Adaptogens: Ancient Herbs for Modern Times

There exists an imperial class of herbs in Chinese Medicine which help us adapt to stressors within and without. As the Latinized name for these substances implies “adaptogens” bring out adaptation response. They seem to behave like “smart herbs” by entering the body, going where they’re needed and doing that which is necessary to balance homeostasis. These herbs are particularly important in treatment of complex modern plagues such as depression, chronic fatigue and psycho-emotional stress, plus AIDS, Hepatitis, Cancer and other physical disease patterns. They often defy Western pharmacological categorization by virtue of their mysterious abilities. If find them delightful to marvel at and alchemical to work with, and would like to introduce a few of them here.

The Reishi Mushroom (Ling Zhi was so highly prized in China that the Taoist herbalists did not list it in the material medica (written catalogue of medicines). Kept secret, Ling Zhi was reserved for royalty and Taoist Alchemists. Ling Zhi is said to benefit longevity, fertility, mental function and even spiritual awareness. Various Chinese names include “plant of immortality, spirit plant” and “herb of spiritual awareness. Various Chinese names include “plant of immortality, spirit plant” and “herb of spiritual potency”. Clinically this mushroom is proven effective for treatment of altitude sickness, heart disease, hepatitis, nephritis, hypertension, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, neurasthenia, insomnia, bronchitis, asthma, allergies, cancer, mental disease caused by environmental stress and more (1). How is it that one herb teats so many problems of disparate types? The technical “mechanism of action” is unknown. Its abilities, however, are wondrous and wonder is good. Wonder is a youth quality whereas knowing all the answers is to be done with life. If Ling Zhi is a longevity herb, perhaps we should respect the wonder of it. Some medicines may be better used and appreciated without uncovering their mysteries.

The Schizandra Berry (Wu Wei Zi) is known as “the five flavored seed” as it has all the flavors which exist in Chinese Medicine: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent. These in turn benefit all of our organ systems. This herb improves short and long term memory, stimulates the central nervous system, strengthens and quickens reflexes, increased efficiency in stress tests, detoxifies and regenerates the liver, strengthens immunity and is a mood elevator (2). It is indicated that for everything from asthma to zygote health. In my experience it is great for the stress and fatigue of long study sessions or marathon night driving. It has also been proven safe to use for 4,000 years.

Women in particular benefit from Wu Wei Zi. It is a female sex tonic which naturally moisturizes and sensitizes the female genitalia. It is an aphrodisiac in a glass of wine, and enriches the “Jing” which roughly translates as the essential life force which gives rise to fertility, longevity and vitality. In this way, Wu Wei Zi strongly nourishes and preserves male sexual potency as well. Spanish fly and Viagra quickly pale in comparison to the virtuous Schizandra. In sum, Wu Wei Zi is said to harmonize the whole body. This is the quintessential adaptogen function. Again, the technical “mechanisms of action” or how it accomplishes all of these functions are largely unknown.

Other famous adaptogenic herbs include ginseng, Mandrake, Lotus Seed and Sandalwood. Ginseng and Mandrake are also prime examples of the scientific “doctrine of signatures” which states that like treats like. Ginseng and Mandrake are both anthropomorphic: they look like the human form, and they both promote homeostasis in humans! Lotus Seed and Sandalwood both calm the spirit and nourish devotional and meditative abilities. They have both been used in Eastern medicine and religions since recorded history. In modern applications of Chinese medicine both are used as adaptogens for stress related disorders.

All of these gifts from the natural world have undeniable benefits for human biologic and spiritual health. They have evolved simultaneously with us on the planet. Their medicinal and evolutionary support of us then should be no wonder or surprise. Extensive pharmacological studies are being done to understand how and why adaptogenic plants work. Isolated compounds called triterpenes are often cited at THE adaptogenic ingredient (3). In other cases, the plants seem to defy clinical analysis and are termed “unknown mechanism of action”. Dr. Andrew Weil et al propose that standard clinical studies based on a reductionist model which seek single active ingredients are simply missing the point (4). Weil and other postulate that the human organism, plants and their medical interactions require a complex systems model for clinical study. Quantum physics, chaos theory, karma, our galaxy and the human being are all fabulously complex systems. Their study requires an appropriate model. Human inquisitiveness is healthy and has save many lives through medical research. The cosmos, however, has mysteries which we will never unravel and some of them come in the form of adaptogenic plant medicinals. Again, I find them delightful to marvel at and alchemical to work with. When the greater medical community and society as a whole adopt such attitudes medicine, public health and human evolution will all advance. May it be so.


  1. Hobbs, Christopher L.Ac. Medicinal Mushrooms 1996 Interweave Press, Loveland, CO
  2. Bensky, Dan L.Ac. Chinese Herbal Medicine Formulas & Strategies 1990 Eastland Press, Seattle, WA
  3. Ibid #1
  4. Lecture by Dr. Andrew Weil 08/30/03, Telluride, CO

Additional Bibliography & Reading List Available

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