Understanding Adaptogenic Herbs and How They Work

by John G. Connor, M.Ac., L.Ac., edited by Barbara Connor, M.Ac., L.Ac.

Table of Contents
What are Adaptogenic Herbs?
Usefulness as Foundation Formulas
Synergistic Blending of Adaptogens
How Adaptogens Work
Modulating of Deficient or Excess Conditions
Better Toleration of Stressful Stimuli

What are Adaptogenic Herbs?
Herbs have healing powers because they are charged with light and are alive with life.  Herbs, like human beings are positioned to adapt and respond, as opposed to drugs, which are solely functional. Good health can be measured by our ability to adapt.  Adaptogens are plants that help us to combat the negative effects of stress and improve resistance thus improving our health and well-being.  They increase the body’s vitality and reserve, enhance the life-force, encourage natural harmony and generate radiant health. 

A primary adaptogen is a remedy which: 1) Must be safe and have no side effects, even with prolonged consumption. 2) Must enhance the general resistance of the entire body. 3) Must act in a non-specific way having a ‘normalizing effect’ against all forms of stress. 4) Must have an ability to maintain or restore homeostasis. 5) Must also have solid scientific research validating its use as an adaptogen

Examples of primary adaptogens are: Eleutherococcus senticosus (formerly known as Siberian Ginseng), Schisandra chinensis (Schisandra seed), Panax quinquefolius (American Ginseng), Rhodiola rosea (Golden Arctic root), and Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha root).  An example of a secondary adaptogen is: Ganoderma lucidum.

Usefulness as Foundation Formulas
Adaptogens come recommended by long-term use in traditional cultures, sometimes with hundreds of years of positive experience, along with the most outstanding scientific research of any medicine to date.  Adaptogens provide a foundation to assist in facilitating a harmonious flow of energy, optimize our state of wellness, enable us to ward off disease and extend our lifespan.  They help bolster our innate resistance to disease and help prevent stress from taking such a devastating toll on our nervous, hormonal and immune systems.  Scientists from Russia, as well as from Germany and Greece, have studied adaptation and the use of adaptogenic plants for over 50 years, validating their immense healing effects. They are the foundations to any protocol for people who are healthy, sick or elderly.

Synergistic Blending of Adaptogens
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the art and science of herbal combining has been practiced for over two thousand years with the understanding of the synergy in creating a formula.  When building a formula and/or protocol for a person, we believe regardless of what condition they have, or what they present as far as symptomology, the foundation should be adaptogens and should include one or more flavonoid-rich plants.  Rather than thinking in terms of the individual herbs and the specific individual effects they might have, we need to start thinking in terms of their synergistic blending.  An important attribute of adaptogens is their ability to restore and/or maintain a healthy variable balance between the yin and yang energies throughout the body.

Adaptogens work at the cellular level to help normalize the body’s various functions and stimulate the recovery processes needed to adapt to all of the different types of stress in our lives.  Accumulative stress causes the body’s subsequent inability to perform key functions efficiently, and it is this cause and effect that has been linked with most illnesses, ailments and diseases.  The biologically active substances that are found within adaptogenic plants work to prevent the formation and accumulation of the harmful beta-lipo-proteins caused by stress and also allow the hexokinase enzymes to more readily convert glucose into useable energy.

How Adaptogens Work
Adaptogens work like this:  When under stress, they help the adrenal glands to mount an immediate hormonal response, by manufacturing and releasing more stress hormones.  But when stress stops, they help the adrenal glands to shut down more quickly.  If stress is prolonged and severe, the adrenal glands reserve their resources by reducing the amount of hormones released due to adaptogenic restoration of hypothalamic receptor sensitivity.  This conserved energy is available to continue the body’s responses to stressors, thereby delaying adrenal exhaustion. 

The biological machinery that handles energy in the body is stimulated by adaptogens.  Consequently, during challenge or stress, more sugar is released into the blood from the body’s storehouses.  This glucose is quickly taken up by the tissues to carry out their work.  Adaptogens help glucose to cross the cellular membranes more easily.  In the blood, the levels of sugar return more quickly to normal.

Adaptogens assist the body because of their ability to normalize homeostasis, optimize metabolism, revitalize exhausted organ systems, and improve resistance to a variety of adverse factors without side effects.  Adaptogens balance and rejuvenate the yin (inward) and yang (outward) energy.  They help us to cope with stress more effectively, psychologically, mentally and emotionally.  They enable us to stay strong and healthy during times that we may otherwise get weak and/or sick. 

They also resist or delay many of the negative effects of aging by providing us with better physical, mental and sexual energy; they delay the effects of aging of the eye, skin, heart, and all the organ systems.  They improve sleep that might otherwise be disrupted.  Therefore, herbal adaptogens hold great promise for the development and prevention of chronic illness due to their ability to enhance our resistance to a variety of adverse influences.

Adaptogens act as potent cellular and liver detoxifiers, quenching damaging free radicals and improving cellular redox response and balance.  Eleuthero, rhodiola and shisandra seed extracts are particularly effective at combatting cellular and liver toxicity.

The anti-cancer effects of adaptogens involve immune-modulation — they can activate macrophages, natural killer cells, antigen-dependent T lymphocytes; cytokine regulation, providing an ability to suppress tumor growth, enhance tissue differentiation, improve intercellular adhesion, and reduce the likelihood of metastasis.

Modulating of Deficient or Excess Conditions
Adaptogens also lower plasma corticosterone levels, thus reducing the damage caused by excess cortisol.  In other situations they potentiate cortisol and ACTH, sparing the breakdown of cortisol delaying the exhaustive state.  Cortisol helps the body maintain homeostasis in the face of stressors, counteracts inflammatory and allergic reactions and controls the metabolism of protein and carbohydrates.  Cortisol is a very misunderstood hormone.  Balance, or better yet, harmony is truly the key.  In naturally low doses it stimulates the immune system and in high doses, as prescribed in synthetic drug form, it can be immune suppressing. 

Remember that cortisol plays a role in counteracting inflammatory responses in the immune system and when cortisol is not available because the adrenal glands have become exhausted from too much stress, inflammation is allowed to continue unchecked and fatigue sets in.  Adaptogens can in some way recognize the need to aid in providing more cortisol, or recognize when cortisol is being overproduced for no apparently good reason and needs to be suppressed.  All of this over time strengthens and preserves our adaptive energy, preventing stress from causing disruptions, illness and premature aging.  Being able to modulate either deficient or excess conditions is characteristic of a true adaptogen.

Better Toleration of Stressful Stimuli
In addition, adaptogens have been shown to help our bodies tolerate stressful stimuli (including hard athletic training) by normalizing the body’s metabolism and stimulating the body’s immune system.  Some of the specific results of this are:
1) An increased and steadier flow of energy throughout the day,
2) Much lower feelings of stress,
3) Increased endurance,
4) Greater mental alertness, and
5) More restful sleep. 
In addition, certain adaptogens have a profound anabolic effect.  This means they help the body rebuild damaged muscle tissue rapidly and thoroughly following strenuous training.

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Compassionate Acupuncture and Healing Arts, providing craniosacral acupuncture, herbal and nutritional medicine in Durham, North Carolina. Phone number 919-309-7753.

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