Adaptogens and Human Stress Responses
By Lane Lenard, Ph.D.
Adaptogens are a remarkable group of substances that help the body adapt to stresses of all kinds. Knowledge about adaptogens dates back thousands of years to ancient China, but serious scientific study did not really begin until the 1950s, when Soviet scientists thoroughly — but secretively — discovered their benefits for fighting stress, reducing illness, building and maintaining strong muscles, and enhancing endurance. One of the leading researchers in adaptogen research today is Ben Tabachnik, PhD, who emigrated from Russia nearly a decade ago, bringing with him the accumulated knowledge of adaptogens that was once guarded as a state secret by the Soviet government. In this exclusive interview, Dr. Tabachnik tells how adaptogens work and how you can benefit from them in the form of his exclusive formulations, Adaptogen Complex I and Adaptogen Complex II.
CP Dr. Tabachnik, what does it mean to adapt to stress, and why is it so important that we do?
Tabachnik: Our bodies evolved during a period when the primary stressors were physical and were tied to the fight for survival. If you couldnt adapt, you died. But we’re living in a quite different world today. Stresses associated with day to day survival are less of an issue today. Instead, we are exposed to chronic stressors, such as pollution, unhealthful food, loud, ever-present noise, a job, personal relationships, and information overload. So there is much, much more stress now in our lives than ever before. Most of these stressors don’t demand a physical response from us. Nevertheless, our body’s reaction is the same one that has evolved over millions of years of life-or-death struggles: chemicals are released that prepare the body to fight or flee away. In some ways stress can be very positive, because it can mobilize our body to cope with changes, with challenges. In other ways, though, our systems overreact, which can be damaging to our health. If the stress is prolonged, or if it’s too strong or too damaging, if too much of the stress hormone cortisol is released from the adrenals, you can have all kinds of dysfunction and disease. You may become much more susceptible to colds or flu, for example. For many people, excess cortisol in the blood, can lead to cravings for some foods — mostly unhealthy foods — like fat and sugar and ice cream, as well as for alcohol and smoking. Often poor adaptation to stress simply makes people tire easily. It’s Americans’ main complaint — I’m so tired. I’m just exhausted. People are under prolonged chemical stress, which is very toxic to the body and makes them tired. Upon waking in the morning they’re tired, even after 8 hours of sleep. In this country, people use coffee just to keep themselves going, and not just one cup of coffee. Sometimes it’s 2, 3, 4, or 5 during the day, which gives you quick energy, but eventually they run out of gas, because stimulants like caffeine and amphetamines do nothing to solve the body’s underlying energy shortage.
CP And adaptogens help modulate these reactions?
Tabachnik: Yes, in some ways adaptogens change our reaction. This means that the same stress chemicals can be used more economically, so you can save more energy.
CP So they tone down the overreaction. Dr. Tabachnik, could you give us a broad definition of adaptogens?
Tabachnik: Adaptogens are substances that help the body adjust to stress. Although some people believe that adaptogens originated in Russia, in reality, the concept can be traced back thousands of years to ancient Chinese medicine. The Chinese regarded certain herbs as elite or kingly, because they were used effectively by soldiers before battles or long voyages. They gave the men great stamina and endurance, extra strength to survive the harsh, long-lasting rigors of ancient warfare. Among the most important of these adaptogenic herbs was ginseng and other members of the ginseng family. Knowledge about adaptogenic herbs was passed down from generation to generation as folk medicine in China and Russia. Russian scientists began to study them systematically in the 1950s, and they found them to be quite effective. At the same time, Russian scientists were not satisfied with ginseng. For one thing, it was very expensive, and often was not of the highest quality. Chinese ginseng also had the disadvantage of being more effective in men than in women, in elderly and middle aged people than in younger people, and in autumn and winter compared with spring and summer. In searching for better alternatives, the Russians discovered an herb known as eleutherococcus, also known as Siberian ginseng. When people use so-called Chinese ginseng, they often don’t see the beneficial effects, because its not as potent as true Siberian ginseng. In fact, Siberian ginseng is neither a true ginseng nor is it from Siberia. It’s from the same botanical family as ginseng, but it is really quite different. How it is processed and extracted is also very important, and so far only the Russians have been able to do this successfully. Over the last 40 years, an enormous amount of research — including more than 1,000 scientific studies — has since been carried out studying eleutherococcus. In fact, it may be the best-studied herb in the world. Not only have its effects been studied in laboratory experiments, but also in real life situations. The results of these studies showed: A 40% decrease in high blood pressure and heart disease and a 30% decrease in total reported symptoms among auto factory workers. Improved productivity and a 30% reduction in the risk of developing influenza among long distance truck drivers. Improved stamina and recovery, as well as increased oxygen intake and better performance among Soviet Olympic and other high level athletes. Adaptogens have served as a safe, natural, and legal substitute for synthetic anabolic steroid drugs. A 50% decrease in immune system damage and a 50% decrease in drug dosage among patients receiving anti-cancer chemotherapy for gastric cancer. A remarkable increase in the ability of Soviet cosmonauts to withstand the rigors of extended space travel and to recover after returning to earth. Adaptogens have allowed cosmonauts to set unprecedented endurance records in space. Despite these results, news about adaptogens, like eleutherococcus and others, remained a closely guarded secret of the Soviet state, so until recently this research never reached Western scientists.
CP Has this research helped elucidate the mechanism of action of adaptogens?
Tabachnik: Yes, it appears that when the body is subjected to stress, adaptogens help the adrenal glands mount an immediate hormonal response by manufacturing and releasing more stress hormones. When the stress stops, however, the adaptogens help the adrenal glands shut down more quickly. In cases where stress is prolonged and/severe, the adrenals reserve their resources by reducing the amount of hormones they release due to adaptogenic restoration by hypothalamic receptor sensitivity. This conserved energy becomes available to continue the body’s response to stressors, thereby delaying adrenal exhaustion. Studies have shown that adaptogens help us achieve extra stamina and energy by helping glucose, which is released into the blood from the body’s storehouses in response to stress, to cross cellular membranes more easily. Adaptogens also help the levels of blood sugar return more quickly to normal.
CP Eleutherococcus is the main ingredient in Adaptogen Complex I, isn’t it?
Tabachnik: Yes, but there are other adaptogens in Adaptogen Complex I as well, including Manchurian thorn tree extract, hawthorn extract, echinopanax elatum, and schisandra.
CP Why did you put more than one adaptogen in Adaptogen Complex I?
Tabachnik: It was quite common in Chinese medicine to use more than just one herb at a time. They mostly used mixtures in their formulas. For me it was the same idea … try to use different mixtures. In a very practical way, I started to mix different combinations, and I found that certain combinations worked much better than the individual adaptogens alone, and the relationship was often synergistic, not just additive. I found that certain combinations worked better — like before competition or after competition, where they might speed the recovery process.
CP Who should use Adaptogen Complex I?
Tabachnik: Adaptogen Complex I is for everybody, and can be used daily. It is especially useful for people who are under more stress, including athletes and people who have more active lifestyles. Why for everybody? Everybody is under different kinds of stresses, and Adaptogen Complex I can make it easier to handle those daily stresses, which can disrupt our normal hormonal and homeostatic balance. It helps normalize bodily function. Now the question is, How long will we be out of balance? The body handles short-term imbalances very easily and rebounds rapidly. But long-term imbalances caused by chronic stress can be bad news, leading to loss of energy, suboptimal athletic performance, inferior productivity, and increased risk of illness. Now, the average person, who is under mild or moderate stress can just use it prophylactically, to be protected from stress. For these people, I recommend using one milliliter (ml), about one full dropper, each morning. People who are under more stress, who are more active, who are challenged with serious stresses everyday, or who are very tired much of the time, may benefit from taking a second dose in the afternoon, a half dropperful or even a full dropperful. People who are very active: business executives, competitive athletes, people who are under severe stress everyday, may want to try as much as two droppersful three times a day.
CP Do they need to be concerned about side effects at these high dose levels?
Tabachnik: No, it’s not toxic. Athletes sometimes use 8, 10, 12 dosages daily. I know some ice hockey players who used it during playoff games, as much as an entire bottle during a single game. They put it in their soft drinks.
CP Is it safe for children?
Tabachnik: Yes, it is. Its a question only of dosage. For a child 4 to 5 years old, you can start with 5 drops a day, putting it in a glass of juice or any beverage. By age 10 to 12, you can give them 10 or 12 drops a day. After 14 or 15, it can be 15 to 20 drops a day. After age 16, a full dropper is acceptable. Because teenagers tend to experience huge stresses in their life, it’s OK for them to build up to a dosage of one full dropper two or three times a day.
CP What about elderly people or people with medical problems?
Tabachnik: They should build up gradually to adapt to adaptogens because their adaptability is already disrupted. They can start with just 10 drops, then go to 20 drops, and after one month if there have been no problems, they should use one full dropper (about 32 drops).
CP Now lets talk about Adaptogen Complex II.
Tabachnik: Adaptogen Complex II is also an adaptogenic product, but the adaptogens used have primarily anti-catabolic, or anabolic actions. Why do we need this? There are two kinds of metabolism: anabolic metabolism and catabolic metabolism. Basically, anabolic processes accumulate energy to build up new cells and lean muscles. They’re like an investment: when you deposit money, you build up your energy accounts. Catabolic processes are just the opposite; you break down lean muscle tissues and spend your energy reserves. There’s a direct link between stress and catabolism. When youre under stress, you need extra energy to handle the stress and the body’s overreaction to it. With prolonged stress, increasing amounts of this energy come from catabolizing (or cannibalizing) the body’s stores of protein, especially lean muscle tissue. Protein is required for proper growth, for cellular maintenance and repair, and for the production of enzymes and hormones. The hormone primarily responsible for mobilizing energy via catabolism is cortisol. Now, normally anabolic and catabolic processes are in balance. But when you’re under chronic stress, catabolism begins to take over, leaving you with no way to repair your cells; no time to recover from injury. As we age, the balance begins to shift between anabolism and catabolism, too. The adaptogens in Adaptogen Complex II, including soy protein isolate, Rhaponticum carthinoides, Tribulus terrestris, and Adjurga turkistanica, combine to restore the anabolic/catabolic balance, so the body can repair its cells, in order to maintain adequate amounts of amino acids and proteins in the muscles.
CP Is it similar to what testosterone and other anabolic steroids do?
Tabachnik: Yes, absolutely. But Adaptogen Complex II is much safer, and, of course, legal in athletic competition, because it’s not an anabolic steroid. Nevertheless, this product is really very effective as an anti-aging agent; it’s also effective for fighting exhaustion and fatigue because it’s anti-catabolic.
CP When should you use Adaptogen Complex I and Adaptogen Complex II?
Tabachnik: Adaptogen Complex I is primarily for protecting yourself from stress on a daily basis. Adaptogen Complex II is designed for people already under greater stress who are in a deep catabolic stage. How can you know? You need to listen to your body. If catabolism is really deep, you may feel you’re exhausted or just tired. Adaptogen Complex I is still useful for these people, but Adaptogen Complex II will get the job of restoring the balance done quicker. While we recommend using Adaptogen Complex I on a daily basis, Adaptogen Complex II is best used in cycles, with each cycle lasting from 10 days to 2 weeks. Then stop using it for 2 to 3 weeks. Now, these are not rigid schedules. Everyone is different and needs to experiment to find the regimen that fits their lifestyle and their needs. If 10 days on Adaptogen Complex II is not enough, try 15 or 20 days.
CP What dosage of Adaptogen Complex II do you recommend?
Tabachnik: The dose is based in part on your body weight. People who weigh 120 to 140 pounds should start with about 4 or 5 capsules daily. People weighing 145 to 160 should try about 6 capsules daily. People up to 200 pounds, should try 8 or 9 capsules daily. Then also they need to factor in their activity level and level of stress. Unlike many drugs, it’s usually better with these products to start with the maximum dosage and then work down. Then you should cut back from 6 to 5 caps and find out if 5 works for you. If it’s less effective, then you know your dosage. But there’s nothing to fear by using more than you need. It’s not toxic at all. But that doesn’t mean more is better. Everyone needs to find their optimal dosage. It’s best to take Adaptogen Complex II three times a day, about 5 to 10 minutes before each meal. Athletes should take it according to their training schedule. For example, if they train at 4 PM, they should take their Adaptogen Complex II 40 to 45 minutes before their training session. The same thing applies to competition — 40 to 45 minutes before competing. And if they take it 60 to 90 minutes after training, it will help speed their recovery. In addition, for the best effect when using Adaptogen Complex II, your diet should be rich in protein.
CP Could you summarize what readers of this interview should know about adaptogens?
Tabachnik: Yes, of course. Adaptogens reduce the damage that the stress response can cause. Adaptogens also help maintain homeostasis during chronic stress by regulating the body’s adaptive reactions. Adaptogens reduce most evidence of the alarm stage of the stress response, and they delay or promote avoidance of the exhaustion stage. Adaptogens eliminate or significantly decrease the classic signs of the prolonged stress reaction. Adaptogens help the body utilize fuel more efficiently, with fewer toxic or waste byproducts (e.g., lactic acid), which can contribute to fatigue and reduced function. The efficient use of energy that results from adaptogen use means you have greater reserves more readily available when needed. Running Out of GAS: The General Adaptation Syndrome Modern research on adaptogens began during the 1930s with the great Canadian scientist Hans Selye, who is widely recognized as the father of stress research, as an outgrowth of his general adaptation syndrome (GAS). Selye defined stress as nonspecific in that the stress response can result from a variety of different kinds of stressors, and he thus focused on the internal aspects of stress. According to the GAS concept, the body has three stages of response to stress: First, an alarm reaction, which is characterized in part by the release of hormones from the adrenal glands, acts to prepare the body for fight or flight. When a threat is perceived, the hypothalamus signals both the sympathetic nervous system and the pituitary. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands, which release corticosteroids to increase metabolism, which in turn provides immediate energy. The pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), which also affects the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands then release epinephrine and norepinephrine, prolonging the fight-or-flight response. Second is resistance, in which the body learns to efficiently cope with the stressor. Ideally, this stage continues until the stress is resolved, allowing the body to return to its normal resting state. The stage of resistance is marked by a continued state of arousal. If the stressful situation is prolonged, the high level of hormones during the resistance phase may upset homeostasis and harm internal organs, leaving the organism vulnerable to disease. Evidence from animal research suggests that the adrenal glands actually increase in size during the resistance stage, which may reflect the prolonged activity. The third stage, exhaustion, occurs in the face of chronic stress and is marked by adrenal dysfunction, imbalances in hormones and releasing factors, loss of sensitivity of the hypothalamus and pituitary to the normal inhibiting effects of these hormones, the depletion of energy reserves and loss of adaptational ability. Exhaustion can lead to fatigue, immune dysfunction, and other symptoms and diseases. During this stage, the bodys energy reserves are finally exhausted and breakdown occurs. Selye has noted that, in humans, many of the diseases precipitated or caused by stress occur in the resistance stage. Thus, he refers to these as diseases of adaptation. They include headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular and kidney diseases. In general, the central nervous system and hormonal responses aid adaptation. However, it can sometimes lead to disease, especially when the state of stress is prolonged or intense.