Adaptogens are best-known for being safe herbs to help adapt to stressful situations and restore balance. But are adaptogens accepted in western medicine and the mainstream health community?
For this blog post, we’ll again use the outstanding book by David Winston and Steven Maimes, “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief” as a reference. (available on Amazon)
Are Adaptogens Accepted by Western Medicine?
The term ‘adaptogenic’ has not been accepted by Western medicine. Winston and Maimes deduce that the reason is a lack of “good scientific studies.” If they are referring to randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled (RDBPC) studies, which are considered the gold standard of clinical studies, then, yes, Winston and Maimes may be correct.
However, what’s the likelihood a large pharmaceutical company would fund a RDBPC study on, say, the adaptogen, ashwagandha? Not very likely. And how exactly would a RDBPC study on an adaptogenic herb work anyway? Adaptogens are bidirectional, meaning, they can stimulate under-functioning organs or even whole systems (endocrine or nervous, for example), or, they can calm organs or systems … at the same time.
Also, supposing a Big Pharma company was willing to fund a RDBPC study on a certain adaptogen. Would the study control for certain lifestyle factors such as diet, stress, and exercise habits? How exactly would this be achieved?
Plenty of Research on Adaptogens but not RDBPC
Despite the lack of a plethora of well-funded RDBPC studies, there are hundreds of studies on adaptogens listed on the National Institute of Health’s US National Library of Medicine website (aka Pubmed). Many of the studies use rodent models. Some people assume human trials are superior to rodent models. In some instances this is true, especially when it comes to learning what minimum, effective dose is best in a human.
Also, it’s not always a given that substances administered to non-humans will translate as an effective remedy for human models. But many times, non-human models are superior. That’s because it’s easier to control the test group. (Rats and mice can’t easily escape their cages, go home to their den and smoke a pack of cigarettes, drink a 6-pack of beer and eat a bag of chips, as a human may do if not strictly controlled and monitored.)
There is, however, plenty of research supporting the therapeutic effects of adaptogens. The earliest research was written by “the father of adaptogens” himself, Dr. Israel Brekhman. Though Brekhman did not conduct what western science would consider gold-standard RDBPC studies, his research, which included many human studies, is indeed considered gold-standard, at least by herbalists, acupuncturists, and other complementary medicine professionals.
(Much of Brekhman’s published work were “monographs,” written documents or essay that describes a drug, drug ingredient, or food chemical, or in this case, particular adaptogens such as Siberian ginseng, aka Eleutherococcus senticosus.)
Winston and Maimes also believe western medicine has not accepted the term adaptogen or adaptogenic because of the “difficulties in discerning adaptogens from other categories such as immune system modulators, tonics, anabolic agents, or antioxidants.”
Research on Adaptogenic Constituents
Prescription drugs most often contain individual isolated compounds. Our adaptogenic herbal formulas, in contrast, contain an extract of the whole plant, not an isolated biochemical component. But several constituents found in adaptogenic herbs have been studied. “Ginsenosides (and other saponins), steroidal lactones, withanolides, alkaloids, polysaccharides, ecdysterones, and polyamines are just a handful of the compound constituents of adaptogens that have been studied extensively.
Let’s take a look at one monograph of an adaptogenic herb that’s in Sun Horse Adaptogenic Formulas: Jiaogulan.
Jiaogulan contains ginsenosides, which are “triterpenoid saponins.” There have been 82 identified isolated gypenosides in jiaogulan (four of which are identical to the ginsenosides found in Asian ginseng).
Although jiaogulan thus far has not been used as an extract in a major pharmaceutical drug, this adaptogen has antioxidant properties, as well as other beneficial properties: expectorant, hepatoprotective, cholesterol-lowering, hypotensive, immune system tonic and nervine (calming to the nervous system).
In the monograph of jiaogulan in Winston and Maimes’ book, one small study was referenced. Thirty patients with suppressed white blood cell counts were given gypenoside tablets. In only one month’s time, the 30 patients’ white blood cell counts doubled.
Another study published on gypenoside listed on Pubmed concluded that these main components of Jiaogulan (aka Gynostemma pentaphyllum) “provides evidence for anti-tumor mechanisms by which gypenosides induces apoptosis (cell death) in vitro (in a lab, not in human subjects.)
Perhaps it’s only a matter of time until Big Pharma will fund RDBPC (random, double-blind, placebo-controlled) studies on adaptogenic herbs. Most likely, Big Pharma won’t study whole extracts of individual adaptogens, but rather on their constituents. Regardless if mainstream western medicine ever accepts “adaptogenic” as a medical definition or construct, there is indeed a plethora of research on adaptogenic herbs to support these remarkable medicinal herb’s therapeutic effects.