adaptogens

Adaptogens are remarkable herbs and roots that work in synchronicity with your body. Like their name infers, they adapt their effects to your body’s unique requirements – such as giving you energy if you are run down, or calming you if you are stressed. Typically they need to have their healing properties extracted. They can also be taken in whole form in teas or in capsules.

Whenever you consider using adaptogens, please respect that they can have powerful effects. So do consult with a professional herbalist or conduct your own extensive research, especially if you are looking for specific functional effects.

Name Benefits Dangers
Ashwagandha Calming adaptogen; enhances endocrine function – regulates thyroid, testes and adrenal glands; treats hypothyroidism by stimulating thyroid; treats anxiety, fatigue, cloudy thinking, nervous exhaustion, hyper and hypo-immune function (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis), cancer (suppresses tumors and prevents white blood cell depletion) [1]; rejuvenating, balancing, strengthening to nervous system and relieves fatigue, nervous exhaustion, and memory loss; mild aphrodisiac that reduces premature ejaculation and increases sexual stamina; useful in sports as gives instant charge of energy without stimulants; modifies way brain uses acetylcholine when brain oxygen is low – prevents cannibalization of brain cells which cause neurofibrillary tangles that lead to Alzheimer’s [2] Nightshade family plant; avoid in cases of hyperthyroidism; avoid during pregnancy (can induce abortion)
Dang Shen Mild Qi tonic and mild substitute for Asian Ginseng; prevents side effects of cancer treatment; gastro protective and enhances absorption; increases red blood cell and blood hemoglobin content; shown in studies to increase learning and memory retention – good to combine with ginkgo Avoid if have gastrointestinal problems (e.g. flatulence, diarrhea, poor digestion); avoid during chronic or acute infections and if have excessive iron levels [1]; supervised use advised and use for 4 weeks followed by 4 week break when treating menstrual and heart problems [2]
American Ginseng Treats mild to moderate depletion of HPA axis (stress) and by consequence can help correct immune dysfunction; as immune amphoteric, helps balance deficient or excessive immune response in treating allergies; correcting HPA axis, helps control Metabolic Syndrome; mild sexual tonic; enhances digestion and absorption of nutrients by stimulating production of stomach acid and digestive juices (chewing a root) Alters effects of Warfarin (Coumadin) in high doses
Siberian Ginseng – Eleuthero Mild adaptogen – unlikely to cause overstimulation; relieves angina, lowers blood lipids, relaxes arteries and treats stress induced hypertension; strengthens immune system and regular use prevents colds and infections; reverses bone marrow suppression and decreased white blood cell count in patients undergoing cancer therapy; enhances athletic performance – increases endurance, enhances mitochondrial activity, speeds recovery and prevents immune suppression from excessive training; good to combine with cordyceps, rhodiola and schisandra for improving alertness and cognitive function when under stress of working long hours (e.g. students, doctors, nurses and type A personalities who work long hours) May cause overstimulation in sensitive people
Asian Ginseng (Panax) Most stimulating adaptogen – good for weak and exhausted people; regulates HPA axis, immune system, adrenal glands, pancreas, circulation and immune system; as immune amphoteric, normalizes immune response in allergies and auto-immune conditions and restores depleted immune resources in cancer and chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome; treats and prevents atherosclerosis by reducing unhealthy blood lipids, enhances circulation and is anti-oxidant Can easily cause overstimulation: type A personality with anxiety, insomnia or hypertension may experience worsening of condition – avoid large doses and avoid drinking coffee; may increase effects of medications that lower blood sugar and MAOI anti-depressants
Astralagus Enhances immune system and prevents viral, bacterial infection (e.g. colds); strengthens and heals lungs; prevents immuno-suppression in chemotherapy; improves cardiac flow; prevents kidney and liver damage (hepa-protective) [1]; immuno-regulatory  – calming and stimulating effects; strengthens digestion, increases metabolic activity; enhances resistance to colds – increases production of interferon, helps macrophages and immune cells become faster and more efficient; helps body compensate for immune damage induced  by prescription medications [2] Do not take during acute infection or during cold or flu; most effective if used daily over long-term [2]
Cordyceps Treats deficient kidney energy caused by excessive exertion or chronic disease – thus aids with fluid metabolism, sexual function, bone health and hearing (kidney function and jing in TCM); treats infertility and strengthens respiratory function in cases of dry lungs and chronic cough; used by athletes to break world records; enhances aerobic capacity and cellular energy stores; prevents immuno-suppresion and restores macrophage and natural killer cell activity; immune amphoteric and regulates allergies and auto-immune conditions; prevents free radical damage, lowers cholesterol and reduces heart muscle O2 consumption [1] excessive consumption can depress immune system as well as cause edema, anxiety and headaches
He Shou Wu Hepaprotective – stimulates liver and gall bladder function, increasing bile flow, enhancing intestinal function, lowering unhealthy cholesterol; Neuroprotective – by preventing formation of beta-amyloid plaques; promotes increased adrenal and thyroid secretions and enhances T lymphocytes and macrophage activity; treats low libido, low sperm count and poor sperm motility Can cause diarrhea
Holy Basil Balances chakras and promotes goodness, virtue and joy; antioxidant, neuroprotective, stress reducing, radio protective; reduces lipid peroxidation and enhances presence of anti-oxidants superoxide dismutase and superoxide catalase; enhances brain circulation and memory; treats brain fog, ADD and ADHD; treats stagnant depression (with Damiana, rosemary and lavender)
Lycium (Goji) TCM – nutritive tonic for liver, kidneys and blood; strengthens weak muscles and ligaments and improves male sexual performance; carotenoids and flavonoids stabilize capillaries in body, particularly the eyes; hepaprotective Nightshade family plant
Prince Seng Treats frequent colds and lung infections; enhances immune reservoir (in combination with reishi, schisandra, dang Shen, jiaogulan or eleuthero) and has broad non-specific ability to promote immune system competence
Reishi TCM – nourishes Shen and reduces anxiety, insomnia, moodiness, poor memory, listlessness; immuno-modulator – up and down regulates immune function; improves cardiovascular function; adaptogenic qualities and cumulative and mild – improves adrenocortial function and relieves stress Cannot be eaten [1]; advisable to take a one month break from continual daily intake every 3 months, then resume [2]
Rhaponticum Enhances recuperation after illness, relieves tiredness, promotes physical and mental performance; enhances athletic performance, endurance and recovery; enhances resistance to extreme conditions (e.g. cold) and relieves stress related sleep problems, weight loss, fatigue, depression and poor job performance; relieves depression in recovering alcoholics
Rhodiola Nervous system tonic and anti-depressant; cooling adaptogen and is unlikely to cause over-stimulation; enhances alertness, reduces fatigue, improves memory and relieves depressed state; prevent immune depletion from overwork, excessive physical training or cancer treatment; normalizes various endocrine glands – good for blood sugar, sexual reproduction and relieving muscle stiffness and spasm; prevents damage to and strengthens heart muscle Not good for bipolar, manic or paranoid patients
Schisandra Calms Shen; hepaprotective – helps regenerate hepatocytes and increases hepatic glutathione; adaptogen with dual effect of nervous system – stimulating to enhance reflexes, work performance and mental activity as well as calming, reducing stress and anxiety and preventing stress induced immune depletion; enhances endocrine and endocrine-mediated immune functions that are affected by stress, anxiety, anger, depression and fear; amphoteric (normalizing) effect on blood sugar Should not be taken with acute viral or bacterial infections (e.g. colds, influenza, bronchitis, pneumonia)

Adapted from: 

Primary resource: [1] Winston, D. & Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for strength, stamina and stress relief. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press

[2] Balch, P.A. (2002). Prescription for herbal healing. New York, NY: Avery books

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