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 Herbal Medicine: Herbal Adaptogens Fitting into the Modern Age  
 

In the case of eleuthero, all three of these criteria have been eminently fulfilled. Regarding its history of use, eleuthero has been known in China for thousands of years, where it has traditionally been used to counteract general debility and weakness by promoting vital energy. More recently, in Russia millions of people take eleuthero daily, among them mountain climbers, sailors, and factory workers who all use eleuthero to increase adaptability and endurance and to reduce the frequency of illness. The Russian olympic team uses eleuthero, especially weight-lifters and runners, and an eleuthero extract was used to help cosmonauts adapt to the radically different living conditions of outer space. Personally, in the last decade I have taken eleuthero extract once for a 9-month period and several times for shorter periods, and I have always noticed a decided increase in endurance and performance.

Regarding modern scientific research and clinical results, eleuthero is one of the rare herbal medicines that has been extensively tested on humans in clinical trials. Eleuthero's adaptogenic and other protective and strengthening properties have been studied and confirmed with thousands of human volunteers. We can still learn much more about eleuthero, but already researchers have defined some of the ways in which eleuthero affects the body biochemically, and have also identified certain active constituents, which are natural plant steroids called eleutherosides.

The American researcher, Norman Farnsworth, collected and translated many of the original Russian studies on eleuthero (much of it done in the '60s and '70s), and published these in Economic and Medicinal Plant Research, vol. 1 (by Academic Press, Orlando, FL). While many of these studies were not performed with the strictest methods of scientific control (that is, they were not double-blind studies), their results do offer interesting insights into how adaptogens work on large populations of everyday working people, and what benefits they might offer. Representative results of these studies are cited in Table 1. Eleuthero's major physiological effects can be summarized as follows:

1. Protects against environmental pollutants and radiation

2. Normalizes body temperature, thus treating hypothermia

3. Regulates blood-sugar levels

4. Protects the liver and enhances its ability to break down and get rid of drugs in the body

5. Increases the body's ability to resist infection

6. Supports optimum adrenal function

Also, and perhaps most importantly, is eleuthero's anti-fatigue effect. It has a highly beneficial influence on endurance and the capacity to work, increasing the ability of the body's cells to utilize phosphorus-containing energy molecules and dispose of lactic acid and other byproducts of metabolism (the sore muscles from a heavy workout result from a buildup of lactic acid). This anti-fatigue effect is especially important for athletes, both professionals and "weekend warriors."

Finally, for infertile men, eleuthero has shown the ability to increase semen output and reproductive capability. For those interested in taking eleuthero, the original research used a liquid extract (also called a tincture), which contains about 35% ethanol. Based on this research, I recommend three basic dose levels:

1. For long-term maintenance where not under much stress or are not in a training program, take one dropperful of the liquid extract upon rising (if you put the drops in a cup of warm water or tea, most of the alcohol will evaporate).

2. To increase performance in sports activities, on the job, or at school, take one dropperful in the same manner upon rising and take a second dropperful again in the evening about an hour after dinner.

3. For times of extra stress or dramatic changes (such as changes in jobs or living situations), take three droppersful of the extract, either two in the morning and one in the evening, or one in the morning, at noon, and at night. Every ten days, take a two-day break with no eleuthero, then repeat the cycle. You can do this for up to nine months, or longer if needed.


Table 1: Studies with Normal Volunteers
  • The number and speed of radiogram receptions for radiotelegraphic operators was increased with daily doses of 1 1/2 droppersful (60 drops) of a liquid extract of eleuthero over a one-month period.
  • Skiers taking a single dose of eleuthero extract (3 droppersful) before a race experienced increased resistance to the harmful effects of the cold and increased physical endurance, especially if the skier was not fully trained.
  • Workers in a publishing house who had jobs involving physical labor showed enhanced cardiovascular output, ability to work, and improved appetite--without hypertension. However, the extract was not recommended for people with blood pressure over 180/90 mm Hg.
  • Proofreaders were more effective in their work after taking 1 1/2 droppersful of eleuthero extract daily for 30 days.
  • Sailors who took eleuthero extract while on long sea voyages showed improved work capability and normalization of body functions in high-temperature conditions.
  • One thousand factory workers in a city of the polar region who took 3 droppersful of eleuthero extract daily showed 50% reduction in general sickness and 40% reduction in the number of lost work days.
  • Among truck drivers who took eleuthero extract in tea for six years, the total number of people contracting influenza dropped from 41.8% to 2.7% during that period, and the number of work days lost to influenza per year dropped from 286 per 100 workers to 11.
  • Other studies showing that eleuthero dramatically reduced the number of sick days due to influenza among thousands of different kinds of workers are reported.
  • Further studies show that eleuthero extract, when taken on a regular basis, can improve visual acuity, color perception, and hearing acuity, can increase the efficiency of people whose jobs require attention and cause nervous tension, and can improve physical and mental working capacity under unfavorable climatic conditions (i.e., too hot, too cold, high altitude, etc.).

Sick Volunteers

  • Forty-five volunteers with heart disease showed enhanced feelings of well-being, fewer chest pains, reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and improved ECG readings after six to eight courses (25 days each) of eleuthero extract (1 to 1 1/2 droppersful at a time, 3 times daily before meals).In a second study on 65 patients with cardiovascular disease, with the same dose as above, improvements were noted by some after the first course (25-35 days).
  • Several studies involving patients with diabetes showed that in some cases eleuthero extract is effective in lowering serum glucose levels.
  • People with both hypotension and hypertension showed normalization of blood pressure after courses of eleuthero extract. Several other studies support these findings.
  • Fifty-eight people with psychological imbalances and symptoms such as extreme exhaustion, irritability, insomnia, decreased work capacity, and a general state of anxiety, showed improvement after taking 2 droppersful of eleuthero extract, once in the morning and once in the evening, for four weeks. The patients felt that sound sleep and an increase in their sense of well-being were the most important benefits of the treatment.
  • Five more studies with nearly 160 neurotic patients showed that eleuthero extract (as little as 1 dropperful a day) can be of benefit as indicated above. Some of the studies lasted for ten years.

Can Women Take Ginseng?
The old adage that women should not take ginseng is mostly untrue. It is true that processed red Korean or Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng) is quite stimulating and is often used in energy and sports formulas, but not more so for women than for men. Whether this kind of ginseng will have an adverse effect on a person, when taken in large amounts, depends more upon one's constitutional type than sex. Although it must be noted that Panax ginseng has proven to have a mild estrogen-promoting activity in some women--and thus would be contraindicated where estrogen is already excessive, as may be the case with PMS or breast cancer--eleuthero is not estrogen-promoting. Eleuthero is considered to be neutral in energy, and can therefore be taken safely by both sexes and by many constitutional types.

Schizandra berries (Schizandra chinensis)
In the American horticultural trade, schizandra is called magnolia vine, and indeed, botanically it is closely related to the familiar magnolia tree. In China, the small red fruits of schizandra are considered to balance all bodily systems because they have all of the five different flavors Chinese herbalists use to classify medicinal herbs: sour, salty, bitter, sweet, and acrid. Thus schizandra has been an important ingredient in traditional Chinese tonic formulas since antiquity.

In the West, schizandra is often combined with eleuthero in adaptogenic formulas, and has been extensively studied in this form in both Sweden and Russia. It is also often included in commercial anti-stress, weight-loss, and sports formulas in this country. Scientific studies have supported these uses of schizandra, and have clarified the herb's liver-protecting and strengthening capabilities. The liver is a vital "adaptogenic" organ, because it helps regulate blood sugar and hormone levels, and because it is the main detoxifying organ of the body.

Schizandra can be taken as a tea (added to eleuthero with a little licorice and ginger), or it can be purchased in a wide variety of commercial preparations, such as tinctures and powdered extracts in tablet form.

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Reishi mushrooms are one of the most revered of the adaptogens. There are stories of people in Japan traveling for hundreds of miles on foot to pick them in the hopes of curing their cancer or other incurable disease. The list of benefits observed in laboratory and clinic experiments reads like a panacea wish-list. Reishi has shown a wide range of adaptogenic properties, including blood sugar regulation, immune support, anti-cancer properties, ability to oxygenate the blood efficiently, speeded regeneration of the liver, a sedative and calming effect, free-radical protective effect, radiation protective effect, reduction in sensitivity to allergens, anti-hypertensive effect, and it lowers cholesterol.

Ken Jones and Terry Willard, in their book Reishi Mushroom, Herb of Spiritual Potency and Medical Wonder, quote clinical studies in China with 90 coronary heart disease patients in seven different hospitals who were given oral preparations of reishi over a four-month period. Although these studies were uncontrolled (most Chinese studies are), the results suggest that reishi has adaptogenic properties. Reishi relieved feelings of weariness in about 78% of the patients, feelings of cold extremities in 74%, and insomnia in 78%. In China, reishi is often added to herbal medicine combinations that lower serum cholesterol and normalize blood pressure.

In one well-designed Japanese study, 53 patients with hypertension were given 1.44 gms of the concentrate for 6 months. Blood pressure dropped from 156/103 to 137/93 in the group with genetically-based (essential) hypertension.

My own experience with this medicinal mushroom is that it can be of immediate value for strengthening people who are recovering from chronic illness, especially where there is general weakness. Children seem to respond quickly to reishi. The following soup, modeled after a traditional formula, has shown excellent results if taken for a week or two, or up to six months.

Wei Chi (Protective Vitality) Soup
Simmer
1 ounce of reishi (dried),
3 ounces of fresh shiitake (or 1 oz dried),
1 ounce astragalus (optional)
for 30 minutes in 6 quarts of water.
Add
1/4 cup of organic barley and a variety of sliced or chopped organic vegetables (celery, beets, carrots, etc.)
Simmer for another 30 minutes, adding a quarter cup of sea vegetables (nori, wakame), or to taste.
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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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