Adaptogens: New Conceptions and Uses, Personal Insights and Recent Advances

The Impact of Stress on Health

Though the current model of conventional medicine would have us think otherwise, humans, like plants, and all living beings, differ from machines and are not meant to merely function. We are living in a mechanistic world, that turns us more into functioning machines, rather than the spirited beings that our creator intended us to be. Humans are meant to create, feel, respond, adapt, heal and love. In today's modern world, stress contributes to at least 70% of all illnesses. More than one hundred years ago the Eclectic Physician, Eli Jones, referred to "worriment of the mind" as the number one cause of cancer. Our adaptive capability is critical not only in our ability to resist disease, but also in our ability to thrive and be full of zest and zeal.

Stress is something that can be perceived mostly as the state by which we react to the external environment. How we live, eat, breathe, exercise, and rest all contribute to our ability to maintain homeostasis. It's not only a matter of what happens, but how we react to it and how much reserve we have. Over time the accumulation of stress weakens our adaptive capabilities to a point where we fall out of balance. This state of imbalance precedes any manifestation of chronic illness and is the best place to address the person - BEFORE DIESEASE SETS IN.

Using Herbal Adaptogens to Maintain Balance

In conjunction with creating and living a healthy life, one can use herbal "Adaptogens" as an important component for the enhancement of vitality, balance, stress management, and the prevention of disease. Herbal adaptogens assist the body in their ability to normalize homeostasis, optimize metabolism, and improve resistance to a variety of adverse factors with few or no side effects. 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.

History of Adaptogens

Although the term adaptogens originated in Russia, the practice of using herbs on a daily basis to prevent disease, slow down the aging process, enhance health and well being, and increase one's ability to cope with stress has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Using such herbs as ginseng provided great stamina, endurance and strength for surviving harsh conditions. This wisdom was passed down from generation to generation.

In the 1950s Russian scientists began to study these plants individually and over the past 40 years more than 1,000 scientific studies have been done on adaptogens.

The Concept of Adaptogens from Russia

The hypothesis about the state of Enhanced General Resistance (SEGR) was developed in Russia in 1959 by leading pharmacologist and professor N.V. Lazarev, and remains crucial for understanding the action of adaptogens. In the 1950's and 60's, much testing was conducted in Russia with Eleutherococcus senticosus, also known as Siberian ginseng, on factory workers, truck drivers, sailors on long voyages, military personnel, athletes, and cosmonauts (Russian astronauts). The research showed that the administration of Eleutherococcus increased energy, stamina, the capacity to carry out demanding activities and enhanced the ability to handle all types of stressors.

The Russian government realized that this new class of natural substances, most notably, Eleuthrococcus, could give Russians an advantage in sports, space, and the military. Because of this they strongly supported scientific research into adaptogens. There are more than 2000 scientific papers (mostly Russian) about the effectiveness of Eleutherococcus.

Eleutherococcus has shown to be highly effective in improving our adaptive capability to respond to adverse conditions. It can help with temperature extremes, immobilization, recovery from injury, recovery from drug intoxication, cancer therapies, X-rays, the effects of high dose hormone therapies (insulin, epinephrine, steroids), and jet lag. It can also have a preventive effect against biological pathogens and can improve both mental and physical work capacity.

Prior to studying Eleutherococcus, the Russians had been studying Panax ginseng. They found Eleutherococcus to be more broadly adaptable to a wider range of people, easier to find or grow, and more cost effective than Panax Ginseng.

Outline of the phases of Adaptogens' protective action:

Protective actions of adaptogens include:

  • increase the work capacity under normal conditions
  • activate the organism's systems
  • stimulate the defense systems

When adaptogens are used under stressful (harmful) conditions they:

  • activate the organism's systems
  • protect from damage (especially, stress induced damage) through anti-catabolic action
  • stimulate regeneration and repair through anabolic/anti-catabolic action

As an herbalist, I apply an energetic understanding of all plant medicines including adaptogens. I understand and use the most appropriate herbal adaptogen(s) for the specific constitutional make up of the individual. Traditional herbal medical systems use energetic constitutional diagnoses when choosing adaptogens for an individual as for all other medicinal plants. Certain adaptogens are better for certain types of people. The uniqueness of Eleutherococcus is that it appears to be suited and effective for many types of people, while lacking any side effects.

Current Situation

Many companies in the U.S. promote products based on claims about Panax ginseng extract, Eleutherococcus extract, and Schizandra (fruit extract as opposed to the seed extract) which are based on Russian scientific research. However, Eleutherococcus, given the popular name "Siberian Ginseng" is neither a ginseng, nor is it from Siberia. Furthermore, many products sold as Siberian ginseng are not Eleutherococcus, but an herb grown in China called Ciwujia, a close relative to Eleutherococcus, which contains constituents that are inferior to Eleutherococcus.

As many as 60% of all ginseng products sold in the US have been found to have little or no active constituents (Michael Castelman, The Healing Herbs, University of California, San Diego), making them useless. Much of the Siberian ginseng sold in the U.S. comes from China and is of very low quality.

Commonly, a similar mistake is made with another well-known adaptogenic plant called schizandra. Most of the research done on schizandra has been done on the seed extract rather then the fruit, yet the encapsulated schizandra fruit, or fruit extracts are what is widely sold in the USA. Although the fruit is a good medicine, and perhaps a weak adaptogen, it is not as potent as the seed. Schizandra is widely used for the treatment of stress-induced nervous system exhaustion and fatigue, insomnia, weakness, depression, forgetfulness, vision problems, diarrhea and chemical toxicity. Schizandra seed extract is a potent antioxidant that has demonstrated its superiority to vitamin antioxidants against selective oxygen species (SOS), also called free radicals. In addition, various ethanol soluble lignans found in the seed extract have powerful liver protective properties against a variety of chemical toxins. Besides hepatitis and other liver ailments, schizandra is also helpful in certain types of intestinal infections including chronic gastritis.

Russian studies indicate that schizandra improves vision, particularly in adjusting to darkness. I use quite a bit of schizandra seed extract in my practice. I find it an invaluable plant medicine. As an adaptogen, it is particularly good for the asthetic-hypo-functioning-type with fatigue, poor circulation, and mild depression. An Adaptogenic Formulation for this type of person might consist of schizandra seed/ avena/ hypericum/ panax/ cactus/ pantocrine/ ashwagandha/ licorice/ prickly ash/ and kola. The results of this formula taken 3-5 ml 3 x daily, along with 1000 mg. Of Tyrosine 2 x daily are very impressive.

Beyond Eleuthero

A broader understanding of the term "adapt" should also be considered not only for the herbs chosen for the individual but also for the entire treatment plan. In other words, "who are you treating" (body type, genetics), "what are you treating" (yes, I know this person has hypertension but what are you going to treat), "where you are treating" (geographical location - this makes a difference because a person living in a cold northern climate with little sunlight has different needs then a person living in a tropical area), and "when are you treating" (age, time of the year, time of the month, and even day).

If you can bare with me and enable yourself to look outside the traditional concept of adaptogens to see beyond what our trained intellect teaches us, I think I will be able to shed some new light and expand your concept of adaptogens. When building a formula and/or protocol for a person I 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 flavanoid-rich plants. Rather then thinking in terms of the individual herbs and the specific individual effects they might have, think in terms of formulating a blend of herbs that act in such a harmonic way that their synergy is something new and is more that the sum of the individual ingredients.

Flavanoid-rich Plants as Adaptogens

Prolonged stress leads to suppressed activity of anti-oxidant systems and immune function, increased lipid peroxidation, and increased inflammation. The vast research on adaptogens suggests that these agents possess unique pharmacological properties. They can maintain antioxidant function under normal conditions and can raise our antioxidant abilities when under stressful conditions.

I consider certain flavonoid-rich plants to be herbal adaptogens. The flavonoid-rich plants I most often prescribe include; elderberry (Sambucus nigra), the leaf, flower and berry of bilberry or blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), the leaf, flower and berry of hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha), as well as the skin and seed of the red and/or purple grape and the common cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus). I recommend that everyone consume at least one source of these important plant-flavanoid-rich adaptogens regularly, whether as food or an herbal supplement.

One way to determine which flavanoid-rich berry should be ingested as a supplement in a concentrated form for a particular individual is based on body systems. Each one has a specific affinity for an area of the body -- hawthorn, the heart and cardiovascular system; bilberry -- the eye; cranberry -- the urinary tract system; elderberry -- the immune system, and grape -- the lymph and liver. Grape juice has been used throughout Europe, and by the Eclectics as a nutritive adaptogenic tonic for both cleansing and strengthening the body.

If there are no specific indications for a particular flavanoid rich adaptogenic plant, consider rotating them according to the seasons - during the winter months use elderberry, during the spring, hawthorn berry, during the summer, bilberry, and in the early fall, grape extract and cranberry extract in the late fall.

Recent studies on Elderberry extract have shown that it possesses an array of health benefits. These include:

  • potent free-radical scavenging ability, reducing oxidative stress (anti-oxidant) and providing cellular protection
  • Non-Specific Immune Enhancement: Elderberries boost cytokine production. A unique protein found in elderberry acts as a messenger regulating immune response.
  • Anti-viral Activity: Elderberry is a potent viral inhibitor. Its anti-influenza ability is much researched in both Israel and Switzerland. Elder berry has also shown to inhibit herpes virus and HIV in cell culture. Elderberry can be taken as a tonic to inhibit colds and the flu.
  • Cardiovascular Protection: The anthocyanins present in elderberries protect vascular epithelial cells against oxidative insult, preventing vascular disease. Elderberry has shown to reduce LDL cholesterol and atherosclerosis.
  • Stress Reduction: Austrian research on Elderberry shows it to possess remarkable stress-reducing and adaptogenic ability. In one study, Elderberry shortened recovery time from physical exertion. In another study conducted by the US Air Force, Elderberry extract reduced the stress load endured by pilots.
  • Collagen-stabilizing action makes elderberry also useful for healing connective tissue swelling, both acute and chronic. This includes hemorrhoids, sprains, arthritis and varicose veins.

Cranberries, an overlooked adaptogen

Cranberries are a good source of vitamin C, potassium, and many micronutrients. Cranberries are also a rich source of flavanoids and phenolic compounds such as anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, all of which are potent anti-oxidant, cell protective, and anti-cancer constituents. Cranberries also contain a number of organic acids including benzoic acid, malic acid, quinic acid, and citric acid.

Cranberries, taken as a juice, have bacteriostatic effects well known for their effectiveness at preventing and treating urinary tract infections (UTI). Cranberry juice alters the pH of the urine, making it more acidic which in part inhibits certain types of bacteria from proliferating. E. coli bacteria, the most common type of UTI, is inhibited by cranberry juice. Besides changing the urinary pH, cranberry juice inhibits the adherence of bacteria to bladder cells through pectin-mediated compounds found in the fruit. Cranberries also inhibit the growth of several types of yeast.


Another flavanoid-rich substance used in Ayurvedic medicine as an adaptogen and tonic is Amla (Emblica off.). It is made from a small fruit that grows in India. Classified as a rejuvenative and restorative tonic, it is known to be one of Nature's richest sources of vitamin C. Each fruit contains about 20 times the vitamin C as an orange. It is a wonderful source of flavanoids, as well as vitamin E, vitamin B complex, and carotenoids. It has been shown in studies to raise the body's levels of the important antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase (SOD).

In India, amla is given as a tonic to relieve a variety of circulatory, digestive, and respiratory conditions. Some of the health conditions amla is useful for include: anemia, poor digestion, diabetes, chronic lung conditions, colds, yeast infections, hypertension, elevated cholesterol levels, low immune function and cancer. Amla is also the main ingredient in two of the most famous tonic formulas used in India, Chyvanprash and Trifal. Trifal is an herbal combination of three fruits: Haritaki (Terminalia chebula), Amla (Phyllanthus emblica) and Bahera (Terminalia bellerica). In Ayurvedic medicine, trifal is mentioned in Rasayanas. Rasayanas are classified as tonics in Ayurveda. They can be taken by anyone and are herbs that constantly rejuvenate the body. Trifal has adaptogenic and rejuvenating properties that target the lower digestive system, and is a wonderful intestinal cleanser.

Amla's reputation as a powerful health-promoter and adaptogen is being demonstrated in clinical research. Clinical effects of Amla include:

  • Accelerates repair and regeneration of connective tissue
  • Enhances interferon production, and increases adrenal gland function
  • Increases lean body mass

Adaptogens and Cancer Inhibition

Cancer research reveals that herbal adaptogens can play a pivotal role in cancer prevention either by inhibiting carcinogenesis or by stabilizing or reversing premalignant conditions. Herbs that fall under the category of adaptogens tend to be diverse in their actions and require time to invoke their therapeutic effects. Adaptogens are important during active cancer, assisting the body in coping with cancer, and increasing the body's ability to withstand many of the negative effects of conventional cancer therapies - surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapies.

The use of adaptogenic plants, including Rhodiola, Schizandra, Rhaponticum Carthamoides, Ganoderma (Resihi), Curcuma longa (turmeric), and Eleutherococcus when administered to cancer patients has shown to consistently improve results. There is enough evidence based on years of research to conclude that adaptogenic plants, when used regularly, can effectively prevent the development and reoccurrence of cancer, suppress metastases, and decrease the adverse side effects of conventional cytotoxic therapies.

Adaptogens inhibit cancer by enhancing defense systems in a multitude of ways, some of which include:

  • Inhibition of genetic damage, by reducing the damaging effects of selective oxygen species (SOS) - acting as antioxidants
  • Stimulation of DNA repair mechanisms in cells able to be repaired, or inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death), in cells too damaged to be repaired, that otherwise could cause oxidative damage such as lipid peroxidation.
  • Increasing the utilization of oxygen and fuel with fewer negative waste by-products such as lactic acid
  • Assisting in the body's ability to manage stress, therefore increasing vitality
  • Angiogenesis inhibition -- mechanisms include the following:
  • Suppression of beta fibroblast growth factor (bFGF)
  • Suppression of vascular endothelial, growth factor (VEGF)
  • Inhibition of urokinase-type plasminogen activator (uPA) contributes to the degradation of the vascular basement membrane and extracellular matrix. According to the results of a prospective 14-center trial, women with node-negative breast cancer who have low levels of urokinase-type plasminogen activator (uPA) and plasminogen activator inhibitor type 1 (PAI-1) do not need chemotherapy after surgery. Dr. Anita Prechtl, of Technical University in Munich, Germany, presented interim results at the 91st annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. The researchers enrolled 684 women with node-negative disease between June 1993 and January 1999.
  • Inhibition of protein kinase C. (PKC)
  • Inhibition of cyclooxygenase (COX)-2. COX-2 is not detectable in most normal tissues; it is induced by phorbol esters, cytokines, and growth factors, including TGF-beta, and bFGF, and has been associated with carcinogenesis. COX-2, but not COX-1, was found to be up-regulated in several human cancers, including colon cancer, gastric cancer, breast, prostate, bladder, lung cancer, and squamous cell carcinoma.

The ability of flavanoids to inhibit cancer appears to be similar to many of the other natural food phytonutrients - via the liver and its detoxifying enzyme systems: induce Phase II xenobiotic detoxification, quinone reductase, and inhibit ornithine decarboxylase (ODC), an enzyme involved in cancer synthesis and tumor promotion. Proanthocyanidin and anthocyanin inhibited all the phases of the lipid peroxidative cascade and the induction initiated by hydrogen peroxide. Proanthrocyaninin has shown antioxidant ability to be 10X greater than vitamin E.

Ellagic acid is another important phenolic constituent found in many berries and nuts. Pomegranates are the richest source of ellagic acid, but raspberries, black berries, elderberries, marionberries, boysenberries, and loganberries possess it too. Ellagic acid inhibits cancer formation and is believed to inhibit cancer mutation by latching onto DNA masking sensitive sites on the genetic material that might otherwise be occupied by harmful chemicals. Ellagic acid is particularly effective in the inhibition of lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking.

If you don't already consume a variety of berries in your diet, I recommend that you eat them regularly and suggest that you recommend the same to your clients as well.

All of these growth factors contribute to the invasion of microvascular endothelial cell growth and the invasion of cancer.

Green Tea

Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), the most abundant phenolic compounds found in Camellia sinensis, better known by its common name, green tea, inhibits u-PA, one of the hydrolases implicated in tumor invasion. EGCG directly suppresses the activity of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-2 and MMP-9, both isomers of (MMP), two of the proteases most frequently over-expressed in cancer and angiogenesis, and essential in cutting through basement membrane barriers. (Nature 1999, 398, 381)

The consumption of 2 or 3 cups of green tea are sufficient to exert such a promising biological activity. I classify green tea as an adaptogen and great overall tonic with numerous health benefits.

Rhodiola rosea

Based on many years of Russian research, Rhodiola rosea, has shown to rival Eleutherococcus as an important adaptogen. Rhodiola possesses anticarcinogenic, antimetastatic, and antimutagenic action.

Rhodiola extract has been shown to enhance the antitumor effects of the chemotherapeutic drug cyclophosphamide (Cytoxin), while at the same time assisting in the regenerative process of the immune system. Rhodiola has shown to shorten the recovery time on suppressed white blood cells following chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Rhodiola is slightly more suited for the adrenal cortical "yin deficient" excess types. These would include men or women that tend to run a bit hot, with slightly elevated blood pressure and blood lipids etc.

Some Western herbs I consider to be adaptogens include Avena sativa (milky oats), Cactus grandiflorus (Night-Blooming cereus), and Oplapanax (Devil's club).

Cactus grandiflorus

Cactus grandiflorus strengthens the nervous system by increasing nerve tone through improved nutrition of the entire nervous system and the muscular structure of the heart. It has a regulating action over the sympathetic nervous system by restoring normal action and improving nutrition and circulation of the brain. It is more indicated for parasympathetic kidney-deficient types but can be used effectively with other types of constitutional profiles. A specific indication for the use of cactus is a feeling of restriction around the chest, as if a band was wrapped around it. In smaller doses, combined with the appropriate tonic herbs, it is a good adaptogen, and is useful for slowing down the aging process. It slightly elevates the arterial tension, and increases and regulates the pulse. For those individuals with kidney deficiency, i.e., those people with low blood pressure, cold extremities, chronic fatigue with surface nervousness, light-headedness, and with a tendency to depression, Cactus grandiflorus may be combined with other herbs and nutrients to bring about beneficial effects. These would include panax or panax quinquefolium, Avena sativa, pantocrine, licorice, schizandra seed, hypericum, small amounts of pulsatilla, when indicated, and a synergist-harmonizer, such as ginger, kola or prickly ash. These herbs, along with the amino acid tyrosine, 1000 mg. bid, 500 mg. of vitamin C in the mineral ascorbate form, 200 - 500 mg. of pantothine (co enzyme of vitamin B-5), and specific changes in diet (usually a little more quality protein, fat, with less sugar and starch) and lifestyle can really help.

Synergists: Agents that Potentiate and Harmonize Adaptogens

Herbs that are used as synergists are those that potentate, harmonize, and improve the deep circulation of other herbs used. Though, ginger is the most well known synergist, there are four other herbs I consider and use in formulas to improve their actions.

1. Nux vomica: use 1 - 4% of formulation

Use Nux vomica when there is severe digestive weakness, general malnutrition, particularly with a slightly yellow tongue, general lack of sexual energy, impotence, following long illness with general weakness, lack of appetite, slow and weak pulse and sub-normal body temperature

2. Cola acuminata: (Kola nut): use 1 - 7% in formulation

Use Kola when there is nervous exhaustion, chronic stomach disorders with digestive weakness, nausea, depression, mental weakness, cerebral oxygen and blood insufficiency, to increase physical strength and endurance. It was often an added ingredient to many nutritive-tonic formulas, used in America and throughout Europe.

3. Xanthoxylum: (prickly ash): use 2-8% in formulation

Use Prickly Ash when there is the need to increase the tone and functional activity of the nervous system as well as all functional organs of the body. It is diffusive and a mild circulatory stimulant. It aids adaptogens in their ability to sustain vitality during acute stress. Its actions are wide and will rival ginger as perhaps the best formula synergist we have. It is particularly effective when there is imperfect glandular secretion, specifically in dry conditions. Sometimes when I want to use belladonna for its amazing anti-spasmodic effects, but am afraid it is too drying, I will combine it with prickly ash as well as other herbs to offset the drying effect with satisfaction.

4. Black Pepper (Piper nigrum): 1-2% in formulation

Common black pepper, was historically used to protect against rancidity of food (mostly meat) and to cover up the taste of food that had already become semi-rancid. In the body, black pepper exerts an anti-hepatotoxic effect, acting as a synergist that assists other nutrients in performing their functions more effectively. Black pepper prolongs the life of certain herbal constituents, allowing them to be absorbed better and work for longer periods of time. Many encapsulated formulas are using a black pepper extract referred to as Bioprene to improve the action of the other herbs and nutrients.


The foundation of any herbal formulation and protocol I put together for a person with or without cancer is built around adaptogens. Adaptogens, in and of themselves, are usually not enough to reverse active cancer but should be included in a protocol or formula with other specific herbs in a comprehensive approach. Adaptogens will enhance quality and quantity of life and are very suited for the person who has had active cancer but is now trying to live a healthy and complete life while keeping cancer dormant.

If we truly believe stress to be a main contributing factor to cancer and other chronic illnesses, as well as the aging process, and we truly want to be wholistic in our approach by treating causative factors, then adaptogens should be considered an important aspect of preventing cancer and promoting well-being.

A few final thoughts on the practice of herbalism

A good clinical herbalist follows a path from their eyes, ears, and hands, to their mind and then straight to their spirit. This process must involve the inner and outer self, the mind and heart, the rational self and the creative spiritual self - it is where time and space meet and melt together. The human spirit must be actively involved in the process of facilitating the energetic harmonious flow of formulating plant medicines. Herbalism is a fine art form of creativity, where the mind and heart, and the natural and super natural exist. It is alive, in motion, always responding and living in harmony - it is Divine in Nature and is pure Love.

For the long haul, the mind by itself can not do it, but aided by the body and the wisdom of the heart, there is a better chance that the place we are going, the journey we are on is true, is healing, and is whole. In life it is not how much we do, but rather how much love we put into our doing. To love and to heal are not a luxury for the few! They are for you and for me and are what brings us joy.

Written by Donald R. Yance, Jr.

Copyright ©2000 Centre for Natural Healing. All rights reserved.



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