Tonics 102: The Role of Adaptogens in Stress Relief

My first post last month, “Tonics 101,” defined tonic herbs, specifically how tonics help the body to better adapt to the challenges it faces, and how this approach differs from the symptom-oriented approach common in modern western medicine. 

Today, let’s examine adaptogens, one of the best-studied classes of tonic herbs.  Adaptogens are tonic herbs that address the immune system and help the body better cope with stress.  These herbs are often said to have holistic healing properties that produce a general state of “well being” and balance.

Adaptogens work to boost the immune system and improve the body's resistance to the physical and emotional stressors that can cause illness, depression or stress. Adaptogens don't directly combat the symptoms caused by environmental and lifestyle stressors, but they can enhance and increase the coping mechanisms used by the body to respond to these stressors.

The term "adaptogen" was first used in the late 1940s by N.V. Lazarev, a Russian scientist who studied the body's physical and emotional response to stress.  According to Lazarev, to be considered an adaptogen, an herb needed to meet three basic criteria:

1) Be non-toxic

2) Promote homeostasis and balance

3) Boost the body's resistance against physical and psychological stress

Herbal tonics, including adaptogens, are generally regarded as having a cumulative effect. They are often taken both in combination and with regularity to maximize their strengthening effects.  Tonic formulas often incorporate one or more of the following adaptogenic herbs, although the number of acknowledged adaptogens is constantly growing:

Ginseng:  Both Ginseng (Panax ginseng) and its cousin Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)‎  have been used for centuries to reduce stress, boost stamina and enhance the immune system. The botanical name Panax means “all-heal” in Greek, and Ginseng in ancient China was credited with near-mythical medical properties for restoring life and health.  In fact, because it was rare and so highly esteemed medicinally, Ginseng root was often valued at its weight in gold.  Numerous studies attest to Ginseng's immunogenic qualities, which may have far-reaching implications. In one five-year South Korean study, those who regularly took Ginseng were 60 percent less likely develop cancer.  American ginseng (Panax quinquefolia) was used by Native Americans and also in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). 

Ashwagandha:  Sometimes called "Indian ginseng," Ashwagandha has long been popular with Ayurvedic practioners for its antidepressant qualities. Ashwagandha has shown promise in cholesterol studies, and has impressive antioxidant ability.

Rhodiola:  This is the root of a cold-weather plant native to arctic and mountainous regions of the northern hemisphere.  In Russia and Scandinavia, Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) has long been used to combat depression, fatigue and the rigors of cold winter life. It is also used in TCM. 

Astragalus:  This is a large legume family often known by the common name milkvetch, although some species are locally known as locoweed, or goat's thorn.  Astragalus propinquus (syn. A. membranaceus) has long been used in TCM, and is reputed to improve the functioning of the lungs, adrenals and the GI tract, as well as increasing metabolism and healing, and reducing fatigue.

Adaptogens are an important class of tonic herbs that have a long tradition of successful use in several different medical traditions. They hold great promise for reducing illness and increasing health in today's modern environment full of chronic stress and fatigue, while also reducing the toxicity associated with modern symptom-oriented drugs.  Accordingly, tonic and adaptogenic herbs clearly deserve broader study and wider use.

Matt Warnock is the president and co-owner of RidgeCrest Herbals, a creator of eclectic and innovative natural remedies for individual health needs. An attorney and the son of co-founder Paul Warnock, Matt joined RidgeCrest as chief operating officer in 2001, was promoted to president in 2005 and became a co-owner in 2007.  Today, Warnock leads a talented team that has continued to innovate and break new ground in natural remedies.

Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online, November 4, 2013