I’ve been using adaptogens for quite some time, but in the last year I’ve been experimenting a little more with them. You may have caught my mention of a few adaptogenic varieties in one version of my daily big ass salad (not for a flavor hit). I’ve also briefly highlighted ashwagandha and holy basil, and I’ve always been a big believer (and user) of Rhodiola rosea for normalizing stress response.
All well and good. But what’s the backstory on adaptogens? What is there to gain? And what about the other options?
What Are Adaptogens?
The essence of adaptogens, natural substances that help the body adapt to various stress inputs, is this: they don’t make a name for themselves for the specific ailments that they might resolve, but for their ability to restore balance and banish stress from the body and mind. They’re the golden boys of holistic medicine, purely because they are themselves holistic.
Let’s dive into some real-world scenarios. Your average functional herb—let’s say ginger—has a finite number of beneficial functions when ingested. Those functions might include boosting digestion, relieving nausea, aiding immunity, and fighting infection. All very commendable outcomes.
But then let’s look at an adaptogenic herb. When ingested, the pathways on which it acts within the body are virtually infinite—by its very nature, it works to alleviate stress of all kinds, the chronic version of which we know is often the root cause of most diseases and common ailments.
It’s an exclusive club. In their comprehensive volume on adaptogens, David Winston and Steven Maimes set out three key requirements for a herb to attain that all-important adaptogen badge:
1. An adaptogen is nontoxic to its recipient.
2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body—an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.
Taking our cue from Grok, most of what we do is all about alleviating that stress by both traditional and modern means. We clean up our diet to reduce inflammatory stress and avoid toxic stress, we simplify and streamline our lifestyle to minimize emotional stress.
That’s all very well, but there’s only so much you can sidestep stressful circumstances. Even the most avid Primal enthusiast is still going to come up against any number of difficulties and demands over the course of a day, and it’s for this reason that we might turn to adaptogens.
Back in 1958, the idea of adaptogens was first introduced to the scientific world (having been present in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years) as substances that increase the “state of nonspecific resistance” to stress. By their very nature, adaptogens are generalists—their role is to protect against stressors of all kind and to maintain a state of homeostasis within the body. This makes them very powerful indeed and very different from other natural medicinal compounds, which only target certain conditions or areas of the body.
How are Adaptogens Grown and Harvested?
As scientists delve deeper into the world of natural medicine, the list of official adaptogens continues to grow. It’s a very Western way of doing things, this need to class substances into certain categories. People have known for millennia about the healing properties of ashwagandha or sea buckthorn but probably didn’t see the need to create a VIP club.
I’ll take up other adaptogens in future posts, but for today I’m going to focus on American ginseng and Asian ginseng (divided up into white and red). Here goes.
As the name suggests, this variety is native to the hardwood forests of the United States and Canada. It’s a gnarled root that prefers to grow on the shade-dappled forest floor of the Eastern seaboard. Increasing worldwide demand for American ginseng has taken its toll, with entrepreneurial ginseng hunters pushing it to endangered species status in many locales.
The root itself is light tan in color, with leaves that grow in a circle around a straight stem. Off-yellow, umbrella-shaped flowers sprout from the centre and produce red berries. As lovely as I’m sure they are, it’s only the root that we’re after here. This contains the lion’s share of it’s therapeutic active ingredients, namely ginsenosides and polysaccharide glycans.
American ginseng roots typically take around six years to reach maturity, meaning ginseng farms aren’t too common but are on the rise due to its increasingly uncertain status in the wild. Avid foragers can, however, still wild-harvest the stuff, but they must abide by a strict set of rules set down by the government.
From a botanical perspective, Asian ginseng, otherwise known as Korean ginseng, is relatively similar in looks to its American cousin. As with its Western counterpart, only the root is harvested, and that root also takes around six years to mature.
Because Asian ginseng has been an integral part of traditional and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, its production is more established. The vast majority of Asian ginseng is sourced from farms in Korea, China and Japan, after which it is either sun-dried to produce “white” ginseng, or repeatedly steamed and then dried to produce “red” ginseng. As we’ll see later in the post, red ginseng appears to be the more potent of the two.
Comparing American and Asian Ginseng
Both Asian and American ginseng can claim their impact from substances called ginsenosides. These natural chemicals are found in high concentrations in both species of ginseng, along with varying degrees of beneficial polysaccharides. However, the subtle variations in these two active ingredients, along with a healthy dose of volatile oils in Asian ginseng, create markedly different reactions within the body.
In holistic medicine, American ginseng is the more calming of the two and is often used by practitioners to promote physical and mental peace and balance. Research shows that American ginseng acts upon more pathways within the body than its Asian counterpart.
Asian ginseng, on the other hand, is employed more as a stimulant than a calming tonic. While American ginseng contains a wider range of ginsenocides (29 vs. 20), Asian ginseng is said to be more effective medicinally.
Ginseng root is surprisingly humanoid in shape, with the root forming a fat body, little spindly arms and legs and a knobby head. That same appearance didn’t escape the notice of the ancient Chinese, with “ginseng” deriving from the Chinese word “rénsh?n,” which roughly translates to “man root”. It was this humanoid shape that purportedly tipped ancient healers off to ginseng’s legendary therapeutic powers. “Panax,” the genus which encompasses both American and Asian ginseng, equates to “all-heal” in Greek.
So, the literary origins of our ginsengs are certainly intriguing, but what about their status within the scientific literature?
There’s actually been a vast amount of research into the immune-supporting effects of both American and Asian ginseng. COLD-fX, a popular anti-cold and flu medication, is in fact largely composed of American ginseng extracts. In one study, 43 older folks who took COLD-fX experienced a 48% reduction in risk of acute respiratory illness, and a 55% reduction in severity.
Another study found that American ginseng extracts “reduced the mean number of colds per person, the proportion of subjects who experienced 2 or more colds, the severity of symptoms and the number of days cold symptoms were reported.” In the case of American ginseng at least, it appears to be the polysaccharides, which comprise around 10% of the root, that are responsible for these immune-stimulating effects. They’ve also been shown to suppress pro-inflammatory responses, which may further assist the immune system in doing its work.
Asian ginseng has also had its fair share of pro-immunity research. An article from last year showed that a combination of red ginseng and vitamin C enhanced activation of immune T and NK cells, thereby suppressing viral infection and reducing lung inflammation. Another used red ginseng extract to great effect, helping to protect a bunch of rodents against respiratory syncytial virus infection. According to the researchers, it did this by “improving cell survival, partial inhibition of viral replication and modulation of cytokine production and types of immune cells migrating into the lung.”
Muscle Damage and Physical Endurance
Historically, this is where ginseng has received a lot of research funding. After hearing about the supposed endurance-promoting effects of Asian and American ginseng, rumor has it that the Soviets began promoting their own version—Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). While it has attained status within the realm of adaptogens, Siberian ginseng isn’t actually a ginseng at all (note the different genus), and doesn’t appear to have the same gusto that its American and Asian namesakes have.
Rumors aside, the official status of ginseng as an athletic herb is hotly contested. On the one hand, American ginseng studies on rats have indicated that ginseng supplementation reduced exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation, while a similar study in a small group of human males found that American ginseng was “unable to attenuate post-exercise reductions in muscle strength.” It’s fair to say that more research is called for in this department.
The jury is out on Asian ginseng with regards to exercise recovery as well. A meta-analysis published last year found that, across the board, there was a definite reduction in post-exercise fatigue from ginseng supplementation, but no discernible physical performance enhancement. Another study also found that Asian ginseng actually prevented an increase in muscle mass following resistance training, which might suit some but deter those who have aspirations to bulk up.
Unsurprisingly, with so many antioxidants packed into one tiny root, both species of ginseng have been shown to exhibit strong anti-cancer properties. Within the literature, American ginseng has shown its ability to inhibit tumor growth, particularly with regards to colon cancer. It’s thought that American ginseng’s mysterious “compound K” is to thank for this anti-carcinogenic effect, reducing inflammation around the site of the tumor and instigating direct tumor cell die-off.
Asian ginseng also has its fair share of cancer-culling properties, including the ginsenoside Rh2. In one study, Rh2 was found to play a role in supporting positive genetic responses to tumor development, which in turn promoted enhanced immune function and prevented the spread of breast cancer cells. Another study showed that Asian ginseng supplementation of 800 mg daily resulted in an 87% improvement in cancer-related fatigue. Patients who supplemented with Asian ginseng also reported improved quality of life, appetite, and sleep. I’ll take those side effects any day.
Attention and Cognitive Function
There’s preliminary evidence to suggest that both American and Asian ginseng can effect positive short-term improvements in cognitive function. A 2015 study gave 52 volunteers between the ages of 40 and 60 200 mg of American ginseng and measured the changes in cognitive performance over the course of six hours. They found that the ginseng supplementation improved working memory cognitive performance at the three-hour mark. Other research has found similar properties in Asian ginseng, particularly with regards to cognitive reaction time.
Asian ginseng, especially the red variety, may be effective in treating patients with impaired glucose tolerance, impaired fasting glucose, and type 2 diabetes mellitus.
Of the two, Asian ginseng appears to be the more potent and the more potentially problematic in terms of dosages. Overuse can cause serious burnout and lead to the development of undesirable side effects.
While most trials reported no adverse effects from either Asian or American ginseng, side effects from both can include:
high blood pressure
You get the gist. Just your stock-standard list of undesirables, attributable to most medicinal overdoses. Just quietly, there’s another, slightly more enjoyable side effect of ginseng—euphoria. Which isn’t to say go whole-hog on the stuff, but we could all do with a bit of euphoria every now and then.
Based on the side effects, most of the contraindications relate to cardiovascular, diabetic, and psychological complications. Those on diabetic medications should probably run their ginseng aspirations past the doctor, as both species have been known to lower blood sugar. Both can also interfere with blood thinning medications like aspirin and warfarin, increase risk of side effects from antidepressants, or amplify the potency of certain medications for ADHD. If you’re on meds, play it safe and always talk to your physician first.
Finding the Best Adaptogenic Supplement
With increasing popularity, however, comes an increasing risk of encountering ginseng-based products that are questionable in their integrity. As with all natural supplements, quality definitely matters, so here’s a few quick tips to help you get your hands on the good stuff:
Know your latin names! Only buy products that guarantee pure extract of Panax quinquefolius or Panax ginseng.
When buying Asian ginseng, look for products that use primarily the red variety. As explained earlier, studies indicate that this may be the more potent of the two.
Consider supplementing with fermented ginseng. It’s probable that this is more bioavailable and faster-acting.
Try to determine whether the ginseng is unpeeled, as much of the therapeutic active compounds in the root are concentrated in the skin.
Traditional herbalists rarely use ginseng on its own in their decoctions, so if considering the purchase of a multi-herb ginseng supplement, do your background research on all the ingredients first.
Another thing to keep in mind is that ginseng works best when taken cyclically. It’s best if you use it for short bouts, then take a break to allow your body a bit of a breather from its impact.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Stay tuned for more forays into the wonderful world of adaptogens! And don’t be shy: share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.