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Immune Suppression – Adaptogens and Adrenal Fatigue

Immune Suppression - Adaptogens and Adrenal Fatigue

Greetings friends. Thanks to the folks who have written to me asking about immunity and adaptogenic herbs. This is a great topic to write on as a follow up to my article about Hypoadrenia (Adrenal Fatigue). One of the many symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue is lowered immunity or suppressed immunity (Immunosuppression). This factor is one of the main reasons people with lowered adrenal output get sick constantly and are eventually knocked down to the point where they are so fatigued and unwell that their illness becomes chronic. Adaptogenic herbs are quite useful for aiding in recovery from adrenal fatigue and in helping to restore immune system integrity and overall strength to the constitution. These herbs usually make up an intergral part of a professional natural health approach to helping someone recover from adrenal fatigue and immune suppression so today I am going to provide some information on which herbs are adaptogenic, what that means and all sorts of other useful bits.

What is an Adaptogen?

Adaptogens are a unique group of herbal ingredients used to improve the health of your adrenal system, the system that’s in charge of managing your body’s hormonal response to stress. Adaptogens and adaptogenic herbs help strengthen the body’s response to stress and enhance its ability to cope with anxiety and fight fatigue – slowly and gently, without jolts or crashes. They’re called adaptogens because of their unique ability to “adapt” their function according to your body’s specific needs. Though the effects may initially be subtle and take time to make themselves felt, they’re real and undeniable. For a plant to be adaptogenic it must meet three criteria, as defined by the Russian doctor I.I. Brekman:

  • It should cause no harm and place no additional stress on the body.
  • It should help the body adapt to many and varied environmental and psychological stresses.
  • It must have a nonspecific action on the body, supporting all the major systems, such as the nervous system, hormonal system, and immune system, as well as regulating functions (such as the blood sugar); if they are too high, an adaptogen will lower it and vice verse.
Unlike big pharma drugs, adaptogens weren’t born yesterday. In fact, they’ve been used in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, to boost energy and resilience in the face of stress. Recently, several studies have found evidence to support what those of us in the sustainable wellness field already knew – that adaptogens offer positive benefits —and are safe for long-term use.

How do adaptogens work?

Through numerous scientific studies it is known that the pharmacological actions of adaptogens are very complex. It has been noted that they have the ability to increase endurance and to reduce fatigue. They stimulate the immune system indirectly; build the body’s resistance to non-specific stresses such as, chemicals in the environment, overwork, poor diet and emotional factors. They work as immune stimulants also by boosting resistance to pathogens, viruses and bacteria.

According to Christopher Hobbs in his book Medicinal Mushrooms he states; that he classifies immune active herbs into three categories adaptogens, surface immune stimulants and immune tonics. Each of these areas works differently and is applied to specific conditions. Let take a closer look at these three areas.

  • Adaptogens boost immunity by supporting and balancing the endocrine (glandular) system. More specifically laboratory tests have shown that they support adrenal functions, help cells to use oxygen more efficiently and increase cellular respiration. Of course we know that the stress glands are the adrenals and when the adrenals are weaken we can experience fatigue and suppressed immunity.
  • The immune stimulating properties of adaptogenic herbs are due to the ability to stimulate a specific white blood cell called a macrophage. Macrophages (macro=big, phage=eater) are white cell that eat up or destroy pathogens in the blood such as bacteria, yeast, and viruses. They live in the mucus membranes of the body but also travel through the internal organs. They are our first line defense and stimulating this aspect off our immune system protects us from colds, flu and other types of infection. Some herbs that have this action are echinacea, thuja, osha, and wild indigo.
  • Immune tonics are the next classification and they work by supporting the bone marrow reserve, from which the macrophage and all other immune effector cells (t-cells) and reds blood cells are made. Reishi mushroom has been one of the researched adaptogens that works in this manner. It is interesting that in traditional cultures they cooked with these herbs and eat them as part of their diet.

So which are the best adaptogenic herbs to use?

These are the main ones used for adaptogenic purposes and immunity. I personally like to use a combination of them when approaching therapeutic use for a client.

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is considered a chi tonic–more specifically a tonic for the yang chi–in traditional Chinese medicine. This ginseng is usually given to people who display yang deficiency–weakness in muscles, voice and constitution, for example–and is generally best avoided by those who are well muscled and large with a tendency to bursts of anger. Numerous studies support Asian ginseng’s effectiveness at improving a person’s ability to withstand stress, improve work performance and quality, and enhance mental function. [2] It has also been shown to increase the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which stimulates an increase in adrenal hormone secretion. It also can counteract the shrinkage of the adrenal gland caused by corticosteroid drugs. [3] In a recent in vitro study, researchers from the department of pathology at Okayama University Medical School in Japan found that Asian ginseng extract inhibited hydroxyl radical formation. The authors believe this antioxidant effect may be responsible for ginseng’s wide range of pharmacological applications. [4] In a double-blind controlled study, 36 noninsulin-dependent diabetic patients were treated with Asian ginseng for eight weeks. Patients were given either 100 mg or 200 mg of Asian ginseng or placebo. The ginseng elevated participants’ moods, improved physical activity and performance, improved glycosylated hemoglobin, and reduced fasting blood sugars and body weight. [5] Asian ginseng has been shown to increase RNA and protein content in the muscle and liver tissue of laboratory animals. [6] That same process may be the biochemical mechanism that makes ginseng such a highly regarded tonic. Asian ginseng is said to tonify the chi and the lungs while strengthening the spleen and stomach and calming the spirit. Studies show this ginseng to be antidepressant, antidiabetic and antihypertensive. [7, 8] Evaluating the effect of Asian ginseng in various forms–cooked, dried and fresh root–in 1,987 cancer cases, researchers found that the risk of developing certain cancers in a population that used ginseng for at least one year was less than the risk for the general population. The risk continued to decrease with use up to 20 years. In the study, ginseng was found to protect against cancers of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, colorectum, liver, lung, pancreas and ovaries. Thus, the authors conclude that ginseng has a protective effect in most cases of cancer. [9]

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), although in the same genus as Asian ginseng, is considered a yin tonic rather than a yang tonic. As such, American ginseng is indicated for a hotter, more aggressive constitution. It contains many of the same ginsenosides as the Asian ginsengs and has similar effects on the body.

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), as can be seen by its Latin name, is not actually a ginseng, but it has been called one because of its similar properties. It is found in Russia, Asia, northern China, Japan and Korea and, in fact, Russian researchers consider it to be even more effective than Asian ginseng. Like Asian and American ginseng, Siberian ginseng has been shown to normalize reactions to physical and mental stress with great effectiveness when used for several months. In evaluating the adaptogenic properties of Siberian ginseng, a large study reviewed the results of a number of clinical trials involving 2,100 healthy men and women ages 19 to 72. Subjects were given doses of ginseng ranging from 2 to 16 ml of fluid extract, 33 percent ethanol, from one to three times daily for up to 60 days. Subjects had increased mental alertness and work output, enhanced athletic performance and improved work quality. They also exhibited an improved ability to withstand adverse conditions such as heat, noise, increases in workload and physical exertion. [10]

Caution: As with Asian ginseng, Siberian and American ginseng generally safe. But occasionally it has been associated with agitation, palpitations or insomnia in patients with cardiovascular disorders. If you have high blood pressure, your blood pressure should be monitored when taking it. I generally don’t recommend it for pregnant or breastfeeding women, even though limited research hasn’t turned up evidence of harmful effects in the fetus. May also interact with hypertensive medications.

Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) is often called Indian ginseng, seemingly to group it with the ginsengs because of its similar actions. Though unrelated to other ginsengs, it appears to share their many properties and actions. Considered a tonic, an alterative, an astringent, a nervine and a sedative, [13] ashwaganda has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for more than 2,500 years. Recent studies show ashwaganda to be immuno-modulating and to aid in cases of anxiety and other psychological complaints. [14-16]

Caution: Avoid during pregnancy or if you are taking sedatives or if you have severe gastric irritation or ulcers. Also people who are sensitive to the nightshade group of plants should be careful.

Astragalus (Astragalus spp) is one of the more famous tonic herbs from China. In traditional Chinese medicine it is said to tonify the blood and spleen and aid the defensive chi. Thus, astragalus is often added to formulations used to treat weak patients. Similarly, it is used in combination with other herbs to enhance recovery following an illness or prolonged stress and to boost vitality. Astragalus is said to protect and enhance the functioning of distressed organs. [17] Numerous studies show the herb enhances immune function by increasing natural killer cell activity, [18] increasing T cell activity, [19] and enhancing macrophage activity [20] in immune-compromised patients.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra and G. uralensis), another popular herb in China, is said to tonify the spleen and strengthen chi. Licorice is perhaps the only herb claimed to benefit all 12 meridians in Chinese medicine. Rich in both saponins and flavonoids, it is anti-inflammatory because the saponins have a structure similar to that of corticosteroids. Licorice root also promotes or enhances immune system functioning and has a stimulating effect on the adrenal cortex. [21,22] Additionally, licorice can inhibit the breakdown of adrenal hormone by the liver, thereby increasing corticosteroid levels in circulation while inhibiting cortisol’s ability to promote thymus atrophy. [23] Melvyn Werbach, M.D., and Michael Murray, N.D., in their book Botanical Influences on Illness (Third Line Press, 1994), say components of licorice exhibit numerous pharmacological actions, including estrogenic activity [24] and aldosteronelike action. [25] Werbach and Murray also say licorice is an anti-inflammatory [26] with cortisollike action [27] as well as an antiallergic, [28] an antihepatotoxic [29] and an antineoplastic. [30] Lastly, it has the ability to heal peptic ulcers. [31] Several studies show glycyrrhizin, a constituent of licorice root and the major component of the previously mentioned saponins, has immune-enhancing properties and is potentially beneficial for HIV patients. [32-34]

Caution: Because of its aldosteronelike effect, licorice root may cause sodium retention and thus contribute to high blood pressure in some people. May also interact with hypertensive medications.

Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis, also called wuweizi by the Chinese) is commonly used as a general tonic and to promote liver health. In addition, it can be used as an adaptogenic tonic to counter the effects of stress and fatigue. Scientific studies show it has normalizing effects in cases of insomnia and neurasthenia, and improves mental coordination and physical endurance. [35] Research suggests schisandra may actually influence electrical discharges in the brain. [36]

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), shiitake (Lentinus edodes) and maitake (Grifola frondosa) mushrooms may not be adaptogens in the classic sense, but each has adaptogenic, antitumor and immune-potentiating properties. [39] Reishi and shiitake traditionally have been used as tonics, while reishi has been called the elixir of immortality.

As you can see, these herbs are very useful and powerful in their ability to help your well being. I would sincerely recommend that you consult with a natural health professional before incorporating them into any type of health care plan and be sure to check with your prescribing doctor if you are on any kind of pharmaceutical drug before taking any of these as there is potential for interaction. Other than that, these are herbs that have been proven clinically and through the test of time and use for hundreds and even thousands of years in some cases, to work well.

Until next time, be well, naturally.
Craig Hitchens – Natural Health Practitioner



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Free Radical Biol in Med, 20(1): 145-50, 1996.
5. Sotaniemi, E., et al.
“Ginseng therapy in non-insulin-dependent diabetic patients,”
Diabetes Care, 18(10): 1373-75, October 1995.
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“Preventative effect of ginseng intake against various human cancers: A case-control study on 1,987 pairs,”
Cancer Epid, Biomarkers and Prev, 24(3): 221-29, June 1995.
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“Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosis): Current status as an adaptogen,”
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16. Bhattacharya, S.K., et al. “Anti-stress activity of sitoindosides VII and VIII, new acylsterylglycosides from Withania somnifera,” Phytother Res, 1(1): 32-37, 1987.
17. Dharmananda, S.
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18. Yang, Y.Z., et al.
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19. Zhos, K.S., et al.
“Enhancement of the immune response in mice by Astragalus membranaceus extracts,”
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21. Protocol Journal of Botanical Medicine, 1(4): 194. Ayer, Mass.: Herbal Research Publications, 1996.
22. Murray, M. & Pizzorno, J., op. cit., pp. 60, 61, 67.
23. Ibid., p. 498.
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“Effect of glycyrrhizin on estrogen action,”
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25. Farese, R.V., Jr., Biglieri, E.D., et al.
“Licorice-induced hypermineralocorticoidism,”
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Acupunct Electro-Ther, 7: 173-202, 1982.
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“Affinity of liquorice derivatives for mineralocorticoid and glucocorticoid receptors,”
Clin Endocrinol, 19: 609-12, 1983.
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“Effect of prednisone and glycyrrhizin on passive transfer of experimental allergic encephalomyelitis,”
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“Mechanism of antihepatotoxic activity of glycyrrhizin, I: Effect on free radical generation and lipid peroxidation,”
Planta Medica, 50: 298-302, 1984.
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Pharmacognosy, 8th Ed.: 68-70. Philadelphia, Pa.: Lea & Febiger, 1981.
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32. Ikegami, N., et al.
“Prophylactic effect of long-term oral administration of glycyrrhizin on AIDS development of asymptomatic patients,”
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33. Ikegami, N., et al.
“Clinical evaluation of glycyrrhizin on HIV-infected, asymptomatic hemophiliac patients in Japan,”
AIDS Treatment News, 103: 298, May 18, 1990.
34. Mori, K., et al.
“The present status in prophylaxis and treatment of HIV-infected patients with hemophilia in Japan,”
Rinsho Byhori 37(11): 1200-8, 1989.
35. Chang, M. & But, P.
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36. Ibid.
37. Liao, D.F., et al.
“Effects of gypenosides on mouse plenic lymphocyte transformation and DNA polymerase II activity in vitro,”
Acta Pharmacologica Sinica, 16(4): 322-24, July 1995.
38. Lin, L., et al.
“Protective effect of gypenosides against oxidative stress in phagocytes, vascular endothelial cells and liver microsomes,”
Cancer Biotherapy, 8(3): 263-72, 1993.
Nanba, H.
“Antitumor activity of orally administered D-fraction from maitake mushroom
(Grifola frondosa),” J Naturopathic Med, 4(1): 10-15, 1993

Adaptogens: Nature’s Miracle Anti-stress and Fatigue Fighters

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The information contained in this article is accurate at the time of posting but may change thereafter. The information provided on the various natural health subjects from this website of is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as any form of medical advice. The information in the article this disclaimer is linked from is not meant to treat, diagnose, prescribe or cure any ailment. Always check with your health professional before taking any products or following any advice that you believe may conflict with other forms of health care. Always consult your health care professional before you start, stop or change anything that has been previously prescribed. Certain herbs and holistic remedies are unsuitable to take if you are pregnant or nursing and must always be cleared by your health professional before use.

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