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By Edward C. Wallace, N.D., D.C.
anxiety, irritability. Maybe you've seen the effects of stress in
your customers' behavior, or maybe they've come to you looking
for suggestions on how to calm their nerves and reduce the
impacts of stress on their bodies, minds and souls.
The American Academy of Family Physicians in Kansas City, Mo.,
estimates that approximately two-thirds of all office visits are
for stress-related complaints. Yet stress itself is not an
illness; it is simply a fact of life--and always has been. The
stressors have changed over the years, but human physiology has
remained the same.
Humans once were regularly at risk of being attacked by wild
animals or hostile people. Our bodies still respond to threats by
secreting hormones that change our physiology and thus enhance
our ability to run away or defend ourselves. This response,
termed "fight or flight," includes intense stimulation of the
sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands resulting in
increased respiration rates and higher blood pressure and blood
sugar levels as well as increased heart rate and force of
contractions. At the same time, there is a decrease in digestive
secretions. In cases of acute stress, the situation is often
resolved quickly, and normal physiology returns. If stress is
prolonged or chronic, however, the body's calls to action become
The body expends a great amount of energy keeping itself in a
heightened state of readiness. When weakened by prolonged
stress--be it caused by lack of sleep, poor diet, chemical toxins
in the environment or mental assaults--the body's ability to
maintain homeostasis can be compromised, and illness can result.
Adaptogenic herbs have traditionally helped prevent the
imbalances that can result from stress and have therefore
prevented or minimized disease.
Attuning With Herbs
An adaptogenic substance is one 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 to
describe the unique action of a material claimed to increase
nonspecific resistance of an organism to an adverse influence. 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
As it turns out, many herbs have exactly these properties. In
keeping with the definition, modern herbalists say adaptogenic
herbs are plants with properties that exert a normalizing
influence on the body, neither over-stimulating nor inhibiting
normal body function, but rather exerting a generalized tonifying
At the core of an adaptogen's scope of actions is the ability to
help the body cope more effectively with stress. Specifically,
adaptogens recharge the adrenal glands, which are the body's
nominal mechanism for responding to stress and emotional changes.
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. The question is, if adaptogens
normalize the body and enable energy to be used more productively
when stressors are not physical threats, can they be used to
enhance general health and performance? Several studies indicate
The Great Equalizers
Adaptogens can help people handle stress by providing:
Liver protection and antitoxin activity
Improved blood-sugar metabolism
Less craving for alcohol or sugar
Improved immune resistance
Increased energy and stamina
Improved muscle tone
Better focus and concentration
Better motivation and productivity
A feeling of well-being
The list of plants with adaptogenic properties is long largely
because of the term's broad definition. Topping the list is red
ginseng from Asia (called either Chinese, Korean, or Japanese
ginseng), considered the "gold standard" of adaptogenic herbs.
Other commonly accepted adaptogenic herbs include the white
American ginseng, Siberian ginseng, suma, ashwaganda, astragalus,
licorice, schisandra and jiaogulan. The mushrooms reishi,
shiitake and maitake are also considered to have adaptogenic
a chi tonic--more specifically a tonic for the yang chi--in
traditional Chinese medicine. 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
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)
In a recent in vitro study, researchers from the department of
pathology at Okayama University Medical School in Japan found
that Asian ginseng extract inhibited hydroxyl radical formation.
The authors believe 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. 
A classic adaptogen, 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 tonify 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. [7, 8]
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. The risk continued to decrease with use up to
20 years. In the study, ginseng was found to protect against
cancers of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, colorectum, liver,
lung, pancreas and ovaries. Thus, the authors conclude that
ginseng has a protective effect in most cases of
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius),
although 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 ginsenosides as the Asian ginsengs 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. 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.
|Stress-Induced Health Problems
Stress can influence reproductive function,
the immune system and the brain. The following conditions are
commonly linked to stress:
Cardiovascular disease syndrome
Diabetes (adult onset, type II)
Irritable bowel disease
Source: Selye, H. Stress in Health and
Disease (Butterworths, 1976).
Like Asian and American ginseng, Siberian ginseng has been shown
to normalize reactions to physical and mental stress with great
effectiveness when used for several months. In evaluating the
adaptogenic properties of Siberian ginseng, a large study
reviewed the results of a number of clinical trials involving
2,100 healthy men and women ages 19 to 72. Subjects were given
doses of ginseng ranging from 2 to 16 ml of fluid extract, 33
percent ethanol, from one to three times daily for up to 60 days.
Subjects had increased mental alertness and work output, enhanced
athletic performance and improved work quality. They also
exhibited an improved ability to withstand adverse conditions
such as heat, noise, increases in workload and physical
Suma (Pfaffia paniculata) is a relatively
new addition to Western herbal medicine. Influenced by the
popularity of ginseng, people often refer to suma as Brazilian
ginseng. Preliminary chemical analysis indicates suma contains
vitamins A, E, B1 and B2; 19 amino acids including lysine,
histidine, arginine and glycine; and small amounts of calcium,
iron, potassium and sodium.
Japanese researcher T. Takemoto of Tokushima Bunri University
reports that suma can be beneficial in treating cases of
bronchitis, high cholesterol, anemia, diabetes, fatigue and
stress.  Marcus Laux, N.D., says suma can increase
resistance to stress and also possesses analgesic and
anti-inflammatory properties that may help alleviate
pain.  Suma has been shown to accelerate wound
healing, reduce tumor growth, and regulate blood sugar levels,
blood pressure, cholesterol and hormones, according to Laux.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) is often
called Indian ginseng, seemingly to group it 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, a nervine and a
sedative,  ashwaganda has been used in Ayurvedic
medicine for more than 2,500 years. Recent studies show
ashwaganda to be immuno-modulating and to aid in cases of anxiety
and other psychological complaints. [14-16]
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. Thus, astragalus is often added to formulations
used to treat weak patients. Similarly, it is 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
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra and G.
uralensis), another popular herb in China, 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. [21,22] Additionally, licorice can inhibit the
breakdown of adrenal hormone by the liver, thereby increasing
corticosteroid levels in circulation while inhibiting cortisol's
ability to promote thymus atrophy. 
Melvyn Werbach, M.D., and Michael Murray, N.D., in their book
Botanical Influences on Illness (Third Line Press, 1994),
say components of licorice exhibit numerous pharmacological
actions, including estrogenic activity  and
aldosteronelike action.  Werbach and Murray also say
licorice is an anti-inflammatory  with cortisollike
action  as well as an antiallergic,  an
antihepatotoxic  and an antineoplastic. 
Lastly, it has the ability to heal peptic ulcers. 
Several studies show glycyrrhizin, a constituent of licorice root
and the major component of the previously mentioned saponins, has
immune-enhancing properties and is potentially beneficial for HIV
One note of caution: Because of its aldosteronelike 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) is commonly used as a
general tonic and to promote liver health. In addition, it can be
used as an adaptogenic tonic to counter the effects of stress and
fatigue. Scientific studies show it has normalizing effects in
cases of insomnia and neurasthenia, and improves mental
coordination and physical endurance.  Research
suggests schisandra may actually influence electrical discharges
in the brain. 
* Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum), a
member of the gourd family that grows in southern China, Korea,
Japan and India, is also relatively new to the list of
adaptogens. According to recent studies, jiaogulan contains
nearly four times as many saponins as Panax ginseng
does.  These saponins, known as gypenosides, are
similar to the ginsenosides and panaxosides found in Asian
ginseng. Preliminary studies also suggest jiaogulan may have even
more powerful regulatory effects on a number of body systems than
does Asian ginseng. In addition, jiaogulan has demonstrated
antibacterial and anti-inflammatory activity and a beneficial
effect on blood pressure regulation; it also has been shown to
bolster the immune system, improve fat metabolism, moderate
cholesterol levels, and enhance strength and physical
* Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), shiitake
(Lentinus edodes) and maitake (Grifola
frondosa) mushrooms may not be adaptogens in the classic
sense, but each has adaptogenic, antitumor and
immune-potentiating properties.  Reishi and shiitake
traditionally have been used as tonics, while reishi has been
called the elixir of immortality.
These traditional herbs, many established by hundreds or
thousands of years of use, are now beginning to prove themselves
under modern medical scrutiny. Studies show their many and
far-reaching health benefits. Despite these herbs' normalizing
qualities, it is best to urge customers to consult a medical
professional before using adaptogenic products.
Even though modern stresses differ from those of the past, the
body's reactions remain the same. Adaptogens may hold the key to
living well in the next century. NSN
Edward C. Wallace, N.D., D.C., practices in West Branch, Iowa.
He is also a freelance health and nutrition writer and lectures
on both herbal medicine and homeopathy.
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