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Adaptogens - where to start?

 
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I hear adaptogens mentioned every now and then, and these herbs sound like they might be a good idea to take to help combat the toxins in the modern world, but I don't really know where to start.

Do you have any favourite tea blend recipes that include these herbs?

Is tulsi a good one to start with?

Are there any that are unsafe for pregnancy and breastfeeding? Or unsafe for children to drink?
 
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Hi Kate,

If it is toxins you are battling in general, I would actually suggest taking liver supporting herbs such as Milk thistle. There are other liver herbs that have similar protective and regenerative qualities, but they also have either side effects or there is trouble sourcing them etc. So, I usually suggest Milk thistle seed as a general protective herb for environmental toxins. If you want more details on Milk thistle, let me know. Don't chew the whole seed as it can break your teeth. It is very hard.

However, you asked about adaptogens. Adaptogens.
Here is my definition of an adaptogen: An adaptogen augments resistance to stress and conserves energy; when faced with a wide spectrum of stressors of different physical, mental, emotional natures. Adaptagens enhance general resistance and normalize the body when under stress by acting in a non-specific manner. They help keep the body in a balanced state of health by a variety of physiological coping mechanisms. Adaptogens have a normalizing effect on the body by counteracting or preventing disturbances brought about by a stressor or harmful factor. Ultimately they are thought to restore function and bring about inner balance.  

One of the nice thing about adaptogens that is often not realized is that they all support mitochondrial function, and have been shown to protect mitochondria for damage. I think this is actually the key reason they support so many normal bodily functions.

One of the important points of an adapatogen is that they are relatively safe. In fact an adaptogen is thought to be an herb that decreases damage from physical or mental stressors with little toxicity. If the herb decreases damage from physical or mental stressors, but it is toxic, it is not included in the list of adaptogens. This is also why the list of adaptogens is fairly small when written out by most herbalists. You asked about safety of adaptogens in pregnancy, lactation and children's use. Technically, an adpatogen would not be toxic in any of these cases, but there are reasons specific to pregnancy that some of them would not be used by an herbalist as a safety factor. The biggest issue is that herbs are rarely tested in human pregnancy. Turmeric is one that has quite a bit of studies in pregnancy and appears to be safe, but is still suggested not to be used in large doses and not to take medicinal amounts of it. If you are using whole turmeric in your food it is considered safe during pregnancy. However, if you are ingesting the capsules of curcumin (one constituent in Turmeric) that are often sold off the store shelves, that is considered unsafe due to hormonal effects that may be possible. When you read the studies, some studies show Turmeric to be totally safe in pregnancy and others show possible issues. I really don't see a definitive answer to say, there is a specific safe amount to take in medicinal amounts, yet I believe from people using a lot of it in their diet during pregnancy that it is probably safe and may be beneficial from some research.

I generally tell pregnant women to eat healthy food and to stay away from non-food herbs and only use them when they are needed.

There are studies with Ashwagandha in rats that show it to be safe in rat pregnancy. People are not rats though. In general it appears to be a safe herb.
You asked about Holy Basil. In general it is considered to be a safe herb. Rat studies have not shown any lack of safety that I have seen, but I have nothing to show for pregnancy, not even in rats. There are people who claim it either causes contractions or relaxes the uterine smooth muscles, but I have not yet seen the evidence of either. Ocimum gratissimum or Clove basil has some evidence of causing uterine contractions.

So, I can't tell you that any of these herbs are absolutely safe in pregnancy for sure. Each pregnant woman is different too. Most herbalists and practitioners are very careful with pregnant women and err on the side of safety.
Regarding children, they are mostly treated the same as adults, because there is little known about how children might react  differently to herbs.

The next thing to explain is that although these herbs are fairly safe in the average person, someone with a health condition  could easily react to any of these herbs. For instance Licorice should not be given to people with edema or high blood pressure. There are quite a few reasons you would not give Licorice, but those are the common ones. With oats, there are some people who appear to react to protein in the oats called avenin which is similar to gluten. Ashwagandha might cause people with hyperthyroidism to get worse, while if they are hypothyroid it would be helpful. Generally,  you can find something with all plants that will be problematic for someone. I have pretty much seen someone react to most foods and herbs, but often it is due to the genetics of that person or their having other inflammatory issues that induce a temporary reaction rather than a true allergy or plant toxin. (There are toxic herbs used by practitioners, but they are not normally available on the store shelf.)

Examples of adaptogens:
• Ashwagandha - Withania somnifera
• Bacopa - Bacopa monniera
• Bupleurum - Bupleurum chinense
• Dang shen - Codonopsis pilosula
• Ginseng - Panax spp.
• Holy basil - Ocimum sanctum
• Licorice - Glycyrrhiza glabra
• Linden - Tillia spp
• Oats - Avena sativa
• Reishi mushroom - Ganoderma lucidum
• Rose root (stonecrop) - Rhodiola rosea
• Schisandra - Schisandra chinensis
• Siberian ginseng - Eleutherococcus senticosus
• Turmeric - Curcuma longa

Here is an adpatogen formula taken from my book that you might consider, but I suggest reading about each herb first before you decide it is for you. It is a general formula. The doses listed are low enough that it will not cause issues for most people. Again, the licorice in here should not be used by those with high blood pressure or edema. You can change the formula and add something else or simply remove herbs also.

ADAPTOGEN TONIC

American ginseng – Panax quinquefolius - 15-20%
Schisandra - Schisandra chinensis - 15-20%
Rhodiola – Rhodiola rosea - 15-20%
Gota kola - Centella asiatica - 10-15%
Licorice - Glycyrrhiza glabra - 10-15%
Oat - Avena sativa - 10-15%

Action:
This formula supports, stimulates and mimics the normal function of the HTP axis/adrenals and supports mitochondrial function. It also supports the nervous system.

Indications:
This formula is used for diminished function of the adrenal glands and mitochondria caused by chronic stress, including physical, mental and emotional stresses due to illnesses, overwork, worry, etc. It is indicated when there is a lack of energy associated with “adrenal hypofunction”.

Dosing

Restorative Dose:  
Tincture: 40-60 drops 3-4 times per day
Tea: 2 heaping teaspoons 3-4 times per day

Maintenance Dose:
Tincture: 20-40 drops 3-4 times per day
Tea: 2 rounded teaspoons 2 times per day

Contraindications, cautions and words of wisdom:
Diseases of the adrenal glands can be very serious or even fatal if not treated properly. This formula is not a substitute for qualified health care.
Licorice may cause pseudo-hyperaldosteronism that can cause hypertension and edema. This is a rare occurrence, but it is a concern if there is pre-existing hypertension. When there is pre-existing hypertension, the blood pressure should be monitored if there is continuous long-term use of any formula that contains licorice. Licorice should be discontinued if hypertension appears.
This compound should not be used in cases of hyperadrenalism caused by Cushings syndrome and Conns syndrome. It is contraindicated in pregnancy.

Adjunct therapy:
Consider other adaptogenic and supportive herbs.
Rest, relaxation, quality sleep, exercise and joyful activities are important.
Avoid food allergens and sensitivities.
Consider liver support and antioxidants.

Profiles of herbs used in this formula:

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius is indicated for “adrenal burnout” with mental, nervous, emotional and physical exhaustion. The individual cannot adapt to stressful situations. Dry mucous membranes, hypotension and low blood sugar are often part of the symptoms.  American ginseng is an adaptogen that assists our bodies innate ability to adapt to environmental influences and decrease susceptibility to illness. It  is used to enhance physical and mental stamina, cognitive function and memory.

Schisandra, Schisandra chinensis is indicated for general overall  weakness with inability to hold moisture  in the body; (ie) sweats, nocturnal emissions, morning diarrhea, and frequent urination. It is thought to decrease fluid excess and to moisten the body in fluid deficiency. Schisandra is used as a liver restorative, lung tonic and for immune system support. It also enhances brain efficiency, mental alertness, work capacity and builds strength. Schisandra is useful fatigue, neurasthenia, viral induced hepatitis, and protection from oxidizing substances. It increases endurance and mental performance in patients with fatigue and weakness.

Gotu kola, Centella asiatica, is an anti-inflammatory and adaptogen. It provides general support for the adrenals and the nervous system. It is an anti-stress herb that has been shown to decrease adrenal enlargement and possess corticosteroid-sparing effects in rats under stressful conditions. Gotu kola treatment also reduces stress induced ulcers.

Licorice, Glycyrrhiza glabra, has a pronounced effect on many functions of the body, from immune support to hepatocyte protection. It’s ability to decrease degradation of a variety of hormones including adrenal hormones gives the adrenals a rest. It is anti-allergenic, anti-inflammatory, nutritive, antioxidant, immunomodulator, mild laxative and hepatoprotective. Licorice inhibits a 5 B-reductase that regulates cortisol and aldosterone metabolism; therefore, it is thought that it retards the metabolic excretion of corticosteroids and extends the biological half-life of cortisol and aldosterone. Its ability to increase the effectiveness of adrenocortical hormones has in some cases caused a pseudo-hyperaldosteronism syndrome including symptoms of edema, hypertension and low potassium blood levels.

Oat, Avena sativa, is indicated for nervous system irritation from exhaustion, excessive indulgences or stress. It is used as a long-term tonic. Some people have reactions to the avenin in Oats similar to gluten in wheat.

Rhodiola, Rhodiola rosea is helpful for individuals who are exhausted, anxious, depressed and burnt out or show early aging. It is used to decrease fatigue, enhance energy production, physical work capacity, coordination and increases endurance during exercise. It enhances memory and cognitive function and helps maintain a positive outlook on daily life with less mental fatigue and situational anxiety.
 
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Could I substitute Panax ginseng for Panax quinquefolius?
 
Sharol Tilgner
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You can substitute the Panax ginseng. It is more warming due to the manner it is processed. The extra warming of the Chinese ginseng is great if the person tends to be cold usually. I tend to prefer the American ginseng, but I realize it is more expensive. It is not hard to grow in the Pacific NW where I have lived most of my life, but the slugs sure love it. Ducks are needed if you want to grow it.
 
Kate Downham
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Thank you Sharol! That is so helpful.

Are other types of ganoderma also adaptogens? Or just the lucidum type? We have a different type of reishi growing wild here and I'm wondering whether it can be used in place of the Asian/North American kind.
 
Sharol Tilgner
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Hi Kate,

There are hundreds of Ganoderma species and many seem to have medicinal use, but only a few of them have been well studied. G. lucidum (G. lingzhi) and G. applanatum have quite a bit of research. Ganoderma lucidum has a lot of known historical use.  There are others being researched now, so I am sure we will hear of new uses for other species. So, although others may be wonderful, I would have no way to know short of talking to herbalists in the area they grow in. Do you know any herbalists in your area that collect mushrooms. I would suggest asking them. Do you know the species in your area? I grew G. lucidum outside of Eugene Oregon where they grew like weeds. If you know the species of your local Ganoderma, I will see if I can find anything on it.
 
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