Adaptogens for Improved Health and Brain Function

Adaptogens for Improved Health and Brain Function

When compiling research on the health benefits of adaptogens, the amount of data is almost overwhelming. This is due to the large number of studies and the fact that adaptogens have such a broad influence on the entire body.

Many of the adaptogens that are commonly used today have a history of use that goes back hundreds and thousands of years. Over that time, a vast amount of experience has been gained that has gone toward understanding their therapeutic applications.

Adaptogens can greatly increase the effectiveness of some modern drugs, including antibiotics, anxiolytics (anxiety relief), antidepressants, and hypoglycemic (blood sugar lowering) agents. They also can reduce, and in some cases eliminate, the side effects of some drugs. They have a proven record of being safe, efficacious, and quite versatile in their treatment of many conditions.

All adaptogens have antistress qualities that provide stabilizing effects on the neuroendocrine system, especially the HPA axis. All adaptogens help to modulate and enhance the immune system. All adaptogens provide antioxidant nutrients.

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This chapter mentions highlights from both research and tradition. The listed benefits and uses of adaptogens are based on all available information, including modern scientific research, records of their use in traditional medical systems, ethnobotany, and clinical observations made by practitioners


The brain is part of the nervous system, along with the spinal cord, nerves, and sensory organs. The nervous system responds to chronic stress in multiple ways. Some people may develop stress headaches, and others suffer from insomnia, anxiety, or depression.

Over long periods of time, cortisol can cause neuro-inflammation and elevated cortisol levels have been linked to increased risk of migraines, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. Research indicates that high cortisol levels also promote degeneration and death of nerve cells along with decreased memory function.

Adaptogens for Improved Brain Function

Adaptogens have multiple effects on nervous system and brain health. They normalize neurotransmitter levels in the brain, inhibit cortisol-induced neuro-inflammation, and upregulate neuropeptide Y (NPY). High levels of NPY are found in the amygdala and hypothalamus areas of the brain that are essential for regulation of emotions and our response to stress. Increased NPY reduces anxiety and inhibits sympathetic activity, which slows the heart, reduces blood pressure and decreases cortisol production by the adrenal glands. Furthermore, adaptogens have the ability to increase both the amount of mental exercise a person can carry out as well as the quality of that work.

The following adaptogens enhance brain function and mental clarity: American ginseng, ashwagandha, Asian ginseng, eleuthero, holy basil, rhaponticum, rhodiola, and schisandra.

The following adaptogens are neuroprotective: ashwagandha, Asian ginseng, holy basil and rhaponticum.

The following adaptogens support the central nervous system: Asian ginseng, rhaponticum, schisandra, and shilajit are stimulating; and ashwagandha, cordyceps, jiaogulan, and schisandra are calming.

Adaptogen Notes

Rhaponticum and schisandra enhance reading comprehension, aptitude, and speed.

Rhodiola enhances a person’s ability for memorization and prolonged concentration. Regular use can lead to improvements in learning and memory retention.

Schisandra has an unusual dual effect on the nervous system. It enhances focus, work performance, and mental clarity. At the same time, it is calming and helps relieve mild anxiety. Holy basil, in addition to being a probable adaptogen, is also a nootropic, anxiolytic, and antidepressant

[Sample from Monograph section]


Botanical Name: Eleutherococcus senticosus (synonym: Acanthopanax senticosus)

Family: Araliaceae

Common Names: Ci wu jia (Chinese), wu jia shen (Chinese), Siberian ginseng, ezoukogi (Japanese)

Taste/Energy: Sweet, slightly bitter, slightly warm

Parts Used: Root and stem bark

Location/Cultivation: Eleuthero grows throughout Siberia, northern China, Korea, and northern Japan.

Safety Rating: ***

Properties: Mild, non-stimulating adaptogen, antioxidant, hypocholesterolemic, immune amphoteric.

Constituents: The active constituents are believed to be a group of compounds known as eleutherosides A to G.


The historical use of eleuthero in Chinese medicine is more than a bit confusing. It, along with several other plants, is known as wu jia (five leaves). Included in this group is what is now called ci wu jia (E. senticosis) and wu jia pi (several species of Acanthopanax, especially A. gracistylis, as well as a totally unrelated plant, Periploca sepium). All of these plants are used for treating with “wind/damp” conditions. Wind conditions are spasmodic, erratic or involve numbness, while dampness correlates to swelling and edema.

Modern Uses

Eleuthero is used in China to strengthen the qi and the Chinese spleen and kidneys. Symptoms of deficient spleen qi include fatigue, listlessness, lack of appetite, and abdominal bloating. Using this herb, along with digestive herbs and other stronger tonic herbs, helps to relieve these symptoms.

As an adaptogen, eleuthero is mild and can be used for men or women. It is most appropriate for younger people (15-40 years old) who have their vital force (jing) intact but are experiencing greater than normal stress. It is unlikely to cause overstimulation and can be taken over long periods of time.

Eleuthero also strengthens the immune system, and regular use will reduce the incidence of colds and other common infectious diseases. Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation therapy often develop bone marrow suppression and decreased white blood cell counts. In one clinical study, eleuthero was able to reverse these conditions in many patients (Kupin, et al, 1987).

Athletes can benefit from using eleuthero. It increases endurance and stamina, enhances mitochondrial activity, speeds recovery, and prevents immune-depletion from excessive training. It can be combined with cordyceps, rhodiola, or schisandra for enhancing athletic performance and for improving alertness and cognitive function when under severe stress or when working long hours. Physicians with long shifts who get little sleep, those with flex shift jobs, and students pulling “all nighters” will likely feel better, perform better, and recover more quickly when using these adaptogenic tonic herbs.

©2019 by David Winston. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted with permission. Healing Arts Press,
a division of Inner Traditions Intl.

Article Source

Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief
by David Winston.
(2nd Edition, Updated and Expanded edition)

Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David WinstonAn extensive Materia Medica includes monographs on 25 adaptogens, including eleuthero, ginseng, rhodiola, schisandra, ashwagandha, shatavari, reishi, and holy basil, as well as complementary nervines, restorative tonics, and nootropic herbs, such as milky oats, astragalus, St. John’s wort, and ginkgo. Includes 16-page color insert and 2 b&w illustrations (Also available as an e-Textbook.)

click to order on amazon



About the Authors

David Winston, RH(AHG)David Winston, RH(AHG), is an herbalist and ethnobotanist who has practiced Cherokee, Chinese, and Western herbal medicine since 1969. He is the president of Herbalist and Alchemist, Inc., a company that manufactures over 300 herbal products, author of Herbal Therapeutics and Saw Palmetto for Men & Women, and coauthor of Herbal Therapy and Supplements and Adaptogens. Learn more at

Steven Maimes, the former owner of an herbal products business in the San Francisco Bay Area, is a researcher, freelance writer, and principal of SALAM Research in Rochester, New Hampshire.

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Video/Interview with David Winston: The Energetic System of Herbal Medicine


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