Townsend Letter The Examiner of Alternative Medicine
Alternative Medicine Conference Calendar
Check recent tables of contents


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

Search this site

Page 1, 2, 3, 4, Notes

Phase I
The first stage of a revitalizing formula is characterized by the building of vitality and essence and would include specific primary adaptogens that are deeply nutritive and enhance the immune system. Herbs such as Eleutherococcus root and leaf (r & l), Schisandra (seed), American ginseng (r), Rhodiola (r), and Ashwagandha (r) tonify and protect all major organ systems and are especially effective in enabling the body's ability to resist and adapt to stress.12-14 Their effects may be enhanced by companion adaptogenic herbs – such as hawthorn leaf, flower and berry, green tea, and turmeric – which, due to their high phenolic content, demonstrate remarkable prophylactic abilities.15 A synergizing formula such as this will promote overall optimal health and well-being.

Pharmacology of Phase I Primary Adaptogens

Eleutherococcus senticosus root & leaf (Eleuthero 1:1 RL)
Eleutherococcus senticosus (Eleuthero) is the most widely researched adaptogen (see Sidebar) and has been shown to be highly effective in improving our adaptive capability to respond to adverse conditions. Human studies indicate that wild Eleuthero extract (Russian 1:1 concentrate) increases the ability of humans to withstand many adverse physical conditions (i.e., heat, noise, motion, work load increase, exercise, and decompression) and improves mental alertness and work output, especially under stressful conditions.16,19,20 Eleuthero exerts a strong immunomodulatory influence improving non-specific immune defense. Russian researchers found that the Eleuthero leaf was more energizing than the root and was more effective at assisting in glucose and insulin control, whereas the root enhances endurance and sustains energy more effectively than the leaf. Research done including the root and leaf together has shown a wide range of benefits beyond the root extract alone.7,17,18

In 1962, Eleutherococcus, the prototype adaptogen, was declared an official herbal medicine by the USSR Ministry of Health and was included in the National Drug Guide, the pharmacopoeia of the USSR.

Sidebar: Studies on #1 Adaptogen for Stress Protection:
Testing was performed on factory workers, long-distance truck drivers, sailors on long voyages, and military personnel under severe stress. Stress studies conducted with this new adaptogen, Eleutherococcus, included the following:

Study: Soviet Olympic teams and other sports teams during challenging training and competition.
Result: Improved stamina and recovery, increased oxygen intake, and better performance.19

Study: 1,000 mining workers in Siberia.
Result: Incidence of cases during influenza epidemic dropped by two-thirds.5

Study: 1,200 long-distance truck drivers.
Result: Improved productivity; the number of influenza cases during an epidemic was reduced by 30%.20

Study: 14,000 auto factory workers.
Result: 30% decrease in total reported symptoms; 40% drop in symptoms of high blood pressure and heart disease.20

Study: 107 patients receiving anti-cancer drugs for gastric cancer.
Result: 50% less damage to immunity, 50% decrease in drug dosage.9

Study: 60,000 people conducted over a ten-year period at the Volzhsky Automobile Factory in Tolyatti, Russia.
Result: Absence and disability were reduced by 30% after taking Eleutherococcus. A 40% decrease in cases of influenza and a general improvement in health were also noted.196,197

Study: 655 healthy men, all of whom were employed as flight personnel (pilots, navigators, radio operators).
Result: Eleutherococcus, Aralia, and Schisandra accelerated recovery processes following tiresome flight schedules. The subjects physiological state improved significantly within three hours of a flight to levels even higher than prior to the flight.197

Schisandra Seed (Shisandra chinensis)
Schisandra (fruit and seed) has a long history of folkloric use in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and Russia. Most of the Russian research done on Schisandra, as an adaptogen, has been done on the seed extract rather than the fruit. Russian scientists proved that Schisandra extract should be prepared from seeds rather than from the whole fruit, since the organic acid in the fruit can ruin the active substances of the seeds.184,185 In the US, the majority of Schisandra extract sold is from the fruit, not the seed, although in TCM, it is the fruit that is typically used as a medicine.

Schisandra seed has a stimulatory effect on the central nervous system, without being excitatory, and enhances both mental and physical capabilities. Schisandra seed is widely used for the treatment of stress-induced nervous system exhaustion and fatigue, insomnia, weakness, depression, forgetfulness, vision problems, diarrhea, and chemical toxicity.184,185 Various ethanol soluble lignans found in the seed and fruit have powerful liver protective properties against a variety of chemical toxins.21,22,23,202

Using Schisandra seed extract (SSE) increased adaptive capability of flight attendants carrying out long, non-stop flights (seven to nine hours).186 For athletes, SSE has shown to not only enhance performance, but also facilitate recovery both in human and animal studies (race horses).188 One-hundred-and-forty male distance runners were split into three groups. First –control, given glucose; second – given banned stimulant phenamine ("speed"); and third –given bioactive compound Schisandrin. Surprisingly, Schisandrin expressed a stronger stimulative action then phenamine. Seventy-four percent of the runners given natural remedy ran their best time on 3000 meters versus 59% in the group given phenamine.187

Schisandra produces CNS stimulation, which results in improved physical and mental capacity, motor coordination, and efficiency. At the same time, this herb does not cause an excitatory response like synthetic stimulants such as amphetamine or caffeine.187,189 SSE exerts a strong stimulating influence among test subjects who displayed a great improvement in reading comprehension, aptitude, and speed.198

Taking SSE increases sharpness of sight and widening of the borders of the eyesight field, both in people with normal sight and patients with myoptic chorioretinitis pigmentary degeneration of the retina and atrophy of the optic nerve and near-sightedness of high degree.190 Schisandra causes an increase in adaptation to darkness in 90% of the test subjects.184

American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium)
Ginseng has been used as a traditional medicine in Oriental countries for more than 5,000 years. In Chinese, the word "ginseng" translates directly as "man essence." The name Panax is derived from the Greek Pan ("all") and akos ("remedy"), clearly reflecting the root's reputation as a panacea or cure-all. It is the most valued herb widely used in China, as well as other Asian countries. There are more than 500 scientific papers published on ginseng throughout the world. There are several types of ginseng, including Chinese, Korean (Panax), which can come as white or red, and American (Panax quinquefolium).194

American ginseng (AG), highly revered throughout Asia, is "cool" in nature, making it better for people with excess heat, and is nourishing to both the yin and yang. It is predominately a kidney/lung yin tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine.24,25 The Eclectic Physicians used AG as a soothing nervine energy tonic specifically for cerebral anemia. It is a very important remedy in nervous dyspepsia and mental exhaustion from overwork.26 Its qualities are easily dissipated by heat, therefore it should be used as a fresh fluid extract. It should be obtained only from wild or woods-grown sources, and not farmed.26,27 Recent research has found AG to be very useful for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).28 It facilitates hemodynamic balance 29 and glucose and insulin balance.30

Golden Arctic Root (Rhodiola rosea)
Based on many years of Russian research, the root of Rhodiola rosea, commonly named "Arctic root," rivals Eleutherococcus as an important adaptogen. The active constituents believed to be responsible for the adaptogenic qualities in Russian Rhodiola rosea include a group of unique phenylpropanoids called "rosavins," including rosavin, rosin, and rosarin.193 These compounds are not found in other Rhodiola species. Extensive research on Rhodiola rosea extract (RRE), manufactured in Russia and harvested from the wild in Siberia, substantiates its superior effectiveness over other species as well as Rhodiola rosea extracts. This particular variety of Rhodiola is typically available in the market from culture-grown sources, which are inferior. True Russian Rhodiola RRE is standardized to a 3:1 ratio of rosavins (2.5%-3.0%) to salidroside (.8-1.0%). Salidroside or rhodioloside is a phenylethanol derivative.201 RRE exhibits profound protective effects to the nervous and endocrine system and possesses antifatigue, immune-enhancing, anticarcinogenic, antimetastatic, chemo-protective, antioxidative, and antimutagenic activity. In Middle Asia, Rhodiola rosea was considered a valuable commodity, because it was the most effective remedy for cold and flu prevention as well as treatment.195

A number of human and animal studies on Rhodiola rosea extract have shown that it increases physical work capacity and dramatically shortens recovery time between bouts of high-intensity exercise. These studies include normal people as well as Olympic-level athletes. One study involving high performance athletes compared the effects of Russian Rhodiola 1:1 extract, a single dose at 15 drops, to Russian Eleuthero 1:1 extract, a single dose at 2 ml, to a placebo group. The Rhodiola group increased work capacity by nine percent, the Eleuthero by six percent, compared to the placebo group. Note: 15 drops of the Russian 1:1 fluid extract is equal to 150 mg. of the powder standardized extract.195

Much of the research on RRE has focused on its ability to assist the body at times of stress, particularly cardiac stress, acting in part to prevent stress-induced catecholamine activity in cardiac tissue and reduce adrenaline induced arrhythmias in animals.31,32 RRE protects against altitude sickness, minimizing cardiopulmonary dysfunction. RRE also has shown to increase the swimming time of animals by 135%-159%.55 RRE has been shown to significantly improve mental performance and reduce fatigue in physicians working night shifts. 61 In proofreading tests, after taking Rhodiola rosea extract, a decrease in the quantity of mistakes was observed in 88% of the experimental group, while an increase in the quantity of mistakes was observed in 54% of the control group.199 Under exhaustive muscle workloads, it was revealed that RRE increased the activity of proteolytic enzymes and also significantly increased the level of protein and RNA in the skeletal muscles.200 RRE is anti-oxidative, preventing and minimizing oxidative damage in the pancreas and heart caused by excess stress.59,60

RRE has been shown to enhance the antitumor effects of the chemotherapeutic drug cyclophosphamide (Cytoxin), while at the same time assisting in the regenerative process of the immune system. RRE has also been shown to shorten the recovery time on suppressed white blood cells following chemotherapy or radiation treatment.56 In animal experiments, adding RRE to a protocol with Adriamycin resulted in an improved inhibition of tumor dissemination (compared to Adriamycin alone), and the combined protocol prevented liver toxicity.57 Russian research has shown that RRE is helpful in conditions of depression and schizophrenia. RRE administrations have shown to increase serotonin and decrease the enzyme responsible for monoamine degradation, monoamine oxidase, and catechol-O-methyltransferase.58

Certain conditions respond more favorably to Rhodiola extract than other adaptogens, although a combination of adaptogens offers the most benefit. For example, Rhodiola is superior to Panax ginseng during acute stress, preventing disruptions in function and performance.193

Ashwagandha Root (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is one of the most revered plants in Ayurvedic medicine. It is classified as a tonic-adaptogen and is often referred to as the "Indian Ginseng" although not botanically related. Active components in the root include alkaloids (isopelietierine and anaferine), steroidal lactones (withanolides, withaferins), saponins (including sitoindoside VII, VIII), and iron.49

Many studies have demonstrated the adaptogenic properties of ashwaganda. For example, one study showed Ashwaganda extract (AE) prevented the depletion of vitamin C and cortisol (an adrenal hormone) in subjects who were under stress and prevented stress-related gastrointestinal ulcers. The antioxidant effect of AE may contribute to the reported anti-stress, cognition-facilitating, anti-inflammatory, and anti-aging effects presented in clinical situations. AE has shown similar anti-stress and anabolic activity to Panax ginseng.51 AE counteracted many biological changes induced by extreme stress, including changes in blood sugar, and adrenal weight and cortisol levels.52 AE is a radiosensitizer/chemo-preventive agent.53 AE extract significantly increased the total white blood cell (WBC) count in mice and reduced the leukopenia induced by a sub-lethal dose of gamma radiation.54 The combination of Aswagandha and Panax ginseng taken together was found to improve psychomotor skills.33

Page 1, 2, 3, 4, Notes

Consult your doctor before using any of the treatments found within this site.

Subscriptions are available for Townsend Letter, the Examiner of Alternative Medicine magazine, which is published 10 times each year.

Search our pre-2001 archives for further information. Older issues of the printed magazine are also indexed for your convenience.
1983-2001 indices ; recent indices

Once you find the magazines you'd like to order, please use our convenient form, e-mail, or call 360.385.6021 (PST).


Order back issues
Advertise with TLDP!
Visit our pre-2001 archives
© 1983-2006 Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients
All rights reserved.
Web site by Sandy Hershelman Designs
January 5, 2007