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Adaptogen Herbs for Stress

One of the most important methods to support one's health is dealing with stress.  There are many ways to focus on stress management including body mind activities like yoga, tai chi, and other active meditations.  Eating well and good regenerative sleep is also important but all of these activities are difficult and time-consuming.  One of the best tools is using adaptogen herbs to assist in managng the effects of stress on the body. The adaptogens are well established at supporting the bodies response to stress and they are fairly easy to incorporate into one's daily plan. They are not a stand-alone solution but a step in the right direction. I will describe what are adaptogens and two of the most important botanicals in this category of herbs.

What is an Adaptogen?

The word adaptogen was coined by Russian researcher Brekhman in 1969  and it has 3 key parts to its definition. First,  an adaptogen produces a non-specific response to stress in an organism; i.e. An increase in power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents. Second, an adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor. And lastly, an adaptogen is nontoxic when taken internally.  The most common adaptogens came out of Russian research and included eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) previously known as Siberian ginseng and rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), but there are many herbs that classify as adaptogens. I like to break them down into various sub-groupings.

  • Nutritional: Stinging Nettles (Urtica spp.), Ocimum sanctum, Oats (Avena)
  • Liver Supporting: Milk Thistle (Silybum), Schisandra, Glycyrrhiza
  • Classic: Rhodiola rosea, Eleutherococcus, Oplopanax, Panax, Ashwagandha, Ganoderma
  • Energizing: Rhodiola, Cordyceps, Green tea

How Does an Adaptogen Work?
Many researchers like using the newer term resistogen, as it better describes what the herbs do. That they build up the bodies natural resistance to stress, chemical, biological and almost any type of stress. In supporting patients or clients general wellness adaptogens can be very important because they are in general nonspecific. We don’t have to know a specific disease only that stress is causing symptoms and that they need support.  In general, almost every person can use adaptogens for a period of time, 3 to 6 months, while the lifestyle modifications take place.

In general, these are some of the actions that adaptogens can help normalize.

  • Increase resistance to stress
  • Improve fatigue
  • Normalize endocrine function and hormones
  • Calm nervous tension
  • Normalize blood glucose levels
  • Protect against toxins, radiation
  • Improve wound healing
  • Enhance sexuality, vision, hearing
  • Reduce sleep issues and insomnia
  • Enhance longevity
  • Regulate and enhance the immune system

The key aspect is to suggest the right herb or herb combination and then follow up over 3-4 months and see if there is an improvement. There are a few cautions to watch for when suggesting adaptogens. These include long term use (over 6 months) or high dosing without periodic evaluation. Using alone without sensible dietary changes, and improvement in the basic pillars of health. If there are medical issues going on and the person does not improve. Adaptogens can support general health improvement from stress but they will not often treat actual disease or severe imbalances.  This means if the person is not improving to refer or look deeper into possible underlying causes.

Eleutherococcus senticosus

One of the most famous Russian adaptogens is Eleutherococcus senticosus
Siberian Ginseng, although now called eleuthero root, not ginseng. It is in the ginseng family but it is a different genus than Ginseng (Panax) which causes some confusion. It is also the most likely misspelled botanical name so a general agreement is to call it Eleuthero.  The root bark is the most commonly used part of the plant but they also make tea from the leaves. Eleuthero is one of the most studied and document adaptogens and its chemistry is well understood.  In general, a good extract should contain levels of eleutheroside E, B and D.  The taste is mild and not bitter at all which makes it good for pickier eaters.  I naturally like the combination of 4 parts Eleuthero root and 1 part Licorice root. This adds licorice natural sweetness and they work well together. The key aspects to eleuthero root are adaptogenic, and immune modulation as well as enhancing physical performance.  Eleuthero is a good addition to those overcoming illness, and weakness, exhaustion. It is safe and contains no warnings or contraindications in general.  I like to think of Eleuthero as the default go-to adaptogen for almost everyone. Well documented in the research and commercially available.

Rhodiola rosea

Rhodiola is in the Crassulaceae Family (Stonecrop/Sedum) and is a small, slow-growing sedum from Northern Russian and China. It has been used for centuries in traditional medicine and is also call Artic root or Golden root. The thick woody root has a strong taste and distinctive rose smell which is a good way to determining a quality product. It was introduced into the western supplement industry in 1980 and quickly became a rock star herb. The plant contains a variety of compounds

  • Phenylpropanoids: rosavin,rosin, rosarin (unique to Rhodiola rosea only)
  • Phenylethanol derivatives: salidroside, tyrosol
  • Monoterpenes: rosiridol, rosaridin, geraniol.
  • Triterpenes: beta-sitosterol
  • Phenolic acids
  • Tannins and Flavonoids

Only Rhodiola rosea has the 3 compounds collectively called “Rosavins”. Most extracts in clinical studies use a material with 3% rosavins and 0.8-1% salidroside. The natural ratio of Rosavins to Salidroside is 3 to 1. The taste of Rhodiola is harsh and astringent so it combines well with sweet and demulcent herbs. It is a good herb in capsules as the taste is difficult for most.

What makes Rhodiola unique and useful is the dual action that it has. It can be cognitively a stimulate but physically calming. Small doses increase the bioelectrical activity of the brain. The larger dose was found to have to calm and sedating action. The dual action of cognitive stimulation and emotional calming can create immediate cognitive and memory performance as well as long term preservation of brain function. This is interesting because many stress person report lowered memory and cognition as well as low energy. Rhodiola is a perfect solution, so much that I call it the American remedy because of its huge demand in the United States. I would highly recommend a 2018 review article on Rhodiola that give a detailed summary. (INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY IN CLINICAL PRACTICE, 2018 VOL. 22, NO. 4, 242–252)

There is also another recent study that talks about its anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory activity.  Rhodiola rosea extracts and salidroside are unique chemopreventive agents, which not only have anti-cancer and anti-inflammation activity but also strengthen or stimulate normal physiological functions, such immunity, stress response, and DNA repair. Rhodiola rosea extracts and salidroside could confer cellular and systemic benefits of metabolism similar to the effect of positive lifestyle interventions. (Curr Pharmacol Rep . 2017 December ; 3(6): 384–395)  Both of these studies add greatly to the Rhodiola story and I would recommend you get familiar with the two great adaptogens: Eluthero and Rhodiola. 



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