen should fulfill three criteria:

1) that it cause no harm, place no additional stress on the body (unlike many synthetic drugs),

2) that it help the body adapt to a wide array of environmental and psychological stresses, and

3) that it must have a non-specific action on the body.

Brekhman believes that adaptogenic plants work by helping the body to conserve energy supplies and accelerate the biosynthesis of proteins and nucleic acids. These compounds are needed not only for repair of tissues and organs, but for all vital processes.

A striking statement about our need for natural substances that can help us adapt more quickly to change and stress comes from a recent book on Siberian Ginseng, called "Eleutherococcus", published by Medexport, by another Russian scientist, G.M. Barenboim: (include title).

"Like the drugs that saved the world from numerous bacterial and viral epidemics that cost millions of lives in the past, the adaptogens are needed to help [all people] withstand the diverse stresses of today."

Siberian Ginseng is so highly respected in Russia it is taken daily by over 20 million Russians. It is sponsored by the government, given to workers on the job--the cosmonauts use it to adapt to the unique conditions of outer space. Like the millions of Russians, it is hard not to become enthusiastic about trying it after seeing the wide-range of beneficial actions it has on performance, wellness and adaptation to change.

In studies with rats, mice and dogs, and in thousands of actual human studies, conducted in everyday working situations, Eleuthero has been shown to benefit people in many ways. The following list summarizes some of the more interesting findings.

1. A 40% drop in sicknesses as compared to controls was reported among auto workers who took Eleuthero extract as a tea for three years. In another study, over 13,000 people took 2 ml (65 drops) of extract--disease incidence dropped by 30-35% compared to the control group.

2. Acute influenza, colds and other respiratory diseases were significantly reduced in large populations. In one study, involving 1000 workers, the number of people becoming sick was reduced by 36% over a 6-year period.

3. The protective effects of Eleuthero extract in preventing relapses of hypertension and ischemic heart disease was confirmed in several large studies. In another, the number of hypertensive heavy-equipment drivers was reduced by 3.5 times.

4. In young subjects with normal vision, Eleuthero improved visual acuity, color perception and hearing sensitivity. The effects lasted for up to 32 hours after a single dose of 2 ml. Crewmembers aboard a research ship stopped complaining of eye fatigue, pain in the eyes and photophobia after taking a dose of 36-40 drops of Eleuthro for a month.

5. Numerous studies have shown Eleuthero to have protective effects against toxic compounds and radiation, including chronic exposure to pesticides and industrial poisons.

6. Eleuthero can induce an increase in physical endurance, even after exposure to various stressors.

7. Eleuthero can help the body adjust quickly to conditions of low-oxygen, for instance during mountain climbing, and to adjust to changes in temperature.

9. Blood sugar levels are stabilized by Eleuthero preparations, and the insulin response is normalized.

10. The body's production of natural anti-viral cell protectors, interferon, is stimulated by Eleuthero.

11. Eleuthero has been shown to have an anabolic (building up) effect on the body, and is used by Russian body-builders.

12. Physical performance, work capacity and endurance has been shown in many tests to be increased by Eleuthero extract, up to 23%.

How does Eleuthero work to accomplish all these remarkable normalizing and strengthening effects? Scientists have determined that the roots of the plant contain a series of steroid-like compounds (eleutherosides) that counteract the "alarm" stage of stress response in the body, and protect the adrenals from any adverse effects to stress, while normalizing pituitary and pancreatic function.

The liquid extract is official in Russia, but powdered extracts and teas are also effective. An excessive dose is not required--20 drops a day up to 2 ml (65 drops) 1-3 times daily is the recommended normal amount to take. The powdered extract can be taken in tablet form, 1-3 daily.

Eleuthero is often combined with other adaptogens, including the following.
  • Panax ginseng. The great panacea of the Orient. A commercial species of Panax grows wild and is cultivated in the United States--P. quinquefolius, or "Wild American Ginseng." Ginseng has undergone a tremendous number of laboratory and clinical studies, many of which support its protective and strengthening effects. Processed (red) Ginseng is metabolically more stimulating (too much so for long-term use) than unprocessed white Ginseng (especially Wild American). Ginseng is often used with other herbs, and is a good digestive tonic, supporting those who are recovering from illness or have general weakness.
  • Schizandra chinensis is an ancient Chinese herb known as "5-flavor fruit", because bitter, sour, sweet, salty and acrid tastes can be detected in it. For this reason, it is considered very balancing and harmonizing to the body's hormonal functions.

In Russia it has been studied as a powerful adaptogen, and is used in combination with Eleuthero. In China and Japan, studies have clarified its immune supporting activity, as well as liver-protective effects.
  • Ling Chi or Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is a respected mushroom of antiquity, considered in folk medicine to have curative effects in cancer and other degenerative diseases. Japanese legends tell of sick people travelling hundreds of miles on foot to seek its magical powers.

Many modern studies have shown this mushroom to have blood-sugar stabilizing effects, immune-enhancing, cancer protecting and liver protective abilities. Other mushrooms are used in Chinese medicine for their immune-strengthening and adaptive properties, notably the Shiitake mushroom (Lentinus edodes). This mushroom has a tremendous amount of research work to its credit, as well as thousands of years of folk use as a strengthening and normalizing food and medicine.
  • Suma (Pfaffia paniculata), a South American herb is an important herbal remedy in the folk medicine of several indigenous Indian tribes. They use it for a wide array of ills, calling it "Para Todo", which means "for everything." Research has documented its benefits as a cancer and diabetes remedy.
In this country, clinical herbalists are enthusiastic about its positive effects for general weakness and as an adaptogen to counteract stress, especially for women with menstrual imbalances. Many people have experienced increased energy levels while using Suma.

These adaptogenic herbs provide impressive results, when taken consistently over a period of time from as little as one week to up to a year or more. They are especially indicated when we are undergoing any changes in life--a change in jobs, in relationships, when moving to a new living situation, or when traveling. For instance, I have had excellent results counteracting the "hormonal crash", known as jet lag, by taking an adaptogen preparation 3 days before and 3 days after I travel.

Our challenges today are great--extraordinary opportunities for personal and human growth. If we remember that nature offers plants and herbs to provide for many of our needs--food, air and medicine among them, our way will be easier.
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 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
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