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From the Townsend Letter
January 2007


Breakthrough Solutions in Herbal Medicine
Adaptogenic Formulas: The Way to Vitality

by Donald R. Yance, CN, MH, AHG, and Ben Tabachnik, PhD

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Page 1, 2, 3, 4, Notes

The Importance of Adaptogens
Modern Western medicine has developed multiple approaches to coping with stress, including pharmaceutical drugs, exercise, and relaxation techniques like meditation. While these methods can provide some benefits, results are mixed and often unsatisfactory. In Russia, after years of investigation, scientists have developed a unique and effective herbal approach to stress reduction and the prevention of stress related symptoms – Adaptogens. Adaptogens are defined as any agent that increases the nonspecific resistance of an organism to stress and other environmental influences. Research on adaptogens includes more than 5,000 clinical studies, spanning over four decades, and involving over a half-million people. They have been used by Russian Olympic athletes, cosmonauts, and the military.179

In conjunction with creating and living a healthy life, adaptogens can be taken on a daily basis to prevent disease and to act as an important enhancer of vitality, balance, and stress management. By enhancing responsiveness to stress and reinforcing equilibrium, adaptogens promote the greatest potential for wellness and longevity. Adaptogens assist the body by their ability to normalize homeostasis, optimize metabolism, revitalize exhausted organ systems, and improve resistance to a variety of adverse factors without side effects. Adaptogens enhance cellular energy processes, restore mitochondrial function and repair, and build "adaptive energy reserve." Mitochondrial dysfunction has been identified as one of the principle causes of age-related bioenergetic decline and a multitude of diseases.181

Utilizing a combination of these unique plants for broad-spectrum health promotion offers a new approach to complementary medicine and to the elevation of well-being. A complete adaptogenic formula may include an amalgamation of several supportive herbs. It is essential, however, that the formulas employed be created from the most potent plants, using the most effective methods. Qualitative standards of cultivation and preparation are therefore essential.

Qualitative Standards
Russia has established original standards for high quality in herbal medicine. These standards have since been adopted internationally. In Russia, thousands of clinical herbal studies have been performed, and herbal remedies are strictly regulated by the Ministry of Health (Department of Pharmacology), which is equivalent to the FDA. These standards are ensured at every step, from the selection of raw materials to the unique processing method. Each product is assayed for active compounds and undergoes stringent quality procedures by the manufacturing facility as well as testing conducted by the State Analytical Laboratory.

Many adaptogenic herbal products on the market are promoted by claims based on Soviet scientific research. Such claims, however, can only be applied to adaptogens of actual Russian origin or to formulas crafted in Russia, according to genuine Russian standards and methods. Other currently available commercial sources of adaptogens actually have limited or no biologically active substances. These include the heavily promoted Eleutherococcus (formally known as Siberian Ginseng), as well as Schisandra and the recently popular herb Rhodiola. The reasons for such poor quality are due to the cultivation of incorrect or inferior species (compared to Russian adaptogenic plants, which contain the largest amounts of bioactive compounds and are superior in potency); untimely harvesting; overdrying of raw materials; and low-grade manufacturing technology. The botanical names may be the same as those in the research, but the quality is not. Because of this, the scientific evidence and practical experience of adaptogens by cosmonauts, Olympic athletes and the military are only applicable to the Russian adaptogens.

For example, what is widely available and sold in the US as "Siberian Ginseng" is not from Siberia, and not even from Russia, but from China. In China, Russian Eleutherococcus is known as Ciwuja. It is clear that Eleutherococcus from the two regions is from the same botanical family, but the Russian herb is acknowledged to be the most potent. Scientists have found that the chemical composition of the Eleuthero from the Russian origin contains larger amounts of the bioactive compounds and especially of the key substance – Eleutheroside B, which plays a significant role in the anti-stress and anabolic actions of Eleuthero.1-3

History and Origin of Adaptogens
The effectiveness of adaptogenic plants was researched and confirmed by Dr. Israel Brekhman and his mentor, Prof. Nicholai Lazarev, a well-known pioneer in the field of preventive medicine. Lazarev was especially intrigued by a specific group of herbs that ancient medical traditions referred to as "elite" or "king."5 In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), these herbs were used effectively to increase physical and mental capacity, reduce fatigue, improve resistance to disease, and promote life extension.6 In the 1950s, Russian scientists studied these plants extensively and the term adaptogen was since officially coined by Dr. Lazarev in 1962.5

Stress and the Need for Adaptation
Stress is often defined as any perceived physical or psychological change that disrupts an organism's metabolic balance. According to The American Institute of Stress, 75% to 90% of all visits to health care professionals are in some way related to the adverse effects of stress!4 Stress has negative effects on the immune system by inhibiting Natural Killer (NK) cell, T-cell, and antibody responsiveness. A high degree of stress also significantly predicts a poorer response to interventions aimed at improving NK cell activity. Adaptogens may be more important than immune-enhancing agents at assisting in immune response, particularly during times of stress.182 Wound healing is also compromised by stress. Susceptibility to cold and flu viruses is consistently found to be much greater in stressed populations, and stress is associated with longer recovery from infectious diseases.178 Stress effects everyone – somehow, somewhere, sometime.

Dr. Hans Selye, PhD, a Canadian professor and a leading pioneer in stress research, has been internationally acknowledged as "the father of stress research." One of Selye's most important contributions was his concept of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which he coined in 1936. The GAS involves a progression of three stages in the stress response beginning with the alarm reaction, then the resistance stage, and finally adrenal maladaptation or hypoadaptosis. The third stage is characterized by adrenal dysfunction and is considered the stage of exhaustion when the "energy of adaptation" is used up and the resistance of the organism becomes exhausted.181,182

Prolonged stress erodes patterns of constitutional weakness, which results in both predictable and unpredictable systemic effects that eventually lead to disease. The general purpose of adaptogens is the reduction of stress reactions in the alarm phase, thereby delaying or avoiding the exhaustion stage. As the work of the eminent Russian physician and pharmacologist Dr. Israel Brekhman has clearly emphasized for the past forty years, most people are in a state somewhere between health and disease. We therefore need adaptogens to help us restore and sustain lifelong health.5 Russian scientists describe the adaptogenic effect as a strengthening of the physiological adaptation. They base this effect on the body's attempt to preserve depleting energy resources and accelerate the biosynthesis of proteins and nucleic acids. An important aspect of adaptogens is their influence on the immunological responses of the body.

Traditional health care practitioners would agree that most modern clinical conditions are marked by various degrees of debility. Almost every ailment from which people suffer could be attributed to a lack of reserve and/or a lack of vitality. Conditions such as low-grade infections, persistent respiratory and GI complaints, joint stiffness, headaches, allergies, skin conditions, stress problems (including depression and anxiety), cancer, heart disease, and even general fatigue all possess one common thread: the failure to cope with, adequately defend, or maintain homeostasis (equilibrium).

Classification and Actions of Adaptogens
Adaptogens work through a non-specific mechanism of enhancement. Their primary, broad-spectrum benefits begin with their ability to balance and normalize all body systems and increase vital energy in response to stress.

Scientific studies have proven that adaptogens have the following effects:

  • Make the stress response less damaging
  • Help maintain homeostasis in the face of stress by regulating the body's adaptive reactions
  • Reduce most signs of the alarm stage of the stress response and delay or promote avoidance of the exhaustion stage
  • Help the body utilize fuel more efficiently, with fewer toxic or waste byproducts (like lactic acid), which can contribute to fatigue and reduced energy output
  • Use energy efficiently, making greater reserves more readily available when needed for performing more difficult tasks7

It is important to note that to be classified as an adaptogen, a medical substance must fulfill certain criteria. The following criteria define primary and secondary adaptogens.

Primary Adaptogens
Primary adaptogens possess the following criteria: they must

  • have solid scientific research validating their use as adaptogens;
  • enhance "general resistance" of the entire body;
  • act in a non-specific way, having a "normalizing effect" against all forms of stress;
  • have an ability to maintain or restore homeostasis; and
  • be safe and have no side effects, even with prolonged consumption.

Primary adaptogens have the following beneficial effects:

  • They enhance physical and mental performance and accelerate recovery after prolonged exhaustive activities.
  • They support endocrine function - in particular, adrenal function - thus counteracting the adverse effects of stress.
  • They stimulate glucocorticoid function of the adrenal glands and increase oxidative-reduction processes.
  • They enable the body's cells to have efficient access to "adaptive" energy.
  • They help cells to eliminate toxic by-products of the metabolic process by providing ATP for cellular waste removal and by activating free radical enzymes.
  • They are anti-toxic and radiation-protective.
  • They support all body systems during cancer-related therapies such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
  • They provide immune system enhancement and increase the body's resistance against infectious conditions including colds and the flu.
  • They provide an anabolic (building-up) and an anti-catabolic effect (reduces the loss of lean muscle mass).
  • They assist the body to utilize oxygen more efficiently.
  • They enhance the proper regulation of bio-rhythms.7,8,48,49,50,53,54,56,57

The sub-categories of primary adaptogens include the following:
a)Primary adaptogens with general effects (Phase I)
b)Primary adaptogens with a more specific anabolic / anti-catobolic effect (Phase II)

Secondary adaptogens

  • meet most of the qualifications of primary adaptogens;
  • demonstrate some normalizing activity, especially on the immune, nervous, and hormonal systems;
  • have yet to be studied extensively for their adaptogenic qualities; and
  • may offer a full range of non-specific protective effects to all organ systems when taken regularly, thus complimenting and lending attributes beyond the benefits of primary adaptogens alone.9

Compounding Adaptogenic Formulas
Ancient systems and concepts learned from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic Medicine utilize a group of herbs that work harmoniously with each other. The study, compiled over many generations of people from such countries as China, Korea, India, and Japan, came to the conclusion that using certain herbs in combination can achieve much greater effects on health and well-being than one can find with using individual herbs alone. This was a starting point for the authors and inspired research independently in many areas, leading to the discovery of a new generation of adaptogenic formulas. This new and insightful model imparts the collaborative efforts of such skillful ideals, coupled with the applied knowledge of progressive research from the perspective of a Russian sport scientist and the practical hands-on experience of a clinical herbalist.

Combining several primary adaptogens with secondary and companion adaptogens such as hawthorn, elderberry, rosehips, and grape seed and skin, as well as harmonizing agents such as licorice and ginger, creates a synergistic herbal formula that offers a wide range of benefits beyond the actions of any single herbal adaptogen. With the overwhelming impact of various stresses, it is impossible to have all needs fulfilled in a single herbal formula. However, two comprehensive formulations could fulfill these needs.

For example, Formula I, a revitalizing formula that improves stress resistance, tonifies and balances the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys and spleen systems is a powerful antioxidant and deep immune system restorative compound that increases energy without being excitatory or stimulating. A basic formula such as this is for everybody, regardless of age, sex, or health conditions. From a TCM perspective, this formula would nourish "yin."
Formula II, a rejuvenating formula that maximizes "adaptive energy," is blood-nourishing and, having an anabolic/anti-catabolic effect, would be more specific for enhancement of the kidney/adrenal system – the "seed" of vital adaptive energy – and the spleen system. It would be indicated for resuscitation from exhaustion, recovery from debility, or creating optimum conditions for athletes or highly active people desiring peak performance. From a TCM perspective, this formula would nourish "yang."

Yin and yang oppose each other, and at the same time, they have an interdependent relationship. When the body is in balance between yin and yang, health is prominent; when it is not, disease occurs. When used in combination, two formulas such as these can exert a powerful double-phase effect.

Page 1, 2, 3, 4, Notes

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