Wonder Herbs: A Guide to Three Adaptogens

JP Saleeby, MD with contributions from Amber Keefer


In humanities never ending search for the magic cure-all, many a snake oil salesman in modern times has become wealthy.  Attempting to separate the chaff from the grain, searching for the panacea of health, the consumer is bogged down in a quagmire of products most of which do not work.  Take for instance supplement infomercials that run for a couple of months then all of a sudden disappear after accomplishing the goal of stuffing the bank accounts of their promoters.  The supplement industry is a billion-dollar a year business.  To this day after starting my nutritional medicine practice in 1998, I have been deluged with email and junk mail from companies wanting me to “sell” their products by whatever scheme (usually multi-level-marketing) to the consumer (my patient). 

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 often referred to as DSHEA took the FDA out of the business of policing the dietary supplement industry.  This law has its ups and downs.  On the downside for consumers there is no governing body to regulate what a product promoter can claim about a particular supplement.  So caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.  The Internet offers the lay public the opportunity to research the subject, but alas the Internet is infested with misinformation.  The upside to DSHEA is lower prices for consumers.  No need for tremendous expenditures for Research & Development in “proving for the FDA” the efficacy and safety of supplements, thus the cost to consumers is very low compared with many pharmaceuticals.  Also this serves the supplement industry with great profits.  That is what prompted me to research and formulate a supplement line for use with my patients following many of my protocols for wellness.  The result was a safe pharmaceutical-grade bioavailable nutracutical at low cost to the consumer.  Something I could recommend and sleep well at night knowing I had done good for my patients.

It must be human nature to be easily swayed by fancy advertisers and convincing charismatic spokesmen that deliver a message of the miracle potion to ensure health, wellness or weight loss.  So I do my part as a physician to inform my patients what is correct and backed by scientific research, not by whimsical belief.  Time and time again I am assaulted by late night infomercials that boast the latest trend or “hot” supplement to bestow good health.  It is this reckless and un-policed forum that has prompted me to put some of my thoughts to paper for those who don’t have the luxury of sitting across from me in consultation.  This remains the reason I maintain an online blog and have written this book.

As I spent the last few years researching and writing for this book, I considered writing the world-renowned herbalist and integrative practitioner Dr. Andrew Weil for a forward to this book.  I later decided against this move, as there is really no need for any forward and certainly not a need for an Imprimatur.  No need for any sanctioning individual, body or colleges to lend credence to what I have done.  What gives me license to write on this topic?  Well there is no residency training or credentialing process that affords legitimacy here in this country, so the reader must take into account my many years of self-study and personal research in the field as well as my fifteen years of practicing clinical medicine.  I a certain this is enough to produce credible text.  Enough to offer the reader comfort in what is expressed within these pages is evidenced-based fact rather than fiction.  This represents the work of a scientist unlike the un-credentialed talking heads on those late-night infomercials.  This remains an easy to read, moderately technical (but not overwhelmingly so) book so the casual lay reader may enjoy it as much as the medical upper or mid-level practitioner who is attempting to gain an entry level understanding of these remarkable herbs for their practice of medicine.

As a medical practitioner my allopathic training in traditional western medicine taught that healing or curing came about by identifying the root cause of a disease and eliminating it.  This is more commonly known as the “doctrine of a specific etiology of disease”.  In the East another approach was developed thousands of year ahead and is centered on the disruption of the balance within and the assistance with herbals or other remedies to restore balance.  This practice allows the body to cure itself.

For over a decade and a half I have witnessed first hand the ravishes of disease, obesity, lack of exercise, and poor nutrition.  I have seen what the effects of a stressful lifestyle can have on the body.  I have treated many successfully.  Those that are disciplined and listen and follow appropriately mapped out programs reap the best results.  Those that grow tired of the rituals of good health fall to the wayside and eventually live a lesser quality of life, or even succumb to a premature death.

Obviously there is no substitute for proper nutrition & hydration, adequate sleep, aerobic and resistance exercise and a balanced neuro-endocrine system.  I am not going to elaborate on this subject as much research has proven its effectiveness.  Many books and articles belabor the benefits.  Rather I am going to focus on a more esoteric subject, that of a select subset of medicinal herbs that will embellish and enhance an already well oiled machine.  Once a person has committed to proper diet, exercise and rest; once a person has committed to selected dietary supplements it is time for the next step.  As you cannot put the cart before the horse here, I do not advise continued cigarette smoking with the use of herbs as a quick-fix to lowering lung cancer risk.  Smoke cessation first, then consider this as the next step.

There is a class of herbs that aid our bodies in adapting to environmental changes.  Whether the environmental changes are emotional stress, physical stress, toxins, or a drastic change in our exercise program or work schedule, these herbs exert a balancing effect.  They are known collectively as adaptogens or adaptogen herbs.  Only about one in every 300 herbs is considered an adaptogen.  The most commonly recognized adaptogen herb has to be Panax ginseng.  This is the benchmark herb that all other adaptogens are compared.

The term adaptogen was coined in 1947 by a Russian toxicologist and pharmacologist named Dr. Nikolai Vasilyevich Lazarev.  As the father of modern day research into adaptogen herbs, Dr. Lazarev set up some basic criteria that must be met in order for consideration in this very special class of herbs:

  1. It must cause only minimal disruption in the body's physiological functions;
  2. It must increase the body's resistance to adverse influences not by a specific action but by a wide range of physical, chemical, and biochemical factors;
  3. It must have an overall normalizing effect, improving all kinds of conditions and aggravating none. And it must restore balance to the system regardless of the direction of the illness (for example, an adaptogen would work equally well in a depleted condition as it would in a condition of excess).

Herbalists believe adaptogens work by supporting adrenal function enabling cells access to more energy and helping them eliminate toxic metabolic byproducts.  Adaptogens also help the body use oxygen more efficiently and improve the regulation of the body’s natural rhythms.  Though they all work in these similar ways, each adaptogen has a distinct personality and unique medicinal qualities.  We will visit what I consider three rather remarkable yet generally lesser known of adaptogen herbs.  They are, in no evident order:  Rhodiola rosea, Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum).