Part II: The Adaptogens

The word adaptogen is a relatively new term to herbal medicine and refers to those plants that have the ability to help us cope with stress more effectively, physiologically as well as mentally and emotionally. The use of adaptogen herbs during times of stress enables us to stay healthier and resist disease that we might otherwise fall prey to. They also help us maintain more equanimity and centeredness, allowing for clearer emotional processing and decision making, and finally they maintain and enhance good quality sleep, which might otherwise be disrupted by stressors.

Adaptogenic plants such as Panax ginseng, Panax quinquefolia, Aralia spp., Oplopanax horridum, and Eleutherococcus senticosus all fall into the same family, Araliaceae. Other plants, such as Glycerrhiza glabra and Centella asiatica act as adaptogens and are not part of the Araliaceae family. These herbs are essential for treating the adrenal exhaustion that is all too common to modern day life.

Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng)

Eleutherococcus, a solid reliable ally in enhancing physiological responses to stress, is one of the most well researched of the adaptogenic herbs. Repeated studies show that the quality and quantity of work performance is enhanced with the use of eleutherococcus and resistance to illness is increased with fewer incidences of influenza and general illness. Patients exhibiting symptoms of irritability, anxiety, insomnia or extreme exhaustion experience an increased sense of well being and deeper, more restful sleep. Other studies illustrate increased physical endurance in athletes with increased resistance to cold weather. Eleutherococcus has also been shown to normalize blood pressure in either hyper or hypotension and to normalize blood sugar in some cases of diabetes.

Although eleutherococcus works well as an overall adaptogen, its special talent lies in its ability to provide the kind of deep ancient grandfatherly wisdom, that comes only from those who have survived many episodes of stress themselves and have learned to respond with a deep compassionate smile, ever marveling at the twists and turns of fate that mark all our lives. We can well imagine life in Siberia might leave one with such gifts.

Oplopanax horridum (devil's club)

Native to the Pacific Northwest, oplopanax is most prevalent in wet shady forests and along stream beds where it rises to a height of 3 to 10 feet. Its branches reach out in a graceful, majestic fashion with leaves that shaped somewhat like those of the maple. In spring, green or whitish flowers can be seen blooming in panicles at the top of each plant, turning to red berries by mid summer. This plant protects itself well, for it is covered with sharp spiny thorns from its base at the Earth to the tips of each leaf.

Oplopanax is an important plant in Northwest Native American Traditions. Medicinally, it has been used for arthritis, rheumatism, respiratory ailments, diabetes, digestive complaints, and as a cleansing purgative and emetic. A poultice has been used topically for a variety of skin conditions, including infected wounds and snakebites.

Oplopanax has also been used by Northwest Natives from protection and empowerment in ceremony and in daily life. As a warrior herb, oplopanax is quite willing to stand its ground and protect itself, as evidenced by its abundance of thorns. Oplopanax is well indicated for those too nice, perhaps even somewhat timid, souls who are easily overwhelmed in the face of adversity or for those folks who express a desire to claim their power but can't quite seem to follow thorough, either from fear or the toxic overlay of family and cultural taboo. In cases of acute anxiety, oplopanax may be mixed with rescue remedy where it is often serves to potentize the formula. In these cases the addition of oplopanax empowers the patient while the rescue remedy alleviates the anxiety and calms. Often patients report needing less frequent dosing of rescue remedy in acute panic states once oplopanax has been added to the formula. Positive integration of the warrior archetype enables us to stand up for ourselves effectively, approximately appropriately, and even fiercely when circumstances demand, whether the demons we face are from within or without. oplopanax is nourishing and supportive to the immune system and may be used in acute respiratory infections as well as in the prevention of infections. In respiratory illness it is well indicated for the nonproductive nagging cough that seems to linger long after it should have done its work and moved on. In these cases, Oplopnax empowers the cough to fruitfulness in its action as an expectorant.

Aralia californica (california spikenard)

As we move from the Pacific Northwest into southern Oregon and California, oplopanax begins to thin out and disappear and a new adaptogen moves in, Aralia californica. Unlike oplopanax, aralia is a soft friendly looking plant, lacking the multitude of spines that make one back off from oplopanax. In fact, the soft inviting beauty of aralia seems to welcome us in, as if her inner strength is enough to protect her. Although the adaptogens may be used interchangeably with fine results, more specific prescribing can often facilitate healing at more subtle levels. So it is that oplopanax seems to help those who need to develop some sharpness and fierceness and set their boundaries while aralia helps us to trust our inner fire and boundaries enough to invite others in, embrace them and relax gently and delightfully into the process. Delight is without a doubt a word to be used in thinking of Aralia califiornica.

A related species, Aralia racemosa seems to be more sharp and stimulating its energy than Aralia californica. This plant may be well indicated for patients who don't quite need the sharp protective substance oplopanax, yet experience Aralia californica as leaving them more emotionally and spiritually receptive than they are prepared for.

Like oplopanax, its northerly relative, the roots of both Aralia californica and racemosa may be of help in respiratory conditions where it acts as a soothing expectorant.

Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice root)

As an adaptogenic herb, licorice strengthens and tones immune and adrenal function making it especially invaluable for cases of adrenal exhaustion, or chronic vital infection. Licorice supports and protects the liver where it proves quite useful in the treatment of chronic hepatitis, addressing the problems in liver function, immune function and chronic inflammation. Glycerrhiza demulcent and anti-inflammatory activities make it useful whenever inflammation or irritation of mucous membrane tissues is involved, as with urinary tract infection, cough or throat irritation, or gastrointestinal inflammation as with Chron's disease, peptic ulcer disease or colitis. Licorice can be effective in treating reactive hypoglycemia, allergic conditions and as an adjunct in cancer therapy. Used as a harmonizer and moisturizer in many Chinese formulas, glycerrhiza's abilities to rebuild, strengthen and support vitality in multiple organ systems makes it a reliable ally in enabling our physical bodies to adapt as we journey through life. It is also used in Chinese medicine where qi and yin deficiency predominate and where a tendency to dryness manifests as part of the symptom picture.

Licorice should be used with caution or not at all when hypertension or a tendency to fluid retention are part of the patient picture.

Uncaria tomentosa (cat's claw, uno de gato)

Like many adaptogenic herbs, cat's claw is anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, and immune modulating. Native to Peru, it has been used traditionally for a wide variety of disorders including infections, arthritis, asthma, tumors, and menstrual irregularity. Modem research has revealed the presence of a large number of active constituents including quercitin which is anti-allergic, catechins which are hepatoprotective, flavanoids, giving it blood cleansing and antioxidant activity, and number of alkaloids, including substances that have been shown to reduce high blood pressure via smother muscle relaxant activity to blood vessel walls and peripheral vessel dilation. Cat's claw has also been shown to reduce cholesterol.

Experience in clinic has revealed cat's claw to be particularly helpful for women who are suffering from joint pain, or inflammation of the urinary tract, and dealing with or coming out of relationships with abusive, invasive domineering, bullying kinds of people, either in the workplace or at home. In one such case, cat's claw worked dramatically where other adrenal adaptogens including eleutherococcus, oplopanax and glycerrhiza had been only moderately successful in improving energy levels, immune functions, and general emotional health.

While this theme is present in all the cases in my clinic in which cat's claw has provide to be of significant benefit, these cases are few in number and do not by any means give us a full picture of the patient who needs this adaptogen specifically. The synchronicity of similar symptoms and types of stressors common to all the cases do provide us with some good starting material, however.

Centella asiatica (gotu kola)

An adaptogen from India, Centella asiatica may be specially indicated when revitalization or regeneration of nerve or brain tissue is required. Decreased mental clarity and difficulty in focusing may be especially pronounced when gotu kola is indicated. Here it is often combined with ginkgo biloba as ginkgo's ability to increase cerebral circulation is thought to potentize the effects of gotu kola. Another herb to consider combining with gotu kola in enhancing mental functioning, however, is Vinca minor. Vinca minor is also credited with increasing cerebral blood flow, as well as improving memory and focus and may be, in this author's experience, more effective in that regard then the more popular ginkgo. Vinca should be dosed conservatively. Five to six drops up to four times a day is often sufficient to potentize a formula with gotu kola. Recent research suggests gotu kola's normalizing effect on connective tissue metabolism may make it useful in such disease as scleraderma, autoimmune syndromes and the tendency of some patients to form keloids.

Gotu kola is a blood cleanser and as such should be considered when a chronic skin condition or tendency to abscess accompanies the overall picture of adrenal stress and immune deficiency.

Withania somnifera (ashwaghanda)

Another ayurvedic herb, ashwaghanda is well indicated in cases of nervous exhaustion, and debility, where stress and strain have led to a state of overwrought nerves that prevent rest and sleep, further exacerbating the problem. Ladd says that ashwaghanda "which has the smell of a horse, gives the vitality and sexual energy of a horse." Like many of the adaptogens, ashwaghanda is anti-inflammatory and immunosupportive. It may be helpful as an adjunct in restoring sexual function or lost libido when adrenal exhaustion is part of the underlying picture.

Panax quinquefolius (Amerian ginseng); Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng)

Like other members of the Araliaceae family and other adaptogens, the Panax spp are often helpful when decreased resistance to illness, decreased stamina and diminished ability to handle stressor provide the picture of adrenal exhaustion. These plants have been shown to be anti-inflammatory, and hepatoprotective and may be of particular help in some cases of cancer where they have been shown to be antitumor and to reduce the negative impact of radiation on healthy cells in patients electing to undergo radiation therapies.

As the panax species may tend to be somewhat stimulating, I find myself reserving their use for those patients who are experiencing a heaviness and lethargy in response to stress or long term illness. The Asian ginseng tends to be warming while our equally effective and quite wonderful American species in more cooling in its action.

Schisandra chinensis

Schisandra may be the indicated adaptogen when constitutional vulnerability is experienced in lung and digestive symptoms or when a case of liver congestion or chronic hepatitis calls for an herb that is also protective and rebuilding to liver tissue. Like so many of our adaptogenic herbs, schisandra is immune modulating, and may be indicated for patients whose depressed adrenal function contributes to the chronic picture of allergy, autoimmune disease or lowered resistance to disease.

Astragalus membranaceus

Commonly known in the west as an immune modulating herb, astragalus another plant from oriental medicine, is adpatagenic and liver restorative, making it another excellent choice in chronic hepatitis. Its blood cleansing and kidney toning abilities might make it a good choice when toxic states and lowered immunity are part of the picture of adrenal stress.

Ganoderma lucidum (reishi mushroom)

Another deeply healing plant from China and Japan, this adpatagen has been used for a wide variety of problems with good success. Recent studies suggest it may be a very useful adjunct in the treatment of various types of cancer as well as HIV, chronic fatigue syndrome and acute mononucleosis. Here the credit is given to the high content of immune stimulating polysaccharides found in ganoderma. The sum of any plant's individual constituents working together synergistically is often what's really going on however. In ganoderma the immune enhancing activities are undoubtedly supported by other actions of the plant including its ability to calm anxiety, and sleeplessness, protect and detoxify the liver, thereby improving liver function and to act as an antioxidant. Ganoderma may also prove beneficial in cardiovascular disease where it has been shown to improve coronary blood flow and lower cholesterol.

Finally, it has proven to be a helpful adjunct in chronic pulmonary disease where it helps rebuild a constitution worn down from long illness as well as improve lung symptoms.

Pfaffia paniculata (Brazilian ginseng)

Indigenous to South America, pfaffia has been used for generations for a wide variety of conditions, due to its overall normalizing and rebuilding actions as an adaptogen. Its Spanish name is "para toda" meaning "for all things." Like other adaptogens, pfaffia acts as an immune modulating and deeply calming agent and has been used as a restorative during long term illness or chronic stress. In balancing endocrine and reproductive function, pfaffia has been helpful in treating infertility and a wide variety of menstrual and menopausal symptoms, as well as male impotence. It is normalizing to cardiovascular functioning where it may help lower high cholesterol and high blood pressure. It has been used for both hypoglycemia and diabetes as it works with the endocrine system to normalize blood sugars. Pfaffia is another of our adaptogens to be considered in treating cancer. Pfaffia contains a wide variety of nutrients including several amino acids, minerals, electrolytes, and vitamins.


By Deborah Frances

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