James Ryan never thought he would be drinking herbal tea straight from
an apple-juice bottle. But a lot of things had changed over the last year.
He never thought he would be alive now, either, and here he was talking
to me about his incredible journey back to health.
James had grown up in California's Central Valley as a farmer's son. In
those days, chemical farming was not questioned--it was just how things
were done. He recounted to me how he used to watch with great interest as
the bi-winged planes flew over the fields, trailing white clouds of pesticide
that filled the spaces between the rows of corn and engulfed the plants
in thick fog. The smell was strong, and times the wet spray would land on
his skin and hair. He always associated fond memories with that smell.
However after 25 years of chemical farming, James Ryan was not well. Over
a year before I met him, he began to have dizzy spells, nearly collapsing
on two occasions. That's when he began to wonder about that familiar smell
he had loved so much as a child. He began to wonder if the constant exposure
to many toxic chemicals, plus the stress of running a big commercial farm
for so many years, had devastated his immune system.
At the advice of a Chinese herbalist, James began to take a tea of seven
herbs, including eleuthero, astragalus and reishi. Now, as we stood talking,
he attributed a large measure of his current health to these herbs, which
are often called "adaptogens" by herbalists. These herbs and other
adaptogens have been proven in clinical and laboratory studies to help us
adapt to the rapidly changing conditions in our modern, often synthetic
The following story is the practical side of adaptogens--why they are needed
today, what they are and how to use them, based on 22 years of experience
as an herbalist, quotes from other practicing herbalists and summaries of
scientific research performed on adaptogenic herbs from around the world.
Adapting to our Own Devices
Today, thanks to modern technology, we can change the natural environment
virtually at will. Air-conditioning, indoor lighting, central heating, pesticides,
food preservatives, cars, airplanes, polyester, and plastics are just a
few of the countless amenities we use to adapt the environment to our needs.
Yet however convenient or life-supporting these things may seem in the short-term,
they are a two-edged sword, bringing undesirable side effects in the long-term.
Some of the most obvious of these are already quickly becoming apparent:
smog, the thinning ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, and the many heavy
metals, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals that are finding their
way into our bloodstreams for the first time in the history of our bodies'
delicate biochemistry. These by-products of "the good life" are
now creating a major problem for the adaptation and survival of most species
and biosystems here on planet Earth.
And to compound the problem, at the very moment when we need more than ever
to adapt to a quickly changing environment, as a society we seem
set on debilitating our bodies' natural ability to adapt by constantly forcing
the environment to meet our needs (and whims) instead of vice versa. In
Darwinian terms, this does not bode well for our species.
It is ironic that the more we insulate ourselves from environmental change,
the more we isolate ourselve from that which gives us life.
Rene Dubos, the humanistic scientist and a special guiding light for me,
said: "This state of adaptedness gives a false sense of security
because it does not have a lasting value and does not prepare for the future."
Therefore, it seems that the best course for survival is to increase
our adaptability to our environment, not the other way around. In other
words, instead of leaning on air conditioning to adapt to hot weather, it
may be best to strengthen ourselves and cultivate flexibility--both of mind
and body, and this is where the adaptogens can be of great importance.
The Russian scientist, G.M. Barenboim said it well:
"For the first time in the history of human civilization the biological
potentialities of the human body have failed to meet the requirements imposed
on it by the epoch. One witnesses an unusual 'epidemic' of fatigue aggravated
by the powerful action of man-made, external chemical and physical environmental
factors. 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 man withstand the diverse stresses of today."
Herbal Adaptogens--Medicines of the Future
Fortunately for us, though, there is a class of herbs and other natural
remedies available that can help the body adapt better to its environment,
whether that environment be one of many harmful chemicals or simply one
of rapid change. These herbs are called adaptogens.
The word adaptogen was coined by the Russian scientist N.V. Lazarev,
in 1947. In Lazarev's view, a medicinal substance must fulfill three criteria
in order to be classed as an adaptogen:
1. It must cause only minimal disorders in the body's physiological functions;
2. It must increase the body's resistance to adverse influences not by
a specific action but by a wide range of physical, chemical, and biochemical
3. It must have an overall normalizing effect, improving all kinds of conditions
and aggravating none.
Lazarev conducted his original studies of adaptogens on a chemical substance,
dibazole. However, his now renowned student, I.I. Brekhman, changed the
focus of adaptogenic research from synthetic substances to natural substances.
Brekhman first studied Panax ginseng, the classic Chinese herb for
longevity. But in 1959 Brekhman discovered that Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus
senticosus), which is more common and less expensive than Chinese ginseng,
has even stronger adaptogenic qualities than Panax.
"I.I. Brekhman--A Russian Holistic Medical Doctor
In 1988, I had the good fortune to meet with Dr. Brekhman (a medical
doctor) during his first trip to the United States to attend an international
conference on ginseng. The meeting was held in a place where adaptation
might be somewhat of a challenge, especially for a person coming from Vladivostok
(in the romote far east of Russia)--Las Vegas.
I came directly from the airport and found the meeting was being held in
a noisy, glittering casino. As I entered, rows of flashing and whirring
slot machines were being hopefully, and somewhat vacantly caressed. I was
directed to the conference rooms and walked down the hall, stopping for
a moment in a small variety shop along the way. The man in line ahead of
me was wearing a suit, and had a camera suspended casually around his neck--I
looked at him curiously, for although he said nothing, he seemed somehow
out of place and looked a bit bewildered. He also looked very kind and had
a presense about him that provoked the thought that perhaps he was the person
I was looking for. Ten minutes later, as I found my way to the room we were
to meet in, I learned that my suspicions were correct--the man at the shop
was indeed I.I. Brekhman. I knew him previously only by his international
reputation and his many articles on eleuthero and adaptogens. I had also
read his unusual and interesting work, "Man and Biologically Active
Substances," in which he details how pollution and modern stresses
can affect our immune system and general health, and how natural substances,
such as ginseng and eleuthero can help us survive and maintain health. The
work, published in 1980, was well ahead of its time. His emphasis in the
book is resoundingly, study the science and art of health, not disease!
Brekhman's work for the last 40 years has been to clearly show that because
most of us are in a state somewhere between health and disease, we need
a group of nature's gifts called adaptogens,which work by helping us to
move towards true health and to stay there.
Although his English was not very fleunt, I could not help but notice how
warm and open he was in the interview, and that he had a good sense of humor.
He also seemed very energetic and vigorous.
Brekhman talked about medicine and herbs in Russia, and about adaptogens.
He told me that many medicial doctors prescribe herbs in their practice--especially
in the outlying districts. He began to study eleuthero because the Russian
people have strongly accepted the concept that a natural remedy can help
bolster our innate resistance to disease and help prevent stress from taking
such a devestating toll on our nervous, hormonal and immune systems. Panax
ginseng is very popular, but is scarce and mostly too expensive for
people to take on a daily basis. So he began to test other members of the
ginseng family in his research center, The Far-East Scientific Center, soon
discovering that eleuthero had even stronger adaptogenic qualities than
Since then, Dr. Brekhman and many other researchers have conducted thousands
of scientific tests on eleuthero, as Siberian ginseng is called, as well
as on other herbal adaptogens. Literally hundreds of thousands of people
have taken these natural strengtheners, and the results have been resoundingly
positive: they have proven to be remarkably effective for preventing a variety
of ailments, increasing stamina and sports performance, and helping the
body to adapt to extreme or changing environmental conditions.
The research has shown that adaptogens act in a number of ways to strengthen
the body and protect it from the stress of a variety of life situations.
(Stress, as almost all types of doctors now warn, is a major factor in chronic
disease. It is no coincidence that three of the most-prescribed and best-selling
drugs in America are for stress-related ailments: Tagamet for ulcers, Inderal
for hypertension, and Xanex for anxiety.)
In general, adaptogens work by
1. Supporting the adrenal function, thus counteracting the adverse effects
2. Enabling the body's cells to have access to more energy;
3. Helping cells to eliminate toxic byproducts of the metabolic process;
4. Providing an anabolic (building-up) effect, hence the use of adaptogens
5. Helping the body to utilize oxygen more efficiently;
6. Enhancing and speeding the proper regulation of bio-rhythms.
Although medical practitioners who believe only in the mainstream, allopathic
model of medicine often doubt that a single remedy can exhibit all the different
benefits of an herbal adaptogen, the concept of adaptogens is not unknown
to Western medicine. Until about 50 years ago, doctors commonly prescribed
medicines known as roborants (strengthening substances), tonics
(which restore normal tone to tissue), and alteratives (which cause
favorable changes in the processes of nutrition and repair). For example,
bitters such as gentian and quassia were widely used to improve digestion,
and strengthening foods such as oatmeal and yams were prescribed for the
convalescent. What we now call adaptogens combine at least some of the major
functions of roborants, tonics, and alteratives, and they particularly resemble
Below I will discuss the most important herbal adaptogens, giving pertinent
information and recommendations for use with each. Some herbalists classify
many herbs as adaptogens, including well-known immune-tonics (such as echinacea)
and bitters (such as golden seal). However, Russian researchers--who have
conducted most of the studies on adaptogens--have identified several herbs
that I will call primary adaptogens. These herbs were the first to be studied
as adaptogens, and they include: eleuthero, schizandra (Schizandra chinensis),
and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum).
There are also what I will call secondary adaptogens. These have shown some
normalizing activity, especially on the immune, nervous, and hormonal systems,
but they may not have been studied extensively for their adaptogenic qualities
or may not support the adrenal system. Secondary adaptogens include: ashwaganda
(Withania somniferum), gotu kola (Centella asiatica), wild
oats (Avena sativa), astragalus or huang chi (Astragalus membranaceous),
fo-ti or ho shou wu (Polygonum multiflorum), burdock (arctium
lappa), and suma (Pfaffia paniculata). There are probably other
herbs that fall into this second category of adaptogens, but these are the
best-understood and most readily available ones in this country.
Primary Herbal Adaptogens
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
There are three ways to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of an
herbal remedy: first, by its history of use, i.e., how it has been used
in the past and in other cultures, and with what results; second, by what
modern scientific research can show about an herb's effect on the body,
its active constituents, and whether or not it has any subtle toxicity;
and third, by the results of the herb's use in modern clinical practice.