I’ve covered a number of adaptogens over the past few months including American and Asian ginseng, ashwagandha, astragalus, and holy basil—and for good reason. They offer an effective means to combat stress as well as boost health and performance from a number of angles. I’ve enjoyed experimenting with many of them and even use some on a regular basis.
I thought I’d continue the series with a look at 3 additional adaptogens: maca, sea buckthorn, and schisandra. See what you think.
Maca is a cruciferous biennial herb that hails from the high Andean peaks of Peru. Grown primarily for its fleshy root, maca is similar in growing habit and size to turnips and radishes. Its green, fragrant tops grow above ground, but most of the action takes place below the surface, with the root varying considerably in shape, size and color depending on the subspecies.
Most maca cultivation happens at high elevations—think 14,000 feet in Peru, Bolivia, and some of the higher spots of Brazil. Chances are, however, your supplement was grown in Peru.
Maca (sometimes called Peruvian ginseng) takes about 7 months to produce small flowers and go to seed. It’s harvested at this point, washed, and left in covered tents to dry out. Traditional Peruvian custom is to then put the plants in large sacks and give them a good rustle up—with the seeds falling onto tarps below and subsequently collected for the next round of cultivation. The root itself is then either sold locally as a whole root (they eat the stuff like potatoes in the Andean villages of Peru), ground to a powder for supplemental purposes, or sent off for processing into beverages, wine, liqueurs, and even jams. I’ll admit I’m intrigued by the jam.
Because it’s grown at such high altitudes in remote areas, it’s unlikely that any herbicides or chemical applications are used during cultivation. The only real task for the farmers is to keep wild vicunas and sheep from eating their crop.
The curiously named sea buckthorn hails from an entirely different part of the world, and can be found growing wild on the coastlines of Atlantic Europe (hence the same), or as a subalpine shrub on European or Asian mountain ranges. It’s a tough little tree, able to withstand excesses of wind, cold, heat and salt, and for this reason was once distributed free of charge to Canadian prairie farmers to be used as shelter belts.
The form of sea buckthorn shrubs match their temperament, with small leaves, alarmingly large thorns, and a tendency to spread vegetatively almost to the point of invasiveness. Sea buckthorn of the rhamnoides variety typically grows to between half a meter and 6 meters in height, and as a nitrogen fixer it’s great for rebuilding impoverished soils.
Trees take around 3-4 years to start producing the flavonoid-rich berries, which is what most sea buckthorn supplements and oils are comprised of. That being said, don’t be surprised to see extracts of sea buckthorn leaves in your adaptogenic supplement, as these also contain considerable concentrations of therapeutic compounds.
Schisandra (sometimes called Schizandra) is a woody vine with a similar growing habit and form to that of grapes. All schisandra supplements are derived from the bright red berry of this vine, which is native to the northeast of China and parts of eastern Russia.
In Chinese, Schisandra is referred to as “Wu Wei Zi,” which essentially translates to “five flavored fruit.” Word has it that those five flavors are sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy. As I’m sure you can imagine, this makes for a fairly intense culinary experience.
Most of the Schisandra berries are sun-dried, crushed, and used in supplemental formulas. Some, however, are eaten fresh in traditional Chinese dishes. Others are used to make health juices, tinctures and tonics.
By now you know the drill: adaptogens, by their very definition, lower forms of stress within the body. This means that, regardless of which adaptogenic herb you choose, you should expect to see some relief from certain key symptoms of chronic stress—reduced inflammation, better sleep, boosted immunity, that kind of thing. (Of course, each person’s response varies based on a large number of factors. As always, consult your physician before beginning any adaptogen or other supplement, particularly if you have a known health condition.)
Nonetheless, beyond those broad-spectrum benefits, there’s plenty of extras that each adaptogen offers that set it apart from the rest. In this way, choosing the right adaptogen for your situation means knowing what those unique therapeutic attributes are. Here are some of them.
Records show that maca root was already being utilized by the Incas, whose warriors were known to chomp down on it to increase their stamina and strength. At this point in its history, maca was something of a sought-after plant: only the ruling classes (and presumably their armies) were permitted to consume it.
It turns out they were onto something. Maca contains impressive amounts of catechins, amino acids, fatty acids, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, iron, vitamin E and a whole host of B-vitamins. It’s also got a good dose of alkaloids, bioavailable proteins and fiber.
And the best part? Any lowly peasant can get their hands on it these days.
It might seem crude, but “sexual prowess” about sums it up. Easily the most popular use for maca is for improving libido, staying power, sperm quality and quantity, and essentially anything reproductive-related. Unsurprisingly, the lion’s share of maca research has focused on this area.
In one bout of lab tests, 60 “sexually experienced” rats (feel free to laugh) were treated with varying dosages of maca and their responses observed. They found that those rats on the maca were more motivated to initiate intercourse and more likely to return for multiple, uh, interactions. Slightly less awkward tests in humans have shown similar results from maca supplementation, along with significant improvements in stamina outside of the bedroom.
Interestingly, maca appears to significantly elevate sexual desire without actually instigating any hormonal changes in the body. A 2002 study that sought to demonstrate whether this boost in desire was due to changes in mood or testosterone levels gave a group of 1500 mg or 3000 mg of maca extract over the course of 12 weeks. They observed sexual desire improvements 8 weeks in, with no corresponding changes in testosterone or estradiol levels. Scratching their heads, they had witnessed the boost in libido but were no closer to working out why this happens. Another study found the exact same thing, concluding that “treatment with maca does not affect serum reproductive hormone levels.”
Maca shows promise as a means of easing the symptoms of menopause. A 2005 study involving 20 early-postmenopausal women found that maca acted as a hormonal toner by lowering follicle-stimulating hormone and increasing luteinizing hormone secretion, which in turn stimulated production of estrogen and progesterone. As a result, the women reported substantial reductions in menopausal discomfort.
Other studies have examined the action of maca on specific symptoms associated with menopause. Research shows that maca administration prevents or lowers menopause-induced weight gains, elevated blood pressure, depression, and osteoporosis.
As with most of it’s adaptogenic peers, maca has been the subject of considerable speculation regarding its potential stamina and endurance-promoting properties. Interestingly, I couldn’t actually find a lot of research to confirm or deny these claims, but what I did find suggested that maca might show some promise in this area.
A 2012 study used the usual trick of forcing weighted rats to swim for prolonged periods in order to induce a state of stress. Swimming times to exhaustion of rats supplemented for 3 weeks with 30 and 100 mg/kg of maca extract increased by 25% and 41%, respectively. Certain markers of muscle fatigue in the maca-consuming mice were lowered, and muscular glutathione production increased.
It’s the nutritional composition of sea buckthorn oil that interests me. It contains solid concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids, vitamin E and carotenoids, and phenolic compounds (flavonoids) such as quercetin and catechin. It’s fair to say that there are few other fruits on the planet that can offer this kind of mix.
Sea buckthorn oil (derived from either the pulp or seed of the berries) has long been used by Eastern cultures as a therapeutic aid for disorders of the skin. Current research validates this, with a 2011 study (PDF) using sea buckthorn cream to significantly reduce erythema (redness) and another using both sea buckthorn seed and pulp oil to encourage marked improvement in atopic dermatitis.
The beneficial effects of sea buckthorn also extend to wound healing. This study used sea buckthorn seed oil to significantly speed burn wound healing, while a flavone extract from sea buckthorn was used in another clinical trial to heal deep cuts an average of 8 days faster than the control group.
There’s a limited but growing body of evidence suggesting that sea buckthorn oil and juice may have a part to play in supporting healthy cardiovascular function. Research has found that sea buckthorn supplementation may indeed lower risk of cardiovascular disease by protecting against precursors like elevated total cholesterol and triglycerides. Another study noted that sea buckthorn juice lowered susceptibility of male participants to LDL oxidation. However, it appears that isolated flavonols extracted from sea buckthorn may not work so well on their own.
There’s actually a surprising amount of research documenting the impressive therapeutic effects of sea buckthorn oil on gastric ulcers. Experiments on rats with sea buckthorn seed and pulp oils indicated both preventative and curative effects against gastric ulcers. Likewise, slipping some sea buckthorn berries into the feed of horses with gastric ulcers offers benefits…provided the horse is hungry enough to eat the berries.
In Korea, it’s a kind of potent five-flavored tea. The ancient Ainu people of Japan apparently used it as a remedy for colds and sea-sickness. The Russians thought so highly of schisandra that they immortalized it on one of their (admittedly temporary) postage stamps. Perhaps there’s something for everyone in schisandra.
Adaptogens by nature act on stress. But Schisandra takes it to the next level. A plethora of studies on animals has shown schisandra to provide stress-protective effects against a wide range of stressors.
Supplementing with schisandra promoted greater egg production, boosted immune function and heightened antioxidant status of hens subjected to heat stress. Rats given schisandra extract showed lowered symptoms of stress during a bout of extended water-floating followed by an intense treadmill workout. Mice who were immobilized and (cover your eyes) had their feet electrocuted showed significantly lower signs of stress when treated with a combination of schisandra and Scutellaria baicalensis. And in a study that compared the effects of 5 different adaptogens on rabbits subjected to restraint stress, Schisandra tied for first place in preventing cortisol spikes and regulating production of inflammatory cytokines.
You get the idea.
Many of the above studies agreed that it was, at least in part, the anti-depressive abilities of schisandra that contributed to its stress-alleviating effects. This correlates to limited research focusing on schisandra’s antidepressant effect. One study showed that a tincture of schisandra resulted in a significant antidepressant effect in rats, while another concluded that schisandra’s positive effects on production of dopamine, serotonin, and other “feel-good” hormones may contribute to this lowering of depression.
As with many of the other adaptogens, schisandra shows great potential for the treatment and prevention of cancer. Studies have indicated the ability of certain active compounds in schisandra to inhibit development of human lung cancer cells, inhibit proliferation of human breast cancer cells, improve immune response and exhibit anti-tumor properties, and slow the spread of human colorectal cancer cells.
To qualify as an adaptogen, an herb must be safe and non-toxic. This tells us a lot about the potential side effects and contraindications of maca, sea buckthorn and schisandra—they’re few and far between.
If maca doesn’t sit well with your constitution, you could see development of acne, digestive issues like diarrhea or bloating, and a bout of the shakes if maca’s energy-boosting abilities go a little too far. As usual, pregnant women should stay away from the stuff. That goes for most supplements, however.
Studies that examined the effect of excessive sea buckthorn consumption have found that even at doses above the “safe” recommended level for a month, no toxic effects are apparent. However, the blood-flow promoting effects of sea buckthorn mean you might want to consult your doctor, particularly if you’re on vasodilator medication.
Excess schisandra consumption may result in heartburn, upset stomach, and rashes. For some reason, epileptics are discouraged from using this adaptogen, and those suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may have trouble with it.
As always, practice moderation and work with a trusted physician.
Finally, not all supplements are created equal, and this is definitely true for adaptogenic products. While all maca varieties generally have similar therapeutic abilities, certain colors or types may be more appropriate for treating different conditions—so do your homework. Some studies, for example, indicated that hexanic maca extract has the most pronounced effect on sexual parameters.
As for sea buckthorn, seeking out supercritical CO2-extracted oil supplements may ensure the highest nutrient profile, but cold pressed is still a decent choice. When shopping around for schisandra products, look for those that are standardized to schizandrins, one of it’s most therapeutic active compounds.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Have you tried any of these adaptogens, and observed any notable results? Any other comments or questions? Take care.