I am not one to live in a Black and White world. No, this doesn’t mean I avoid old movies in lieu of vivid technicolor, modern digital HDMI and beyond. It means I often welcome ‘gray’ in my life. Entertain uncertainty. Whether that is politics, religion, friends and foes in nature, economics or health care. I’d be willing to write a book entitled “Gray – and it’s overwhelming lack of popularity in society.”
Gray isn’t always the answer. I had a professor who repeatedly said, “stand for something or fall for anything.” There is a time for that I know. I simply think it closes the mind a tiny bit each time we create an instant and life-long judgment. Being willing to imagine that there is not always a black-hat villain or a white-hat hero, or equally important, a right way and a wrong way, often means considering another (and less-welcomed) view of issues you already have an opinion on. I hope that occasionally we all embrace some ‘gray.’
In the holistic health world, pharma drugs are on the bad scale; in the allopathic medical world, alternative treatments (like herbs) are the ridiculed enemy. Of course, I exaggerate, but only to divide the sides for discussion. This includes the admitted disclosure that there is an appropriate time and use for both. In some countries like Germany (with its Commission E of the Federal Institute of Drugs and Medical Devices) these divisions are barely noticeable. Their medical establishment will invite studies done without big money funding. And incestuous bias of peer status doesn’t automatically discount certain peers as professionally unworthy to review research literature. Compared to the USA, there is more careful consideration of all reasonable approaches. With this post, I want to draw from the alternative world, and briefly explore the use of a special class of herbs; those called Adaptogens.
What is an Adaptogen?
In some ways, an adaptogen can be thought of as a ‘resister,’ helping the body resist various stressors and disease. They are used non-specifically to strengthen our natural ongoing protections. For an herb to make it into the Adaptogen category, it must satisfy a few principal characteristics:
- Primarily works non-specifically (even if sometimes prescribed specifically).
- Balances bodily actions – normalizing responses.
- Raises power of resistance.
- Thought to be harmless, or generally considered innocuous. [Remember of course, even water can be deadly in the wrong amounts or quality.]
- Does not influence bodily functions more than necessary.
How does an Adaptogen Function?
Adaptogens are supposed to be ‘generalists’ and not ‘specialists.’ Yet, they don’t all work alike. Particular ones may help the body cope by concentrating on the liver. Another might increase oxygen concentrations or physical energy. None function exactly the same (which also makes their complicated biological action more difficult to judge).
To diverge briefly, I will complain — in my ‘gray way’ — that there are far too many claims for all herbs (these included) with either little research of insufficient historical case histories. Granted, they may not carry the same level of side-effects as many pharmaceuticals. Still, if they were truly “be-all, end-all” products, then that is the status they would hold. If one herb was known to cure type II Diabetes (for example) it would clearly be on everyone’s lips. So they are not stand-alone ‘magic pills’ (neither are allopathic ‘pills’). Additionally, herbs should probably be regulated better to guarantee potency. Especially so since, for a number of reasons, their active mechanism is often difficult to establish. None of these complaints makes them useless.
The motivation stemming from pharmaceutical profits compared to herbs is high. Occasionally, this might be incentive to undervalue or sway statistics regarding alternative usage. Or simply disregard and understate their benefits based on needs or timing.
All that acknowledged (good and bad), Adaptogens are not viewed as treatment so much as tonic. Prevention and resistance – offering an internal helping hand. Here are the most-cited ways that this botanical category helps the body cope.
- Increasing stamina and endurance
- Promoting antioxidant activity
- Protecting liver and anti-toxin activity
- Aiding immunomodulation (balancing immune system)
- Enhancing Central Nervous System (CNS) activity
- Supporting adrenal work
- Improving blood-sugar metabolism
Is it a Scam?
There are strict medical and pharmaceutical supporters in the U.S. who claim that no herb works any better than a placebo, regardless of quality assurance. I have heard some suggest, “you might as well believe in magic.” They aren’t just drug pushers either, some being reputable, respectable biologists. Many of we common folk have neither the equipment, education, skill or inkling to go head-to-head with their arguments. However, some countries do. Germany has the same such biologists (but in a country with a single payer health system and less ability to profit from pharmaceuticals). They have evaluated more than 300 herbs (the American Botanical Council has translated their research). A great many of these alternative botanical remedies are listed for use in their health care system (sometimes as the first or prime treatment) and labeled as ‘reasonable certainty’ for effectiveness.
Where does this leave us? He said, she said? Perhaps. You could place your stick in the mud and insist that common US allopathic medicine is the best in the world, researched objectively, and that the rest is silly. You’d probably have lots of company staying with that group. No battles to fight. Or you just might wish to determine effectiveness for yourself, and at worse lose twenty bucks here and there. The most repeated fear of, and warnings about, alternatives is that they delay traditional (American) treatment of serious conditions. I am not suggesting such caviler behavior.
In the post Herbs – a good investment, or a waste of Money? I say that that the answer to that question can be both. [Now is that a matter of gray or money-green?] If we decide to consider a botanical aid to our health or quality aging, then at least we should purchase correctly. That doesn’t always mean buy more expensive, it just means buy smart. The post above regarding herbs has a section on “Standardization.” That’s the most essential key to consider when purchasing, until the day arrives when herbs (the foundation of many pharmaceuticals) are regulated and quality assured.
Using An Adaptogen
Generally, herbs used for specific conditions are suggested no more than 6-8 weeks (there are exceptions on both ends of the time tail). They are not for regular, on-going usage. Adaptogens can be employed much longer. The Mayo clinic states that Silyimarin (aka Milk Thistle – see chart) can be used without concern for more than 3 years. It has been my experience that those professionals responsibly advising the use of herbs tend to practice caution concerning overuse, even for adaptogens. A suggestion one hears commonly is to use one adaptogen for 3 months and then switch to another. While I am not in the business of advising, I personally like that prescription.
What Botanicals are Adaptogens?
In the chart below, I have included my favorite picks, which generally make most Adaptogen lists. There are plenty of other herbs that sometimes make the grade, such as White Fringe Tree, Lemon Balm (considered okay for all ages) and Schisandra (for adults over 18 years old). Various claims for any botanical substance can be exaggerated (supported by limited research or poorly designed studies). Yet, as a group, their recognized ‘help to cope’ adaptogen qualities are clearer.
When it comes to adaptogens, I do suspect that our “Doctor Within” is influenced by beliefs. If you are a bred-in-the-bone cynic and want gross reactions or need fast-acting properties, you might stick with commercial pharmaceuticals. No judgment here! If you want to promote that ‘inner healer,’ (which ordinarily operates more slowly), then adaptogens might be for you. Just remember to purchase using standardization levels and perhaps discontinue or switch off occasionally.
I contemplate a lot of ‘gray’ in life. But, I don’t want to look or feel gray. So for me, while I am not adverse to an occasional, necessary (or emergency–induced) pharmaceutical, I like the idea of a helping hand that is subtle and balancing my own inner workings. Our Doctor Within can always use an assistant.
Astragalus | University of Maryland Medical Center http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/astragalus#ixzz3WrLJXgL3
University of Maryland Medical Center
Research Gate: Pharmacognostical and analytical study of Tulsi: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236115036_Pharmacognostical_and_analytical_study_of_Tulsi-Amla-Yasti_Ghrita
Note: National Institute of Health does not seem to have updated its 2010 listing for the standardization of Tulsi from “unclear.” Use these links if you wish in-depth look at standardization studies of Tulsi http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.301.5236&rep=rep1&type=pdf and
Use this link for info and Standardization level of adaptogen Siberian Ginseng (Ashwagandha) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/985.html
Picture credit: Title (leaf and pill) Meqable via Pixabay