Observations Regarding Adaptogens
Though adaptogen research is in its early days, there has been a fair amount of work done to
date. Enough work that certain conclusions can be drawn about this class of drug. These
observations can be useful in guiding research in a focused manner.
First, though, it must be said that Herbal Medicine is an interdisciplinary discipline. It borrows
from history, ethno botany, botany, chemistry, phytochemistry, and clinical medicine. Indeed,
the discipline draws from many different sources to develop an understanding of herbal
medicines and, the professional in herbal medicine must be prepared to move between diverse
worlds. Although we are not chemists, historians, or botanists, we must know how to extract
information from those disciplines for our own purposes. The observations regarding the 44
new botanical adaptogens, and adaptogens in general, are constructed with materials from
other sciences. Although the materia medica is 100% vegetable in origin, we must be satisfied
with repurposing information gathered by others for other purposes.
That said, important observations regarding botanical adaptogens that have come to the fore in
this project. They are as follows:
• Adaptogens are drugs that remedy State of Exhaustion
• Adaptogens are simple drugs targeting a complex system
• Certain plant families are rich in potential adaptogens
• Adaptogens could be organised by secondary strengths
• Adaptogens switch on cells in disease induced cellular retirement
• Phytochemistry of adaptogens
• Wound healing agents may be adaptogens
• Resistogen may be a better term
• A modified adaptogen criterion
As previously noted, a cursory glance at the pharmacological activity of adaptogens reveals this
class of drugs acts on the immune system. However, there are two alternative ways this activity
can be characterised. One could argue that the new adaptogens are immune modulators. But
one could also argue that they remedy State of Exhaustion of which abnormal immune function
is a part.
Many of the drugs identified by this project were used as immune stimulants, in most cases, to
treat infectious disease. Drugs like Arctium lappa (1), Baptisia tinctoria (2), Cinchona rubra (3),
Echinacea angustifolia (4), Hydrastis canadensis (5), and Rhus toxicodendron (6) were used by
the Eclectics to treat microbial infection. They were used also to treat acute and chronic bacterial
infection, acute and chronic viral infection, and parasitic infection.
Contemporary research has shown that these drugs augment immune activity on a variety of
levels. They have demonstrated the ability to increase the production and activity of
phagocytes, to stimulate the production and activity of T?cells, to stimulate the production and
activity of Natural Killer cells. In some instances they have been shown to increase the
production of immune products like interleukin, interferon, and immunoglobulins. (1–6)
Indeed, they can be reasonably termed immune stimulants.
At the same time, these drugs were also used to treat diseases rooted in hyper? immune activity.
They were used to treat allergies, allergic rhinitis, allergic skin reactions, eczema, and other
hypersensitivity reactions. (1–6). Contemporary research has shown that many of these drugs
have a quieting effect on the immune system through anti?inflammatory activities. In some
cases, like Gaultheria procumbens (7) and Populus tremuloides (8), the anti?inflammatory
activity is based on the presence of aspirin like compounds. In other cases, like Eleutherococcus
senticosus (9) and Panax ginseng, (10) it is based on steroid like compounds. Some of the drugs
switch on steroid production, some potentate indigenous steroids, and some act as steroids
In addition, the drugs were used to treat disease we now know to be rooted in autoimmune
disease including rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, psoriatic
arthropathies, and blepharitis. Contemporary research indicates these uses were justified and
the anti?inflammatory effect mentioned previously would make them effective in this type of
immune dysfunction too. (7–10) Lastly, some of the drugs like Phytolacca americana and
Podophyllum peltatum have been shown to depress immune activity (11, 12).
Indeed, contemporary research has demonstrated that these drugs act as immune stimulants,
immune depressants, and immune regulators. Taking prior clinical uses and contemporary
research into consideration, it is defensible to call the drugs identified by this project immune
modulators as they improve a spectrum of immune abnormalities. However, this would be a
If one studies the GAS, immune abnormalities occur when an organism enters State of
Exhaustion; hypersensitivity reactions, autoimmune activity, and depressed immune activity
are a part of State of Exhaustion. Indeed, Selye described skin, joint, mucous membrane, and
connective tissue inflammatory disorders, membrane permeability abnormalities, ulceration,
and infection abnormalities as occurring in State of Exhaustion. (13)
Plotting the Eclectic tonics against Selye’s resistance pattern, it is apparent that all of these drugs
were used when organisms had entered into State of Exhaustion and were displaying the usual
signs associated with that state. Indeed, upon closer inspection, it appears that the drugs were
used to treat more than immune abnormalities. They were used to treat the full range of
physiological signs associated with State of Exhaustion. They were used to normalise
temperature abnormalities, metabolic shifts in the direction of catabolism (wasting), and
endocrine abnormalities. (14)
Clearly, a more penetrating characterization of these 44 new adaptogens would be that they
remedy State of Exhaustion, which in turn has an effect on the kaleidoscope of physiological
abnormalities associated with that state.
For the medical establishment, adaptogens represent a problem. Typically, the medical
establishment works with single action drugs. For example, one drug is used to treat
hypertension, another for hyper?cholesterolemia, another for inflammation, another still for
infection, and so on. From this perspective, specificity of action is the hallmark of a good drug.
Adaptogens, on the other hand, appear to have many actions on the body. Eleutherococcus
senticosus, for example, has been shown to reduce inflammation, increase immune function, to
inhibit cancer, reduce blood pressure, and improve cholesterol levels. (1) For medical workers
accustomed to working with single action drugs, the complicated action of the adaptogens are
Some researchers suggest that the label adaptogen be dropped and adaptogens be reclassified
according to specific activity i.e. immune stimulant, hypotensive, anti?cancer agent, etc. (2)
Admittedly, reclassifying Eleutherococcus senticosus as a hypertensive drug would make it
more palatable to the medical establishment. However, it would also mean the true nature of
Eleutherococcus senticosus, and its unique contribution to medical science would be lost.
Indeed, the GAS is a complex, interrelated and general physiological response to stress. The
action of a drug that stimulates this complex system is, by nature, also going to be complex in
If one looks at the demonstrated actions of one adaptogen, Eleutherococcus senticosus, its
complexity of action is manifest. (4)
Reviewing the diagram on the left, the actions of ES appear as a catalogue of unrelated actions.
However, if one looks at the diagram on the right, ES appears to have a simple action: it
augments the GAS, which in turn is complex in action.
Focusing on the true nature of the adaptogen – that is, its ability to augments the GAS ? may
make adaptogens more palatable to a medical audience accustomed to simple action drugs.
Certain plant families appear especially rich in resistance raising drugs. Indeed, a taxonomical
organization of the Eclectic tonics, traditionally used tonics from other traditional medical
systems, previously identified adaptogens, and Eclectic tonics exhibiting adaptogenic
properties, reveals that drugs used to augment the bodies’ intrinsic resistance capacity occur in
greater incidence in certain plant families.
Surveying tonics in this manner resulted in the identification of 79 plant families with a total of
349 tonics (see Appendix C). An example of one of these plant families is as follows:
Intriguingly, this categorisation shows members of the same plant family are used for the same
purposes around the world. For example, members of Araliaceae are used in Asia, Europe,
North America, and South America as vitality stimulants.
Lastly, this organization revealed definitively that tonics are used around the world to increase
vitality and well?being.
Several plant families surfaced as being especially rich in drugs used to raise resistance, namely
Anacardiaceae, Araliaceae, Berberidaceae, Caprifoliaceae, Compositae, Cruciferae, Ericaceae,
Gentianaceae, Labiatae, Leguminosae, Liliaceae, Palmae, Polyporaceae, Ranunculaceae,
Scrophulariaceae, and Solanaceae. The most compelling of these are Araliaceae, Berberidaceae,
Compositae, Graminaceae, Leguminosae, Palmae, and Solanaceae. It would pay to look at these
plant families in closer detail.
The Ginseng family (Araliaceae) is a reasonably large plant family including the genera
Acanthopanax, Aralia, Beorlagiodendron, Brassaiea, Brassaiopsis, Cussonia, Dendropanax,
Didymopanax, Dizygotheca, Fatshedera, Fatsia, Hedera, Kalopanax, Meryta, Neopanax,
Oplopanax, Oreopanax, Panax, Polyscias, Pseudopanax, Schefflera, Stilbocarpa, Tetrapanax,
Trevesia, and Tupidanthus. (1)
The family contains a large number of plants used as tonics. A brief list would include
Acanthopanax sessiliflorum, Aralia cordata, Aralia hispida, Aralia manshurica, Aralia
nudicaulis, Aralia racemose, Aralia schmidtii, Aralia spinosa, Echinopanax elatus,
Eleutherococcus senticosus, Hedera helix, Kalopanax septemlobum, Panax ginseng, Panax
notopananx, Panax quinqefolium, and Panax trifolius.
A significant number of these tonics have demonstrated adaptogenic activity. This would
include Aralia nudicaulis, Echinopanax elatus, Eleutherococcus senticosus, Panax ginseng, and
Panax quinquefolium. In fact, Eleutherococcus senticosus, Panax ginseng, and Panax
quinqefolium are three of the most scrutinised botanical drugs in the world.
This preliminary survey of Araliaceae indicates the family should be reviewed as a group as a
source of potential adaptogens. It would be helpful if a comprehensive survey of the family was
undertaken and a comprehensive list of traditionally used tonics en massed.
With regard to reviewing such a list for future study subjects, one practical reality should be
taken into consideration. As a rule, members of Araliaceae are small, slow growing plants
native to deep woodlands. Many require heavy shade and only survive in very specific
environments. These requirements are difficult to mimic in cultivation. Indeed difficulty in
raising the plants is the reason Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolium are costly. However,
there are members of the family, which are relatively easy to grow and tend to grow on the
margin of the forest, between forests and open land, rather than in the deep forest. Two
examples of readily grown members of this family, with potential, are Dendropanax arborius
and Hedera helix (common garden ivy). For further screening, easily cultivated members are
Native to the New World tropics, Dendropanax arborius factors into domestic medicine
throughout Middle America. In Mexico it is used to treat fever, in Cuba to bring out the
eruptions in eruptive fever, and in Costa Rica to treat backache. (29)
Hedera helix is native to Europe and is considered a weed plant. Historically, it was used to
raise resistance to intoxication, specifically against the effects of bad liqueur. (30) Gerard reports
that the drug can be used to heal old ulcers, gangrenous wounds, to treat venereal disease, and
to turn hair from grey to black. (31)