Adaptogen Herbs: Give Yourself a Late Winter Boost with These Valuable Therapeutic Herbs

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Adaptogen Herbs - Ginseng

Ginseng close up.

Living in Ontario, by the time March comes around it can sometimes seem like winter is never going to end. I love winter and have to admit that I actually feel a bit sad when the last of the snow is melting. I couldn’t imagine living somewhere that I wouldn’t be able to experience four seasons each year. When everyone who can manage to get away for a holiday at this time of year is heading south, I always go up north for a week so I can fully enjoy the winter without my everyday distractions. Nevertheless, I have to admit that there is a part of me that sometimes wishes our Ontario winters were about a month shorter. This feeling would probably be much stronger if I lived in central or eastern Ontario where the winters are another three or four weeks longer than where I live.

Aside from learning to accept and appreciate the beauty of this amazing Earth wherever we live, our herbal friends can also help us get through the late winter period with greater health and vitality and prevent some of those late winter colds and flu to which many of us succumb. Herb enthusiasts are aware of the tradition of doing a spring cleanse, but how many have heard about the late winter boost? Probably none of you because I just made it up! However, the basic approach is something that I often recommend. The most important herbs that can assist us in this context are the adaptogens.

What Are Adaptogens?

By definition, adaptogens are herbs that help us to adapt to all forms of stress. To fully appreciate this concept I should begin by discussing stress. In our society this term is mostly used to refer to emotional or psychological stress. However, this term actually refers to any factor that has the potential to disturb our physical, emotional or mental equilibrium. Stress is not just about having a bad day at work or having an argument with someone who is close to us. It includes physical stressors such as intense physical activity, chemical stressors such as environmental toxins, and other stress factors such as radiation. Adaptogenic herbs have the potential to reduce the negative impact of all of these forms of stress on our physical and psychological well-being.

The term adaptogen is a modern one, but this kind of herb has been used in many herbal traditions for millennia. Until recently, the properties of these herbs were best explained within the context of some of the eastern herbal traditions, especially in China and India. These herbs were known in the West as well but in more general terms. They were often referred to as ‘general tonics’ which is what they are. However, this concept is vague because there are many kinds of general tonics that work in different ways.

‘Alterative’ is another Western term that many of you might have come across. An alterative herb is one that alters our metabolism in a way that restores normal functioning. Although it is now falling into disuse, there are many herb books that still use this term. Once more it is somewhat vague because it doesn’t explain what the herbs are doing. This term has primarily been used to refer to depurative herbs. These are herbs that assist our body in eliminating waste products and toxins. Since waste products and toxins interfere with normal body functioning, reducing their is one way that we can normalize our metabolic processes. However, the term alterative can also be used to describe an adaptogen. That’s why I don’t find alterative to be a very useful category. I prefer to use the terms depurative and adaptogen because each of these categories of herbs helps to restore normal functioning via different mechanisms and is used differently.

Benefits of Adaptogens

Adaptogenic herbs are pretty amazing in many ways. They completely defy many of the reductionistic assumptions of modern pharmacology. When used correctly they tend to be amphoteric. This means that they normalize function rather than stimulate or suppress it. Adaptogenic herbs can have opposite effects depending on the needs of the individual.

Another important property of adaptogens is that their action tends to be self-limiting. The more we need them, the more they work; the less we need them, the less they work.

Due to the influence of Western reductionistic medicine in our society, we tend to use medicines for the treatment of the symptoms of disease. From an herbalist’s perspective, we more interested in focusing on the underlying causes of illness rather than on the superficial symptoms, but we also recognize that herbs can be used to help optimize our health. The adaptogens are one of the most important therapeutic categories of herbs for optimizing health.

Although considerable research has been done on many adaptogenic herbs, their pharmacological action is very complex and still poorly understood. We do know that all of these herbs improve general blood circulation in our body, including to our brain and endocrine organs. Improving circulation has important tonic affects because it increases the ability of our organs, tissues and cells to access the oxygen and nutrients that they require for normal functioning, and to be able to eliminate waste products and toxins. This tends to produce general benefits for all of our organs.

Adaptogens also normalize the functioning of our central nervous system and endocrine glands in many complex ways besides improving blood flow. Since our nervous and endocrine systems work together to directly or indirectly coordinate and control all body functions, this is another important way that adaptogenic herbs produce generalized health benefits to our entire body.

Another important benefit of these herbs is their ability to normalize immune functioning and the inflammatory response. Once more the mechanisms are very complex. They include direct effects on immune cells, our bone marrow where these cells are produced, and indirect effects mediated via our nervous and endocrine systems. This is not surprising because recent research indicates that our immune system functions more like a specialized part of our endocrine system. Normalizing immune function not only helps to protect us from infection, it also helps to prevent our body’s inflammatory response from spiraling out of control.

This is why adaptogens are one of the most important categories of herbs for the treatment of autoimmune conditions. In addition, all adaptogens contain numerous antioxidant constituents that also help to control inflammation. Many of them have demonstrated a significant ability to help protect specific organs and tissues such as our brain, heart, blood vessels, liver and kidneys. These are additional ways that adaptogenic herbs have general health benefits for our whole body.

Because of their broad-spectrum action, adaptogenic herbs can benefit every system of our body to some degree. However, for maximum benefit it is very important that they are used correctly. There are three general ways that adaptogens are used.

How to Use Adaptogens

Firstly, they are use as general tonics by healthy individuals who are not suffering from any acute or significant chronic illnesses. Used in this context they give our body a general tune-up and help to prevent illness, boost our energy, improve our mood, and optimize our health in many other important ways. They will also help to improve both mental and physical endurance for those who need it, such as labourers, athletes and people who need to maintain their mental concentration throughout the day. Using adaptogens in this way, of course, will work best for those of us that eat a healthy diet, get sufficient exercise and sleep, and engage in other healthy lifestyle practices. Adaptogenic herbs are not, as some people have suggested, a way to significantly offset the negative affects of an unhealthy diet and lifestyle.

Secondly, adaptogens can be used to boost our immune system and help us get back on our feet after a period of acute illness. Unfortunately, this is another situation where the use of these herbs is often misrepresented. They are not recommended for use during an acute infectious condition. In spite of this, the market is full of herbal formulations recommended for use for the treatment of acute infections that include adaptogenic herbs. Part of the reason for the confusion is that many people do not understand the difference between the deeper immune tonic action of adaptogens and the more superficial immunomodulating action of the immune stimulants. When our body is dealing with an acute infection, we need to use immune stimulating herbs that help us to immediately mobilize our body defenses. Immune tonics do not act in this way. They slowly normalize and strengthen our immune system. In order to accomplish this they must be used over a period of months. The best way to treat an acute infection is to combine a couple of good immune stimulating herbs such as boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum), elder flower (Sambucus spp.), elecampane root (Inula helenium), plantain herb (Plantago spp.)  and purple coneflower root and/or herb (Echinacea spp.), with herbs that support the particular organs that are most affected by the infection. Adaptogens, however, are sometime useful for the treatment of low-level chronic viral infections.

The third major use of adaptogens is in the final stages of treatment of chronic health conditions. This is because there are two major factors that must be addressed in order to maximize the benefits of these herbs. The first is that adaptogens will provide the greatest benefit to organs when they have already healed to a significant degree, not when they are in a very depleted or dysfunctional state. As a result, it is necessary to work with herbs that are more specific for the treatment of any given chronic condition until significant healing has been achieved and then follow up with the adaptogens afterwards to help complete the healing process and optimize our health. Secondly, tissue toxicity interferes with the action of adaptogenic herbs. If toxicity is a factor in a chronic condition (and it usually is), it is necessary to go through a period of detoxification before we will be able to obtain the full benefits of adaptogenic herbs.

As I mentioned above, adaptogens have health benefits for all of the organs and tissues of our body. Some of the major health conditions for which they can be use include: chronic stress, anxiety and depression; cardiovascular conditions; weak immune system, autoimmune and chronic inflammatory conditions; endocrine conditions such as adrenal exhaustion, hypoglycemia, diabetes, hypo- and hyperthyroid; and reproductive conditions in both women and men.

There are many adaptogenic herbs from all over the world. As we learn more about them, adaptogenic properties are being discovered in other herbs in which they weren’t formerly recognized. Some of the more popular adaptogens include Siberian ginseng rhizome (Eleutherococcus senticosus), North American ginseng root (Panax quinquefolius), Chinese milkvetch root (Astragalus membranaceus), gotu kola herb (Centella asiatica), lacquered polypore mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) and magnolia vine fruit (Schisandra chinensis). Asian ginseng root (Panax gingseng) is also popular, however, I don’t recommend this species. This is partly because it is less tonic than the North American species and can contribute to high blood pressure in some people, but also because certified organic root is not available and the wild populations have been harvested almost to extinction.

As always it is best to use certified organic sources of these herbs. I don’t recommend wild harvested sources of these herbs because most of them have been over harvested and this practice is no longer sustainable.

Adaptogens are one of the few categories of herbs that I sometimes recommend for use individually, however, combining two or three of them together will get the best results. In addition, there are other herbs that act as catalysts for adaptogens and boost their effectiveness.

The most important herbs that can be combined with adaptogens to increase their effectiveness are the neural vasodilators. These are herbs that increase blood flow to our brain. Aside from having obvious benefits for brain and nervous system function, this also increases the ability of the chemical constituents of the adaptogenic herbs to reach this important organ where many of their actions occur. For those who tend to have a more high-strung constitution, it is best to use one of the more tranquilizing neural vasodilators such as St. Johnswort herb (Hypericum perforatum), English lavender flower (Lavandula angustifolia), lemon balm herb (Melissa officinalis), passionflower herb (Passiflora spp.), scullcap herb (Scutellaria spp.), thyme herb (Thymus vulgaris) or valerian root (Valeriana officinalis). For those who suffer from low energy or have a more lethargic constitution it is best to combine adaptogens with one of the less tranquilizing neural vasodilators such as maidenhair tree leaf (Ginkgo biloba), hyssop herb (Hyssopus officinalis), peppermint herb (Mentha x piperita), spearmint herb (Mentha spicata) or rosemary leaf (Rosmarinus officinalis).

To summarize, adaptogens can be used singly, in combinations of two or three, or in combinations of two or three along with an appropriate neural vasodilator. In the latter case the neural vasodilator should make up 20-25% of your formulation and the adaptogens, in roughly equal proportions, should collectively make up the remaining 75-80%. For maximum effectiveness, your adaptogenic herb or formulation should be used continuously for 2-3 month periods. If you wish to repeat it, you should have a break of at least one month in between.

As with all herbs, adaptogens can be taken in several forms. Ground up herbs in capsules will work, but they are not very efficiently absorbed. The next best option is dried extracts in capsules. These are better absorbed, but they are rarely (if ever) manufactured using certified organic herbs and they may contain minute traces of solvents that were used in the extraction process. In many cases they are extracted using alcohol, which is fine, but sometimes toxic substances such as benzene or ether are used. Since the labels don’t usually indicate the type of solvent used, I don’t usually recommend them. In any case, some constituents are best absorbed in our mouth and using capsules bypasses this means of absorption.

Teas are a better option than capsules, however, the use of heat does degrade some of the chemical constituents and some constituents are not well extracted in water, even when it’s hot. Nevertheless, teas can be very effective.

The best way to use these herbs is in the form of tinctures. They provide the best extraction medium and are the most efficiently absorbed by our body. Tinctures made from fresh herbs are best, but many of the adaptogens are not grown to any great degree in North America and sometimes the dried form is all that is available for making tinctures. In any case, the dried herb tinctures are still very effective. It is best to add your dose in about 25 ml (1 ounce) of water and hold it in your mouth for 30-60 seconds before swallowing. This will increase the efficiency of absorption of some of the constituents.

When using herbs long-term, they should be taken 3 times per day on an empty stomach. The best times are 10-15 minutes before meals. It is not recommended to take adaptogens before bed because they tend to have a mild stimulating affect on our mind and this can keep some people up at night.

To make a tea, steep 2-3 teaspoons or your herb or formulation in 1 cup of boiled water for 10-15 minutes. It is important to put some kind of lid on your cup while it is steeping.

The dosage of tinctures will vary depending on the concentration of the tincture. This isn’t a problem if you are using a single herb. If you using your own formulation, the dosage of the formulation should be equal to the highest dosage recommended for any of the individual herb tinctures that you used (i.e. if you used two herbs for which the dosage is 20 drops, and one for which the dosage is 25 drops, the dosage of your entire formulation should be 25 drops). In figuring this out, keep in mind that different dropper types make different size drops. If your tinctures came in bottles with different kinds of droppers, it may be necessary to compare your different doses by putting the drops in a half teaspoon so you can determine which dosage is greater. This may sound complicated, but herbs are very forgiving. Your dosage can vary by 5-10% and it won’t have much difference on the results.

In general it is not recommended to give adaptogens to children under the age of 16. There are some exceptions, but the use of these herbs in children is a bit more complex and is only recommended under the guidance of a qualified herbalist or other health care practitioner who specializes in the use of herbs. Adaptogens are also not recommended for pregnant or nursing women.

In discussing adaptogens, I have been able to describe some of the most important but often ignored uses of herbs: for preventing illness and optimizing health. They are one of the most important therapeutic categories of herbs for this purpose and March is a great time. If you are so inclined you can use them to give yourself a late winter boost and get out there and enjoy the rest of the season.

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