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 Herbal Medicine: Herbal Adaptogens Fitting into the Modern Age  

People who are very weak or cannot digest solid food well should drink 1 cup of the broth morning, afternoon, and evening. If well-tolerated, they can also eat the vegetables and barley. However, the herbs are generally too fibrous to be palatable, so just push them aside, as their "essence" has already infused into the broth.

Secondary AdaptogenS
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera)

Ashwaganda is an herb from India, where it has been used since antiquity as an important medicine. The plant is a member of the usually narcotic nightshade family, whose other safe members include the potato, tomato and eggplant (some people may be mildly allergic to these). The small shrub is widely cultivated throughout India and is still immensely popular in traditional ayurvedic and folk medicine. People in India use all parts of the plant. For instance, the berries are used to coagulate milk while the twigs are used to clean the teeth.

However, it is the roots of ashwaganda that are considered to be medicinally tonic, adaptogenic, and strengthening. Traditionally, they are recommended for indigestion, heart disease, arthritis, lumbar pain, to lower fevers, and as a general strengthening medicine for children and for people recovering from illness. Current work in the clinic and laboratory has shown that ashwaganda roots have strong tumor-inhibiting activity in humans as well as a marked anti-inflammatory effect which supports its traditional use for arthritis. The extract proved to be without side-effects when compared to hydrocortisone, a synthetic drug often prescribed for arthritis.

Ashwaganda can be used as a whole herb in tea or purchased in a variety of commercial products. The tea is made by simmering one part of the root (by weight) in ten parts water (by volume) for one-half hour. Take the tea twice daily, about one-half to one ounce at a time.

Gotu-kola (Centella asiatica)
Although gotu-kola looks nothing like parsley or angelica, it is a member of the parsley family. It is a common weedy plant throughout Asia, often growing in drainage ditches. It likes a wet, rich soil, and is a common orchard weed in Hawaii. I grow the plant in pots on my back porch, so I always have a supply of the tasty, kidney-shaped leaves.

According to legend, if one eats a leaf of gotu kola a day, one's lifespan will be extended to 1,000 years! I don't expect to be around in my present form for quite that long, but if gotu kola adds a few healthy years to my life, well, so much the better.

Ayurveda, the ancient East Indian system of medicine, recognizes gotu kola as an important brain and nervous system restorative. Modern science has shown it to have adaptogenic properties and strong wound-healing capabilities. It is used in many cosmetic preparations as a kind of a skin adaptogen, helping our sensitive hides to adapt to stresses such as sunburn and other traumas.

If you want to try gotu kola, make sure to purchase the fresh liquid extract or grow the plant yourself and take it fresh. I have found that gotu kola loses its properties rapidly when dried, and most of the commercial dried gotu kola is worthless.

Wild Oats (Avena sativa)
This herb grows as a common grass throughout many parts of the world. Most herbalists feel that a tincture or powdered extract of wild oats is effective for helping to eliminate unwanted addictions. Several studies suggest that it may reduce craving for nicotine in people who are trying to quit smoking. Wild oats is also recommended as a nerve restorative where there is trauma or nerve weakness. It should be taken for a long period of time to be effective, at the dose of at least one dropperful of the liquid extract at a time, or one tablet of the concentrated extract, two to three times daily.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous)
One of the gems of Traditional Chinese Medicine, this root from the pea family is sometimes stir-fried in honey to make it sweeter and enhance its tonic properties. Astragalus is considered a powerful deep immune strengthener. Both a long history of use and many laboratory tests have proven that astragalus has adaptogenic and normalizing effects on the nervous, hormonal, and immune systems.

I learned of astragalus during my first visit to a Chinese acupuncturist and herbalist. The doctor's name was Dr. Yau--which made me worry a bit about his needling technique--but he turned out to have a very gentle hand. Dr. Yau prescribed astragalus for me, as I was feeling stressed and fatigued after two years of pre-medical classes, and I experienced splendid results.

Since then, I have designed many highly effective formulas using this remarkable herb, and I have developed an especially healing relationship with astragalus by growing it from seed in my herb garden.

Fo-ti or Ho Shou Wu (Polygonum multiflorum)
Chinese herbalists consider this member of the buckwheat family to be one of the best adaptogenic and longevity herbs. The root of fo-ti is said to take on magical powers when it is old and has several interesting names applied to it, depending upon its age. According to the ancient herbalist Li Shih-chen, at 50 years fo-ti is fist-size and is called "mountain slave"; taken at this time, the herb "will preserve the black color of the hair and moustache." A 100-year-old root is as large as a bowl and is called "hill-brother"; taken at this time the herb will preserve "a cheerful countenance." A 150-year-old root is the size of a basin and if taken at this time, "the teeth will fall out and come afresh." At 200 years fo-ti is called "hill father," and if taken at this time "the countenance will become like that of a youth, and the gait will equal that of a running horse." And so forth.

I've started growing fo-ti in my garden, but so far it is only two years old. My hair is showing a few grey hairs, but I have hopes....

Burdock (Arctium lappa)
Burdock is a close relative to such well-known herbs as echinacea, dandelion, and feverfew, though it does not currently share the spotlight those other herbs are enjoying. Burdock root, greens, and seeds were known to the ancient Greeks as healing remedies, and in Western herbalism they were important foods and medicines throughout the middle ages. Their nutritional content of vitamins and minerals is high, yet even more interesting is their rich complement of active medicinal compounds. Modern research has isolated chemical constituents from burdock that have proven to be anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and, most importantly, tumor-protective and desmutagenic. Desmutagens are substances that inactivate mutagens (cancer-causing agents) by reacting with them and "taking them out of action." Mutagens include pesticides, natural chemicals from plants, and compounds that are created from foods (such as meats) by cooking. Such potentially cancer-causing compounds are now abundant in our food, water, and air, and many of them are already stored in our fat tissues.

Aveline Kushi extols the adaptogenic properties of burdock in her book Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking. Kushi mentions that gobo (burdock roots) can be eaten all year round, but is especially warming for the winter months because it has a "very strong energy." Kushi gives recipes for preparing burdock roots with other vegetables such as carrots and green beans. Tofu can be added to provide further nutrients. The tender gobo roots are commonly found in supermarkets and natural foods markets in many parts of the country and can be prepared by boiling, sauteing, or deep-frying. I enjoy thinly-sliced gobo roots stir-fried in olive oil or sesame oil with garlic, greens (such as kale), red peppers, and tofu. The crisp, firm roots can also be added to soups of all kinds.

Suma (Pfaffia paniculata)
This herb, native to the Amazon has been used in South America for generations as a heal-all. In Spanish it has been called "para todo," because of its wide range of applications. Modern research suggests that suma may be an effective adaptogen. It is prescribed in Brazilian hospitals for cancer and diabetes, for which purpose it is taken in tea form, two or three cups daily. The American herbalists Janet Zand and Michael Tierra recommend suma for its strengthening properties, especially for women who suffer from fatigue and hormonal imbalances. Tierra claims that."to obtain the maximum benefits, one has to take it as a 'food tonic', for instance 2 to 4 capsules of the powder which is equivalent to 1 tablet of the powdered extract or up to a teaspoon of the powder (as a tea or in food) every hour for an extended period of time--up to a month or more." After this period, he has seen a smaller dose (one dose 3 or 4 times a week) have the same effect. Tierra enthusiastically recounted people with chronic fatigue syndrome that "were so tired they couldn't answer the telephone," that after a week (of taking Suma) they could start functioning again. He cautions that some people may experience nausea, in which case it is best to cut the dose down (perhaps by a third) until the nausea disappears. He also feels that it is contraindicated with inflammatory conditions manifesting in acute sydromes like colds, and other infections.

Finally, note that adaptogens are promising herbal medicines for another important reason. Not only do adaptogenic plants contain important nutrients such as iron, magnesium, and germanium, which we already know are important for maintaining optimum health, but their steroid-like compounds may also prove to be essential dietary ingredients. Although scientists have yet to set "daily minimum requirements" for these adaptogenic compounds, we may yet find that the lack of them in our modern diets is a contributing factor in the stress-related and immune-based chronic illness which are increasingly common today.

It is certain tht nature herself is our most powerful ally in our quest for health and longevity, and herbs are not the only of nature's adaptogens available. Saunas and cold water treatments (when properly applied) are adaptogenic in their normalizing and general strengthening effects, as are all forms of exercise, if practiced wisely. Also, as Norman Cousins has so eloquently put forth, laughing is a deeply healing activity and is, in rather serious terms, one of the greatest adaptogens.

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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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