Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief
By David Winston and Steven Maimes
Part One: Herbal Adaptogens
1 Herbal Medicine around the World 00
2 Adaptogens: An Overview 00
3 History of Adaptogens 00
4 Actions of Adaptogens 00
5 Adaptogens and the Stress Response 00
6 Health Benefits of Adaptogens 00
Part Two: Materia Medica
7 Monographs on Adaptogens 00
American Ginseng • Amla • Ashwagandha • Asian Ginseng
Astragalus • Cordyceps • Dang Shen • Eleuthero
Guduchi • He Shou Wu • Holy Basil • Jiaogulan
Licorice • Lycium • Prince Seng • Reishi • Rhaponticum
Rhodiola • Schisandra • Shatavari • Shilajit
8 Nervines: Complementary Herbs for Adaptogens 00
Blue Vervain • Chamomile • Fresh Milky Oat • Hawthorn
• Lemon Balm • Linden • Mimosa • Motherwort
• Passionflower • Skullcap • St. John’s Wort
9 Nootropics: Complementary Herbs for Adaptogens 00
Bacopa • Bhringaraj • Ginkgo • Gotu Kola • Lavender
Rosemary • White Peony • Yuan Zhi
Part Three: Herbal Adaptogens in Use
10 Clinical Use of Adaptogens 00
11 Adaptogenic Herbs in Combination 00
12 Adaptogens as Food 00
13 Adaptogens for Animals 00
“For every human illness, somewhere in the world there
exists a plant which is the cure.”
When compiling research on the health benefits of adaptogens, the
amount of data is almost overwhelming. This is due to the large number
of studies and the fact that adaptogens have such a broad influence on
the entire body.
The reality of adaptogens is that they are effective tonics and can be
taken daily for overall health. In fact, throughout the world millions of
people are using these products on a daily basis.
Many of the adaptogens that are commonly used today have a his-
tory of use that goes back hundreds and thousands of years. Over that
time, a vast amount of experience has been gained that has gone toward
understanding their therapeutic applications.
Adaptogens can greatly increase the effectiveness of some modern
drugs, including antibiotics, anxiolytics (anxiety relief), antidepressants,
and hypoglycemic agents. They also can reduce, and in some cases
eliminate, the side effects of some drugs. They have a proven record of
being safe, efficacious, and quite versatile in their treatment of many
4 Herbal Adaptogens
This chapter will provide information about specific adaptogens that
can be used for many conditions, including aging, cancer, elevated cho-
lesterol levels, decreased immune-system function, fatigue, stress, and
weight management. The disorders have been arranged alphabetically to
assist readers in locating the conditions that most interest them.
The adrenal glands mobilize the body’s response to every kind of stress.
Adrenal fatigue is caused by adrenal insufficiency that occurs when the
glands cannot adequately meet the demands of chronic stress.
In adrenal fatigue the adrenal glands function, but not enough to
maintain normal, healthy homeostasis. Their output of regulatory hor-
mones has been diminished by overstimulation. This overstimulation
can be caused either by a very intense single stress or by chronic or
repeated stresses that have a cumulative effect.
People suffering from adrenal fatigue often have to use coffee, colas,
and other stimulants to get going in the morning and keep themselves
going during the day.
With each increment of reduction in adrenal function, every organ
and system in the body is more profoundly affected. The body does its
best to make up for underfunctioning adrenal glands, but it does so at
a price. Many people who feel fatigued and exhausted eat more to pro-
vide additional energy. Thus, adrenal fatigue also can promote obesity
and its inherent risks.
Adaptogens for Adrenal Fatigue
When a person is under stress, more stress hormones are released and
manufactured. Adaptogens help the adrenal glands respond more effec-
tively and efficiently to the excess in hormones. When stress stops, adap-
togens help the adrenal glands shut down more quickly. Adaptogens
also support adrenal function by allowing cells access to more energy
and preventing oxidative damage.
5 Herbal Adaptogens
= The following adaptogens provide adrenal support: American gin-
seng, ashwagandha, Asian ginseng, cordyceps, dang shen, eleuthero,
holy basil, jiaogulan, licorice, reishi, rhaponticum, rhodiola, and
• American ginseng is an endocrine amphoteric and adaptogen useful
for mild to moderate depletion of the HPA axis and adrenal glands.
• Asian ginseng and licorice can be used together for adrenal exhaus-
tion (Addison’s disease) along with conventional therapy.
Arthritis (inflammation of the joints) produces pain, loss of movement,
and sometimes swelling. It is caused by tissue injury or joint disease. The
two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid
arthritis. Fibromyalgia often is considered an arthritis-related condition,
but it is not a true form of arthritis because it does not cause inflam-
mation or damage to the joints. According to the Arthritis Foundation,
nearly one in three adults has arthritis or chronic joint symptoms, and
arthritis is the leading cause of disability among Americans older than
Adaptogens for Arthritis
Adaptogens can help reduce inflammation and as a result reduce the
pain associated with arthritic conditions.
= The anti-inflammatory action of the following adaptogens makes
them useful for relief from arthritis: amla, ashwagandha, Asian gin-
seng, cordyceps, eleuthero, guduchi holy basil, jiaogulan, licorice, rei-
shi, rhodiola, schisandra, and shilajit.
= The following adaptogens are useful for relief from rheumatoid
arthritis (an autoimmune disease): amla, ashwagandha, cordyceps,
guduchi, licorice, and reishi.
6 Herbal Adaptogens
• Amla is used to prevent and treat damage associated with connec-
tive tissue disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
• Ashwagandha is used to treat fibromyalgia and autoimmune dis-
eases such as rheumatoid arthritis and polymyoseitis.
• Guduchi is used to modulate excessive immune response in auto-
immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. It can also enhance
uric acid excretion and relieve arthritis with accompanying gout.
• Holy basil oil is used topically for arthritis.
Many people suffer from insomnia and related sleep problems. Stress
can disrupt the regular circadian (time-related) secretion of cortisol and
can be a major cause of sleep problems. Cortisol normally obeys the
body’s inner clock and responds to light and dark, morning and night.
Cortisol levels are highest in the early morning, lower in the afternoon,
and lowest at night. Cortisol helps to synchronize activity, patterns of
eating, and patterns of sleeping.
Adaptogens for Improved Sleep
Adaptogens regulate the production of cortisol, reducing stress. A
relaxed body allows for better and more rejuvenating sleep.
= The following adaptogens aid the body in sleeping: American gin-
seng, ashwagandha, eleuthero, jiaogulan, rhaponticum, rhodiola, and
= The following adaptogens help relieve the symptoms of jet lag, which is
caused by a disruption of the body’s circadian rhythms: American gin-
seng, Asian ginseng, eleuthero, jiaogulan, rhaponticum, and rhodiola.
• American ginseng helps people with insomnia that is associated
with chronic fatigue syndrome.
7 Herbal Adaptogens
• Ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen traditionally used for insom-
nia and nervous conditions.
• Eleuthero improves sleep quality and prevents nighttime waking.
• Jiaogulan is a calming adaptogen appropriate for anxious or agi-
tated people with unstable hypertension, stress headaches, and
• Rhodiola is used to regulate sleep disorders and improve sleep
• Schisandra is reported to relieve insomnia and dream-disrupted
Botanical Name: Panax quinquefolius
Common Names: Sang, seng
Taste/Energy: Sweet, bitter, slightly cool, and moist.
Parts Used: Root and leaf
Location/Cultivation: American ginseng is native to the eastern United
States and Canada, from the Catskill Mountains of New York and
the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, north into Ontario, west
to Iowa, south to Arkansas and Kentucky, and east through the high-
lands of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.
8 Herbal Adaptogens
American ginseng requires rich soil with humus and full shade, and
it prefers deciduous woodlands, especially those with tulip poplars.
It takes a minimum of seven years to grow a mature root from the
time of germination. Due to this plant’s endangered status, wild
plants should be left alone, and you should avoid purchasing prod-
ucts labeled “wild American ginseng.” The best American ginseng on
the market is grown organically in the woods.
Safety Rating: ★ ★ ★
Properties: Adaptogen, antioxidant, bitter tonic, mild central nervous
system stimulant, mild demulcent (soothes mucous membranes),
hypoglycemic agent, and immune amphoteric.
Constituents: The active constituents include triterpene saponins such
as the ginsenosides and panaxosides. The bitter taste comes from its
Daniel Boone, in Kentucky, made his fortune trading ginseng, although
he is remembered as a fur trader. It is reported in a book called Wood-
land Nuggets of Gold that George Washington wrote to Boone, “The
war effort needs money, bring ginseng.” American ginseng helped sup-
port the revolutionary war effort, and the most valuable cargo to leave
New York by ship in that time period was in the Empress of China,
which was carrying American ginseng to the Orient.
The plant is best known for its purported benefits to male libido and
sexual performance and its ability to enhance energy and relieve fatigue.
To this day, it is not uncommon for mountain people in North Carolina
and Tennessee to take fresh ginseng roots and put them in a bottle or cask
of corn liquor to set aside for a while. After steeping for six months or a
year, the ginseng “cordial” is ready for use. It is believed that a shot of this
“mountain medicine” is good for what ails you—every now and then.
Modern research confirms that the American species of ginseng is an
endocrine amphoteric and adaptogen that is useful for mild to moderate
9 Herbal Adaptogens
depletion of the HPA axis and adrenal glands. People with adrenal insuf-
ficiency often have dark circles under their eyes, are chronically fatigued,
and have elevated cortisol levels. Because American ginseng affects the
HPA axis, it can help correct dysfunction of the immune system, includ-
ing depletion that leads to a person constantly catching colds.
Amphoterics help balance deficient or excessive bodily functions, so
as an immune amphoteric, American ginseng also can be of benefit for
allergies and allergic asthma. It also re-regulates overly stressed nervous
systems, helps deficient insomnia associated with chronic fatigue syn-
drome, and relieves many of the symptoms of jet lag.
The pancreas is also regulated by the HPA axis, and American gin-
seng root also has been shown to help control metabolic syndrome
(hyperinsulinemia) as well as type 2 diabetes.
The reputed “male sexual tonic” effects of American ginseng also
may turn out to be real. For years, many herbalists assumed that any
sexual effect was due to either a placebo effect or to increased energy
caused by using an adaptogenic herb. Recent studies found that the
related Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) enhanced erections and sexual
performance. It is not too much of a stretch to conclude that the Ameri-
can species, especially with its history of use as a sexual tonic, could
share this effect as well.
The Eclectic physicians used this root as a simple digestive bitter.
Although it has a multitude of other uses it is, in fact, a useful medicine
to enhance digestion and absorption. Chewing on a small bit of the root
can help stimulate the production of stomach acid and other digestive
juices, making it useful for achlorhydria (lack of stomach acid), borbo-
rygmus (intestinal rumbling), and impaired absorption.
Many years ago, when I was a young man, I noticed that my Cherokee
uncle often would put a pinch of the dried leaf of American ginseng in
almost every herbal formula he gave to people he was doctoring. One
day I asked him why he did this. His response was that ginseng (the leaf
or root) made everything work better.
10 Herbal Adaptogens
Research has shown that adaptogens do just that. Through re-
regulation of the endocrine, immune, and nervous systems, they—in
simple terms—“make everything work better.” Phytochemical studies
have revealed that the leaves of plants in the Panax genus actually con-
tain more of the ginsenosides (the plants’ active constituents) than do the
roots. Many ancient traditions, when examined by science, are found to
have more than a seed of truth.
Dosage and Safety
Tincture (1:5): 30 percent alcohol, 3–5 ml (60–100 drops), three times
Decoction: Take 1–2 tsp. dried cut/sifted root to 12 oz. water. Gently
simmer for 1/2 hour, steep an additional 1/2 hour. Take 4 oz. three
times per day.
Capsule: Two capsules, twice per day.
Safety Issues: None likely.
Herb/Drug Interactions: In a recent human trial, high doses of American
ginseng altered the effects of the medication warfarin (Coumadin) in
twenty healthy patients. Avoid using large amounts of this herb if tak-
ing this medication.
Selected Research Studies
Efficacy of COLD-fX in the Prevention of Respiratory Symptoms in
Community-Dwelling Adults: A Randomized, Double-Blinded, Placebo
Controlled Trial (McElhaney et al. 2006).
In this study, a proprietary extract of American ginseng root reduced
the risk of catching cold or acute respiratory illness by 48 percent and
the duration of such conditions by 55 percent.
American Ginseng Reduces Postprandial Glycemia in Nondiabetic Sub-
jects and Subjects with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (Vuksan et al. 2000).
American Ginseng lowered blood sugar levels in both healthy volunteers
and patients with diabetes.