Experience Life Magazine

Ancient Healers: Adaptogens

Adaptogenic herbs like ginseng are great for battling stress and boosting your overall immunity, strength, and resilience.

7 ancient herbs that heal.

If ginseng were a Hollywood starlet, she’d be cast as a brainy, energetic woman, playing roles that shine with range and subtlety. And she’d share the screen with her equally radiant and talented herbal peers known as “adaptogens.”

Ginseng and other adaptogenic herbs share rare and coveted traits — they mitigate the negative impact of stress by strengthening and stabilizing your body. “No category of herbs holds more potential for overworked, overstressed Americans than adaptogens,” says David Winston, RH (AHG), herbalist, ethnobotanist, and coauthor of Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief (Healing Arts Press, 2007). “They are a bridge that can carry us over stressful situations with our health intact.”

Sound like a newfangled health craze? Hardly.

Adaptogenic herbs — such as ginseng, rhodiola, ashwagandha, and eleuthero — have been used for thousands of years in ancient healing practices like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Even so, many people have never heard of them.

“It’s high time we started making the most of them in the West,” says noted cancer researcher Bharat Aggarwal, PhD.

Stress and You

Imagine the body’s interior as the shimmering surface of a calm lake. A small rock hits the water. The rock is an everyday irritant, like a traffic jam, that makes you late for the dentist. Plink. A few ripples appear in the water. No big deal.

Thirty minutes later, the dentist says you need a root canal. Plunk. A bigger rock lands in your lake and the circle of ripples extends to the shoreline. Your heart beats faster and your mind spins.

Then your credit card is declined as you try to pay. Splash! The ripples of stress transform into waves.

Stress poisons every inch of the body. It cripples the immune system, upsets delicate hormones, and disrupts digestion, among other things. Most dangerous of all, it dials up inflammation. Stress lies at the root of every inflammatory disease, says Aggarwal, who is chief of the cytokine research section in the department of clinical immunology, bioimmunotherapy, and experimental therapeutics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“Controlled inflammation is useful, like using heat to cook,” he says, “but uncontrolled inflammation will burn your house down.” He counts off a few of the inflammatory diseases influenced, if not sparked, by stress: obesity, cancer, heart disease, arterial disease, depression, Alzheimer’s, arthritis — and the list goes on. “There are no two ways about it,” says Aggarwal. “Any kind of stress, be it physical, emotional, or psychological, will turn on inflammation in the body.”

That’s where adaptogens come into play. The body has a master switch that responds to things like stress, radiation, and tobacco smoke, says Aggarwal. That single switch controls more than 500 genes responsible for inflammation. Adaptogens ensure that the switch turns off and stays off. In doing so, they help snuff out inflammation.

“As far as something with concrete evidence of promoting health across the board,” says Donald Yance, MH, CN, SFO, master herbalist and author of Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism (Healing Arts Press, 2013), “there is nothing even in the same ballpark as adaptogens.”

Body Harmony

Scientists in the former USSR laid the groundwork for adaptogenic research, publishing more than 1,000 studies on the herbs during the 1960s and ’70s. Therefore, the original Soviet definition of an adaptogen is considered the gold standard.

An herb is adaptogenic if it meets three criteria: First, it’s nontoxic, meaning it’s safe for everyone. Second, its benefits are nonspecific, meaning it improves the entire body’s resistance to stress, not just one particular system or organ. Third, it balances bodily functions, regardless of where the disruption may originate.

In other words, an adaptogen works like a tuning fork on your body: It helps bring your system back into harmony after a day of discord.

Roughly a dozen herbs are thought to be true adaptogens (see “Which Adaptogen Is Right for You?” below). Another two dozen vie for placement on the list, meaning they show promise but scientists need more proof of their powers.

If you haven’t heard the term before, it may be because Western medicine hasn’t had a name for adaptogens other than the dubious-sounding word “tonic,” says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit research and education organization providing information on botanicals. “The term ‘adaptogen’ is not recognized by modern medicine, which is more of a lament on conventional medicine than a reflection of the utility of the herbs.”

“Adaptogen” refers to a plant’s ability to adapt to its surroundings. Plants fight stressors in their environment by drawing on information coded in their DNA. For instance, plants know that shorter days mean less sun for photosynthesis, so they drop their leaves. Or, a sun-loving plant in shade will contort itself to reach for rays of light. This survival instinct is an adaptogenic response to stress.

The idea behind adaptogenic herbs is that a plant’s DNA can do for people what it’s done for plants for millions of years — make us more pliable, adaptable, and resilient. Each of these herbs has its own personality, thanks to different active ingredients. Some are more stimulating, while others are more calming; some dial down a hyperactive immune system, and others increase immune response.

The star adaptogen, ginseng, has up to 38 active ingredients, called ginsenosides. Some improve digestion, some strengthen immunity, others boost sexual function. The potency of ginsenosides varies by ginseng species, the root’s age, and how it was grown and harvested.

Herbalists like Winston believe the power of an adaptogen lies in the synergy of its active components. For that reason, the whole herb or a whole-herb extract is more powerful than a product that contains a single isolated ingredient, he says. In other words, you can’t expect the same benefit from sucking on ginseng-laced candy as you would from taking a whole-herb tincture.

Enhancing Health

What sets adaptogens apart from other medicinal plants is their ability to nudge our bodies toward optimal health, or homeostasis.

The best way to appreciate this nuance is to compare adaptogens with pharmaceuticals. Drugs are typically designed to block or replace something. For instance, Celebrex lessens arthritis pain by inhibiting COX-2, an enzyme that causes inflammation. But COX-2 also shields the body from heart disease and stroke. Obstructing it brings on a two- to three-fold increase in heart attacks and strokes, according to a Food and Drug Administration alert. “Many conventional drugs are anti-this and anti-that,” explains Blumenthal. “In contrast, adaptogens enhance the body’s overall ability to adapt in ways that maintain optimal functionality.”

Aggarwal worries about the number of people using sophisticated drugs called TNF inhibitors, which turn off genes responsible for inflammation. The difference between using an adaptogen like ashwagandha to lower inflammation and a TNF inhibitor like Enbrel, which blocks the whole inflammatory process, is like adjusting the heat on your kitchen stove with a dial versus a fire extinguisher.

These modern drugs can turn off genes completely, he says, which can have serious consequences: The FDA requires the packages for TNF inhibitors to carry a warning that the drugs can increase a person’s cancer risk.

As a cancer researcher, Aggarwal wonders whether his colleagues haven’t made a mistake in ignoring ancient herbs like ginseng that have long safety profiles and thousands of years of data to draw upon. “Adaptogens allow us to safely dial a gene’s expression up or down,” he says. “That’s huge.”

Herbal Health Insurance

Like an award-winning actor, ginseng’s brilliance lies in its quiet performance. But being understated doesn’t always win the Oscar, even if it’s deserved. Ultimately, what keeps adaptogens from raking in the awards is the fact that it’s difficult to prove that something prevents disease, says Blumenthal. “How do you prove that you didn’t get sick?”

Yet the 67-year-old Blumenthal believes he owes his own good health in part to the adaptogenic herbs he’s been faithfully taking for nearly four decades.

“I get a case of the sniffles every three or four years, and that’s it,” he says. “Adaptogens are an insurance policy to make sure your body has the support it needs to reduce fatigue, lower odds of illness, and recover from stress. That’s worth it to me.”

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Catherine Guthrie is a Boston-based science writer and contributing editor to Experience Life.

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8 Comment to Ancient Healers: Adaptogens

  • Celeste Weinreis says:

    Wonderful article with great information! Thanks for spreading the word and sharing the benefits of adaptogens, they are so beneficial, especially today.
    As mentioned in an earlier post, American Ginseng has been harvested here in the US since the 1700′s without careful harvesting practice, and now there is little wild Ginseng left… It is on the United Plant Savers endangered species list (www.unitedplantsavers.org).
    For now, I think it best to let the Ginseng population rebuilt itself, and use alternatives to Ginseng such as Eleuthero and Ashwaghandha, both were mentioned in the article.
    Would you be willing to write a follow-up article in regards to Ginseng’s threatened position and offer good alternate herbs to use instead?
    Celeste Weinreis, Herbal Medicine student at the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts

  • KRIS KRISHNA says:



    • Heidi Wachter says:

      Hi Kris,

      I’m sorry but we cannot provide medical advice. Please check with a physician for assistance with whether or not an adaptogen may help your conditions.


  • Samantha Creager says:

    My name is Samantha Creager. I am a student at Southwest Institute of Healing arts currently studding Western Herbalism.

    Today in this day an age we are in very different place then we ever have been. We are learning and yearning to open our eyes and shake the years of sleep. We are not only trying to be in the moment, but find harmony in our health. We are beginning to look to the past for answers because modern medications have failed us and if Doctors listened to their patients as good as they wrote prescriptions we’d be in a different place.

    Catherine Guthrie your article is refreshing and it shows that we are in the shift of learning the importance of putting our health in our own hands and that we must not discard the old when learning the new. Herbal medicine has been the world’s primary form of medicine since the beginning of time, with a written history more than 5000 years ago.

    But, In order to keep treating ourselves with herbs and return to the old ways of putting our medicine back into our food we must keep in mind of our future and our obligation to saving the plants that continue to save us.

    The main herb you focused on in the article is the beautiful Ginseng. Ginseng is on the endangered list and has been hunted here in America for export without careful harvesting practices since the 1700’s. There is little left and no wild harvest is recommended.

    I recommend Catherine that you follow up this article with an awareness of which herbs are endangered and/or a threatened plant species. You should also let people know that there are alternatives to herbs that are no longer with us. Many native medicinal plants are in short supply and no longer thriving in natural landscapes. It’s important that you get the right information out there.

    I would also recommend anyone interested in using herbs to find a local herbalist to ensure not only your safety but to make sure you are using the plant correctly and respectfully to receive its full potential.

  • Jacob Ford says:

    Hi, My name is Jacob. I am currently I student in an Herbalism program at the Southwest Institute of the Healing Arts in Tempe, Az. I absolutely loved your article. I thought you did an amazing job describing the herbs. Also, mentioning how to pick which one is best for you is great! I have to agree with the previous comment though. A lot of these plants are on the verge of never being seen again. So, while it is beautiful to share what great things we have in nature. I think the responsibility must also be taken to notice what is happening in our reality. For us who care I think we owe it to the plant to let the public know about the dangers of these plants disappearing. Your article was highly enjoyable but I know how much mentioning this will inspire people to experiment for themselves. I think something ought to be mentioned about why we need stewardship in order for these herbs to work. Like I said, we owe it to the plant and our future generations to help them sustain their life through our greed for them.

  • Lori Faulx says:

    Dear Ms. Guthrie,

    As a student in the Western Herbalism program at the Southwest Institute for the Healing Arts in Tempe, AZ I want to say thank you for making others aware about herbs and their adaptogenic properties. As previously pointed out to you in the comment above, I, too encourage you to consider writing a follow up article educating the public on the endangerment and extinction of these herbs. Please spend some time on the unitedplantsavers.org website to become familiar with our medicinal herbs on the extinction and endangered list. I commend you for making the public aware, but I feel we must also educate!

  • Cynthia Shue-Ashe says:

    MS Guthrie,
    Your article on the adaptogens, is very educational and very accurate. The sources that were referenced in the article are from several well-known Herbalists. Your work is very impressive. Thank you.

    I have found that a very important fact about these adaptogens is missing. A fact that could make these wonderful herbs extinct and some of them are on an endangered list. Ginseng, would be at the very top of that list. These plants have amazing medicinal qualities and they definitely help with many ailments, mentally, physically and spiritually. If the public were to read your article as it is, they may be inclined to go harvest these precious plants without considering the plants possible extinct from over harvesting. Proper education would instruct them to let the professional Herbalist, to not only harvest the plant, but to also replant for the future generations to come. This would allow the plants to continue to grow and benefit our planet.

    Please consider an additional article, letting the public know about these wonderful plants and how we can protect them from extinction.

  • Brad Goss says:

    GREAT article with a lot of good info, thanks for getting some info out there. Please note that American Ginseng is considered an endangered plant, as well as Goldenseal, Echinacea, and Blue Cohosh. United Plant Savers is a great organization that protects and helps to educate the public. Please look into the organization, maybe more people can become aware of this.
    Thank you,
    Brad Goss

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