Anti-ageing and herbal adaptogens
Do you often feel burnt out or edgy and wish you could put the brakes on your life? Stress is fast becoming an epidemic in the modern world and the cumulative effect takes its toll on our bodies, accelerating the rate at which we age. Enter herbal adaptogens, which can sustain and maintain you through challenging periods by increasing your ability to resist the ongoing physiological effects of stress, anxiety, fatigue and depleted immunity.
Adaptogen herbs come in many forms, such as herbal teas, fluid extracts, powders and tablets. They enhance your ability to age well, enjoy a good quality of life and live free of debilitating degenerative disease. Specific herbs are often combined for their synergistic effects. Talk to your practitioner about which adaptogens would be best for you and any contraindications you should be aware of.
History of efficacy
The use of adaptogens dates back thousands of years to ancient China and India. Both traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines have long used specific herbs for their rejuvenating qualities and ability to strengthen the protective energy of the body. In Ayurvedic, Chinese and Western medicine traditions, these herbs are respectively referred to as rasayanas, “qi tonics” and “rejuvenating herbs” or “restoratives”. Over time, the generic term herbal adaptogens has also come to be used, “adaptogen” from the Latin adaptare, meaning to fit or adjust.
In 1947, Russian scientist Nikolai Lazarev coined the term adaptogen to describe a substance that assists one to “adapt” to a stressful situation. He established three criteria:
- An adaptogen must be non-toxic to the recipient.
- An adaptogen must increase the body’s resistance to multiple stressors through a wide range of physical, chemical and biochemical factors.
- An adaptogen must have a normalising influence on physiology. In other words, adaptogens are non-toxic, produce a non-specific defensive response to stress and bring your body back into balance.
The ability of adaptogens to modulate your stress response across all body systems has far-reaching, positive implications. Following are just some of the benefits that adaptogens can bestow on you to ensure a healthy ageing process and better quality of life.
Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) is a stimulating adaptogenic herb of paramount importance in fighting fatigue and increasing vitality. It has a long history of use, dating back 5000 years, as a tonic for invigoration in times of fatigue and debility and is used to enhance health, energy and longevity.
Siberian ginseng has been used by Russian athletes and cosmonauts to boost their performance, endurance and stamina by helping them adjust to extreme environments. Some studies have shown that Siberian ginseng can increase stamina by up to 70 per cent.
Schisandra (also known as five flavour berry) comes from an aromatic woody vine and helps protect the body from stressors such as heat, noise, cold and emotional distress. It increases co-ordination and physical strength (particularly muscular ability), improves focus and attention and decreases eye fatigue in tasks requiring lengthy periods of visual concentration.
Astragalus is tremendously efficient as an immune stimulant that helps to prevent infection and protect against immune suppression, particularly where white blood cell production is reduced. The immune-enhancing activities of astragalus stimulate white blood cell production, enhance antibody responses, increase T-helper cell activity, improve natural killer cell activity and offer protection against carcinogens and viral infections.
Feeling worn-out and depleted? Withania (Withania somnifera) can help kickstart you again. Withania enhances homeostasis by returning the body to optimal functioning and balancing body systems that help you cope with stress. In Ayurvedic medicine, the root of this plant has traditionally been used for general debility, nervous exhaustion and as a nutritive tonic for pregnant women and the elderly.
Fertility and hormones
Adaptogens can support women throughout periods of reproductive change. These plant powerhouses are incredibly useful for particular life stages such as childbirth, motherhood and menopause, when extra vitality is required. Codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosula) is an effective adaptogen that helps to combat fatigue and increases red blood cell production, making it useful for conditions associated with excessive blood loss, such as excessive menstrual bleeding. Shatavari has beneficial effects on the reproductive system. It boosts fertility, is a female aphrodisiac, promotes lactation and was traditionally used to provide support throughout menopause.
Adaptogens may be used to assist you to deal with difficult emotional circumstances to prevent overtaxing of the body’s energetic resources. During periods of emotional stress, they provide a much-needed stabilising influence to help prevent your deep emotions from causing physical ailments. The name Rhodiola rosea refers to the characteristic rose fragrance of the root from the rhodiola plant, which contains several compounds with a rose odour, particularly geraniol, one of the main compounds in the essential oil from roses. This provides rhodiola with its uplifting characteristic, which encourages greater emotional stability in times of increased emotional stress.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) involves a complex set of direct influences and feedback interactions in the brain between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. These homeostatic interactions control reactions to stress and kick in during all manner of daily situations: when you slam your foot on the brake to avoid an accident, rush to meet a work deadline or brush a spider off your screaming toddler. The HPA axis also regulates various body processes such as digestion, immunity, mood, sexuality and energy expenditure. If you are under chronic stress or suffer from anxiety, adaptogens can reduce some of that load by fine-tuning your HPA feedback mechanism.
Adaptogens enhance your cellular energy and immune function while mitigating the cascade effects of tension, distress, anxiety and low mood on your cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive and nervous systems. They offer a range of varied benefits such as enhancing physical and mental performance, accelerating recovery after prolonged exhausting activities and illness, providing the body’s cells with access to more energy and increasing the body’s resistance to infection. With all systems and cells functioning properly, the body is able to deal with stress more effectively. As a result, you are less likely to succumb to degenerative diseases or develop typical signs of ageing, such as unhealthy organ function and lethargy.
When you’re stressed you usually tire more easily or find it harder to shift into gear for the day or the task at hand. This is no coincidence. Stress inhibits your cellular function — particularly in the mitochondria, the powerhouses of your cells. Mitochondrial dysfunction has been identified as a major cause of many diseases and is an influential factor in age-related decline. When the body is under any type of stress, complex molecules called beta-lipoproteins accumulate and inhibit the passage of energy through the cell walls.
They also block enzymes that are responsible for enabling glucose to be used by the cells for energy. Consequently, your cells are unable to receive adequate energy and their optimal functioning is hindered. Herbal adaptogens can counter this go-slow by enhancing cellular energy and restoring mitochondrial function and repair. Adaptogens help prevent the formation and accumulation of beta-lipoproteins and allow enzymes to more readily convert glucose into usable energy for the cells. This increases your ability to perform physical functions while also promoting the proper function of all your body’s organs, including the brain.
The endocrine system is in the front line when it comes to moderating the effects of stress on the body. This is achieved through what is known as the general adaptation syndrome, which occurs in three stages:
- Fight or flight stage: The pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to stimulate the adrenals to secrete adrenaline to mobilise the body’s resources for immediate physical activity in the event of impending danger.
- Resistance: If the stress is ongoing over a long period of time, the body becomes gradually depleted. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands to help promote long-term resistance to stress.
- Exhaustion: Chronic stress causes the body’s resources to become depleted and the body’s systems are unable to maintain normal function. If cortisol remains elevated for a long period of time, the capacity of glands, particularly the adrenals, as well as the immune system, is exhausted. This then manifests in a wide variety of ongoing health problems, including immune system dysfunction, digestive disorders, cardiovascular problems, depression and other nervous system conditions.
Stress also affects thyroid function. Reserves of the amino acid tyrosine become depleted during chronic stress, leaving the thyroid hormone pathway under-functioning. Adaptogens, by their action on the adrenals, offset these negative effects by reducing stress reactions in the alarm stage, making the resistance stage less damaging. In addition, they help to prevent the exhaustion stage from occurring, thereby providing protection against long-term adrenal overload and burnout.
The function of your brain and entire nervous system can become severely impaired during long-term stress and ongoing change. The nervous and endocrine systems are intricately linked in helping to control and co-ordinate the body’s functions. Common nervous system signs and symptoms include headaches, dizziness, insomnia, moodiness, agitation, restlessness, irritability, impatience, memory problems, inability to concentrate and constant worrying and anxiety. Adaptogen herbs support the brain and nervous system to combat these symptoms by regulating the neuroendocrine feedback mechanisms and mitigating the negative effects on the nervous system of excess stress hormones.
Some adaptogens protect against stress-induced damage and dysfunction in cardiovascular tissue. Stress can cause a decrease in cardiac contractile force, and unstable cardiac rhythms. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) helps to stabilise your heartbeat by creating a beneficial adaptive response. Studies suggest rhodiola can decrease cardiac contractility during stress and help prevent adrenaline-induced arrhythmias. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) also has cardiotonic impacts. Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol while raising “good” HDL cholesterol.
Good breathing is critical to aging well and reducing tension in the body and mind. Some adaptogenic herbs assist the breathing process via their beneficial effects on the respiratory system. Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), for example, helps to inhibit coughing by aiding in the removal of irritating substances from the air passages and lessening the irritability of the respiratory nerves or respiratory centre. Research has also shown it to be useful in combating altitude sickness and hypoxia (lack of oxygen) experienced at great heights. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) helps to prevent asthma and alleviates bronchitis.
Cold and flu prevention
The effects of stress and prolonged elevated cortisol levels on the immune system can be profound, with symptoms of immune dysfunction often occurring at the initial stages of adrenal overload. Adaptogens help to prevent this depletion by exerting a strong immunomodulatory influence. Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) enhances the activation of T-lymphocytes, cells that are responsible for attacking and destroying various viruses. Rhodiola and astragalus also have strong immune-enhancing activity.
Digestion is often affected by stress, with adrenal hormones slowing digestion, in turn causing food to ferment and stagnate. Gastric ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, nausea, indigestion, diarrhoea and an inability to digest nutrients are just some of the digestive problems arising from a compromised nervous system. Most adaptogens are not specific digestive tonics, but they are able to support many aspects of digestion and absorption, particularly in relation to stress-induced digestive dysfunction.
Try using amla (emblica officinalis) for indigestion, constipation and flatulence; American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) to enhance digestion and absorption of nutrients; astragalus for chronic diarrhoea; holy basil or tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) for flatulence; and both shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) and licorice for gastric irritation and ulcers.
Adapting to your environment
In our modern age, thanks to major technological advances, we are able to change the natural environment to suit our needs. There are myriad technological solutions that supposedly make us more comfortable and save us labour and time in activities such as cooking or travelling to work. The list of technological solutions is extensive, including air-conditioning, pesticides, food preservatives, cars, aeroplanes, polyester and plastics.
While most of us have become dependent on many of these “innovations”, they have also created many undesirable side-effects, such as smog, the thinning ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. In addition, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals are finding their way into our bloodstreams where they contribute to the onset of chronic degenerative diseases and poor quality of life as we age.
The current environmental crisis and increase in the incidence of degenerative diseases remind us we can learn a great deal from our ancestors and those who lived before the rise of technology. Back then, a simpler approach to living meant resources from the natural environment were used in a sustainable manner to help people adapt to the various stressors they encountered. As a result, there was avoidance of many of the current ailments we are experiencing at a global and personal level.
Cut to the present and, though we can’t turn back the clock, herbal adaptogens can provide an effective method for bringing balance back to the body to maintain homeostasis. They enable us to adapt to the environment, presenting a holistic alternative to adapting the environment to suit ourselves — often with far-reaching negative consequences.
Top 10 adaptogens
While all adaptogens improve mental and physical performance, increase resistance to stress, boost vitality and enhance immune function, some are specific star performers.
1. Siberian ginseng or eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
- Increases vitality
- Improves mental and physical performance
- Minimises the effects of environmental, occupational and physical stress and stress associated with chronic illness
- Enhances immune function, especially natural killer cells and T-helper cells
- Provides resistance to radiation and chemical carcinogens
- Improves resistance to bacterial and viral infection
2. Withania or ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- General tonic for disease prevention
- Increases white blood cell count
- Provides support throughout convalescence after acute illness or extreme stress
- Improves conditions associated with ageing
- Helps protect or support the body against chronic diseases marked by inflammation, eg connective tissue diseases
3. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
- Adrenal restorative, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic (respiratory), expectorant
- Protects mucous membranes
- Counters adrenal depletion
- Inhibits breakdown of cortisol
- Stabilises thyroid function, helping to prevent conditions such as Addison’s disease
- Can reduce problems such as peptic ulcer, gastritis, gastro-oesophageal reflux
- Useful in conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis and androgen excess in females
- Combats acute or chronic bronchitis and asthma
4. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous)
- Improves immunity, especially for conditions associated with leucopaenia (low white blood cell count)
- Generally prevents infection and aids recovery from infection
- Enhances cytotoxicity of natural killer cells, increases white blood cell count and function
- Helps protect against autoimmune diseases and conditions associated with immune suppression
- Acts as a cardiotonic, which lowers elevated blood pressure
- Protects against oxidative damage
5. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
- Enhances immunity
- Combats mental fatigue and increases physical work capacity, co-ordination and general wellbeing
- Increases attention span, memory and work productivity
- Improves resistance to altitude sickness
- Helps body fight infections (including colds and influenza)
- Reduces recovery time between periods of high-intensity exercise
6. Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng)
- Boosts energy — it’s the big fatigue fighter!
- Improves learning and memory
- Enhances immunity, causing an increase in natural killer cells and B & T-lymphocyte activity
- Promotes longevity, metabolism and growth of normal cells
- Improves male fertility
- Helps counter nervous system issues such as insomnia, anxiety and emotional instability
7. Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
- Useful in acute and chronic liver diseases, liver detoxification
- Boasts stress-protective effects against a range of environmental factors including heat shock, skin burn, cooling, frostbite, immobilisation, aseptic inflammation, irradiation and heavy metal intoxication
- Enhances mental performance
- Helps combat chronic cough and asthma
- Is a potent antioxidant
8. Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
- May prolong lifespan (according to Ayurvedic medicine)
- Helps alleviate anxiety
- Improves mental function, including learning and memory
- Helps improve venous insufficiency of the lower limbs
- Enhances healing response of the skin
- Is a brain and nervous system restorative
9. Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
- Stimulates the secretion of adrenal gland hormones
- Increases the duration and quality of sleep
- Decreases heart rate, blood pressure and arrhythmias
- Lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol and increases “good” HDL cholesterol
- Dilates and relaxes the bronchial muscles to relieve asthma
10. Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus)
- Reduces menopausal symptoms
- Acts as a natural anti-depressant
- Treats sexual debility, infertility and low libido, especially in women
- Ayurvedic medicine says shatavari “gives the capacity to have a hundred husbands”
The many faces of adaptogens
Adaptogens have been used throughout history by many cultures, with each having different perspectives on and approaches to the way these herbs exert their beneficial effects.
Traditional Chinese medicine
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) say qi or blood tonics nourish the organs and strengthen the protective energy of the body. Qi can be interpreted as the life energy or life force that flows within us, with a deficiency of qi manifesting as under-functioning of the entire body or certain organs. Qi tonics are herbs or preparations that correct imbalances of this energy, increase physical and mental capacity, reduce fatigue, improve resistance to disease and promote life extension. Examples include codonopsis, cordyceps, Siberian ginseng, Korean ginseng, astragalus and schisandra.
Adaptogenic herbs in Ayurvedic medicine are known as rejuvenative tonics or rasayanas, which rejuvenate the body and mind and postpone ageing. Rasayanas help to maintain youth, increase longevity, enhance intellectual capacity, improve immunity, vigour and vitality as well as provide protection against stress. Popular Ayurvedic adaptogens include withania, gotu kola, shatavari and amla.
Adaptogens are used by Western herbalists to regulate the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathetic nervous system and “re-regulate” the neuroendocrine and immune systems. They help prevent stress-induced disease, maintain vitality and enhance healing. Examples of Western adaptogens include rhodiola, American ginseng and rhaponticum.