In 1986 the company I worked for selected me as the primary instructor for their new four-day training school. To promote the program, I went on a grueling tour three-and-a-half-week tour with the company president, Kerry Assay, and their top distributor, Jack Ritchason. During the tour, we visited six different cities each week doing a nightly meeting to promote the new school.
By the end of the first two weeks, I was exhausted. Jack suggested I take a formula called GGC. GGC The primary ingredient of the formula was eleuthero root (formerly Siberian ginseng) along with gotu kola, and capsicum. A study showed that the formula increased endurance in rodents by about 480% and it certainly helped me. I was able to complete the last week and a half of the tour with more energy than when I started.
Although eleuthero had been used in Chinese medicine, it became popular because of research done in Russia. Russian researchers looking for a less expensive alternative to ginseng picked eleuthero because it is in the ginseng family. Their research showed it had numerous health benefits. It improved athletic performance, helped factory workers have fewer sick days, and even helped secretaries make fewer mistakes. To describe the herb's action, they coined the term adaptogen. Since the discovery of eleuthero’s benefits, many other herbs have been designated as adaptogens.
How Adaptogens Work
It is believed that eleuthero acts as a modulator of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal axis (HPA axis for short). To understand the HPA axis, you need to understand that hormones operate in relationship to each other. A hormonal axis is kind of like a teeter-totter relationship. As levels of one hormone go up, they push levels of the other hormone down and vice-versa.
The HPA axis is involved in the experience we call stress. When we perceive danger the hypothalamus secretes corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRT) which tells the pituitary to secrete the adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). ACTH travels through the bloodstream and stimulates the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormones adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and cortisol. As the cortisol level in the bloodstream rises, it trips the hormonal axis (teeter-totter) depressing the production of CRH and ACTH.
Positive and Negative Stress
Stress hormones are designed to help us cope with danger. They prime the body for action, which gives us a maximized ability to fight against or flee from danger. A certain baseline level of these stress hormones allows us to have focus and energy to deal with the challenges of life. However, if levels of these hormones become too high, that leads to feeling stressed.
High levels of stress hormones inhibit our ability to think clearly. We start reacting to life instead of making smart decisions to act in life. We may also become hyper-vigilant, meaning we’re always on edge, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. This interferes with sleep and makes it difficult to relax. High levels of cortisol also suppress immune responses. Eventually, we start to feel burned out and unable to cope constructively with what’s happening. We just can’t take it anymore!
It's believed that eleuthero (and certain other adaptogens) enter this hormonal axis and inhibit the release of CRH and ACTH, thereby reducing the output of stress hormones from the adrenal glands. This calms down the baseline stress level. This can help us think more clearly, get the rest we need so we can recover our energy, and boost our immune systems.
To illustrate the potential benefits of an adaptogen like eleuthero, I want to share a story I got from Dr. Bruce Halstead, a famous medical doctor and medical research scientist. I had the opportunity to interview him in the late 1980s and this is what he told me.
Eleuthero and the Space Program
Dr. Halstead said that in the earlier days of the space program, U.S. astronauts were quickly shuttled off behind closed doors for what the public was told was a quarantine period. What was happening was that the astronauts were in his words, “puking their guts out,” due to space sickness.
Russian cosmonauts, on the other hand, would step out of their space capsules, drink some vodka, and join a parade. Dr. Halstead had contacts inside the Soviet Union and was asked if he could discover the cosmonaut’s secret. He learned that the cosmonauts were taking eleuthero and he recommended it to the U.S. space program. According to Dr. Halstead, the astronauts started taking it and experienced the same benefits as their Russian counterparts. Although I’ve never confirmed this story from other sources, I believe it’s true.
The Adrenals, the Solar Plexus, and Our Ability to Adapt
When we think about adapting, we’re talking about being able to adjust to a particular situation. If you look at this physiologically, the body is always trying to adapt, that is, to adjust what’s going on inside the body to match the external environment. I think this adaptive energy lies at the solar plexus, the chakra or energy center associated with the adrenal glands. This is the body’s center of gravity and when a person has a strong solar plexus energy, we say they are centered.
A centered person can perceive what’s going on around them and take conscious action to adapt to their situation, that is, to make constructive decisions about what to do to better their situation in a calm, easy manner. This is in opposition to being thrown off balance, which is what happens in the stress reaction. The stress response is an instinctive reaction, not a constructive action. If we’re in stress, we tend to run around reacting to life. We sometimes say we’re always running around putting out fires.
Therefore, I would define an adaptogen as any remedy that helps us shift from reacting to acting on life. It’s a remedy that helps to dial down stress levels so we can think clearly and deal with life constructively. It would also fortify the body’s ability to adapt to whatever is physically stressing it. That’s why I think that the HPA axis explanation for adaptogens, while useful, falls short in explaining everything that these herbs are doing to help us adapt, or cope, with life.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had plenty of stressful experiences in my life and have often found myself struggling to cope. Once I get wound up, I have a hard time calming myself down. I learned that A blood types like me, have a harder time breaking down cortisol, so it takes us longer to unwind when something stresses us. I’ve found adaptogens like eleuthero helpful in this process.
Specific Uses for Eleuthero
Here are some specific things eleuthero can do for a person. It improves athletic performance, normalizes immune responses, supports adrenal health, improves recovery time after illness, can help with memory and focus during periods of stress, reduces feelings of fatigue, aids sleep, and generally enhances feelings of well-being during times of stress.
Eleuthero, as well as other adaptogens, are also helpful when the body is experiencing environmental stress. For example, it can help people who are undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments for cancer, reducing side effects.
In Chinese medicine, it has been used for wind-damp conditions such as muscle spasms and joint pain. It’s considered a qi tonic for the Chinese spleen and kidney, therefore it has been used to improve appetite in anorexia, relieve low back pain, aid sleep, and reduce fatigue. So, the herb has a lot more potential uses than just treating the effects of stress.
One caution I would give is to not try to use eleuthero like many people use caffeine to keep themselves going when they’re in stressful situations. If you keep pushing yourself too hard so you’re not getting the rest and sleep your body needs it won’t stop you from becoming burned out. It doesn’t magically give you more energy so you can keep going and going like the Energizer Bunny. What you use it for is to calm down your nerves so you can work more efficiently and relax and recharge your energy at the same time.
Eleuthero can also be taken as a single herb. Typically, I’ve taken two capsules two or three times daily for a few weeks. It’s also available in tincture form, but I’ve never used it that way. If you’re using the tincture I’d take 30-60 drops two or three times a day. I would only use it to help get through short-term periods of stress. It will not work as well if you take it all the time as your body would adapt to it in much the same manner as it adapts to other substances, like the caffeine in coffee and cola drinks.