This article was originally presented in part at the AHVMA 2011 annual meeting.
Adaptogens help humans and animals deal with toxic environments as well as adrenal stress and depletion. By bolstering the body’s adaptability, we balance the hormonal system, including glucose metabolism, pituitary feedback loops, the reproductive system, the immune system and thyroid function.
Because of this action, adaptogens are effective for treating cases of hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal-thyroid (HPAT) axis exhaustion. Inadequate nutrition, weak digestion, lack of sleep, chronic disease and physical and emotional stress all contribute to this condition. The result is lack of energy, weight gain, weight deposition in inappropriate places, hair loss, muscle weakness, low hematocrit, and low white cell counts. Companion animals may “talk” or run in their sleep. When we feed highly processed diets to our companions, expose them to household toxins, apply toxins to their skin and digestive tracts on a monthly basis, and fail to provide them with adequate exercise, we cause a reduction in their anabolic hormone activity, including thyroid hormone, and push the body into insulin resistance.
Stress and aging
Stress inhibits the HPAT axis, causing lowered T4 production and decreased T4 to T3 conversion. Blood fat and glucose may be elevated, leading to insulin resistance. The prolonged elevated cortisol levels seen in stress cause a decrease in growth hormone levels that leads the body to increase deposition of visceral fat, and decrease lean body mass and bone mineral density. These catabolic processes lead to signs of premature aging.
Normal aging has been shown to cause sleep disturbance in some individuals due to elevated evening cortisol levels. The decrease of growth hormone in aging is also associated with changes in body fat. Leptin, a hormone produced by adipocytes, lets the brain know when fat storage needs to be protected or utilized. Leptin resistance occurs when a person or animal is stressed, overeats, eats late at night, snacks frequently, and has inadequate exercise. With severe caloric restriction, fat cells produce large amounts of leptins that circulate in the blood, but the brain does not receive the signals. This may cause insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, thyroid problems, cognitive dysfunction, and may increase the incidence of some cancers.
How adaptogens can help
Stress causes us to use more fuel to run our bodies. This leads to increased free radicals, which damage our bodies. Adaptogens usually have antioxidant properties, making them valuable for decreasing free radical damage and improving oxygen utilization. They help optimize neuroendocrine response to stress, and help cells produce fuel more efficiently. mRNA and tRNA are activated by adaptogens, and the immune system is able to recover from and prevent illness. Reproductive hormone balance improves at all life stages.
Choosing the appropriate adaptogens for the individual will shorten recovery time and restore homeostasis much more quickly than using a generic approach. Adding nervines and other helpers can provide a synergistic effect.
When sourcing adaptogens, I like Herbalist & Alchemist out of Washington, New Jersey (herbalist-alchemist.com).
11 adaptogens for HPAT axis exhaustion
1. Withania somnifera (Ashwaganda)
Ashwaganda is anti-inflammatory and immuno-supportive. It is amphoteric, antioxidant, antispasmotic and antiemetic. It is used for treating tumors, as a hypoglycemic agent and as a neuroendocrine tonic. Ashwaganda regulates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and is a general tonic, though not stimulating.
“Somnifera” means “sleep making.” It is useful for cases of severe nervous and physical exhaustion, where sleep and rest are seemingly impossible. It is used for debility, chronic exhaustion and convalescence. It treats bronchitis, asthma, edema, high cholesterol, low thyroid, infertility and impotence. It is an immuno-regulator for multiple sclerosis, cancer and immune dysfunction. It helps puppies and kittens that do not thrive. It protects against toxic damage, making it valuable for chemotherapy and radiation patients. It is useful for stabilizing chronic connective tissue inflammation.
N.B.: All dosage amounts in this article are for a medium-sized dog unless otherwise stated.
Dose: Dry herbs are dosed 1 to 2 grams; tinctures are dosed at 0.5 to 1 ml BID.
2. Ganoderma lucidium (Reishi mushroom, Ling Zhi Cao)
Ganoderma is sweet, a bit bitter, and thermally neutral in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It nourishes the Heart and Blood, tonifies Qi, and calms the mind. This herb has a long history of use in China and Japan, and has become popular for treating cancer, HIV and chronic fatigue. The polysaccharides ganodermic A and ganodermic B in mushrooms help with immune system regulation, and can protect the marrow when chemotherapy is employed. Ganoderma calms anxiety, promotes sleep, protects and restores the liver, and is an antioxidant. It helps coronary blood flow and can lower cholesterol. It helps after chronic lung disease to repair residual damage. Ganoderma stops wheezing and coughing. It may decrease airway hypersensitivity reactions via its antihistamine activity. It tonifies the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the body to pull out of a chronic sympathetic state.
Dose: Give 600 to 1,000 mg BID. For cats, I typically mix Ganoderma 10 ml vials with royal jelly and Astragalus (Huang qi) for use with FIV, Felv and other debilitating illnesses.
3. Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng)
The root provides the medicine. This shrub grows in northern China and eastern Russia, and is not in the ginseng family despite its name. In TCM, it is considered a Spleen and Kidney Qi tonic. Eleutherococcus is amphoteric, antiviral and antitumor. It is a nervine and immune potentiator. It stimulates macrophages, is a cardiotonic, and is hepatoprotective. This well-studied herb helps one work through stress. Influenza and illnesses are resisted, and sleep is easier to attain. Patients with severe debility and anxiety find rest and calm. It can normalize blood pressure and blood sugar.
Eleutherococcus increases T-helper cells and natural killer cells. Its immune modulatory effect is well researched. It is especially useful for recovering from the flu, nervous exhaustion and depression. It reduces joint inflammation and assists the urinary system with detoxification.
Dose: The powder is dosed 150 to 350 mg BID; the liquid 30 to 55 drops. For a cat, 8 to 12 drops.
4. Rhodiola rosea
The rhizome, said to have a rose-like fragrance, is the part used medicinally. Rhodiola is adaptogenic, antidepressant, anxiolytic, antioxidant, antiviral, immuno-stimulant, nervine, neuroprotective, tonic and cardioprotective. It prevents stress-induced heart damage, improves cardiac output, and is used for arrhythmias.
Rhodiola is also used for anemia, fatigue and insomnia. It benefits anxiety, moodiness and depression. It is used for neurasthenic conditions, benefits the central nervous system, and increases memory, endurance and production. Its ability to inhibit monoamine oxidase and influence opioid peptides such as beta endorphins may explain why it appears to help balance serotonin and dopamine. It heals grief and sadness.
Dose: Dry root is dosed at 100 to 300 mg/day; tincture at 1 to 2 ml/day.
5. Rehmannia glutinosa
This herb is antipyretic, anti-inflammatory and adaptogenic. Both the processed root (Shu di huang) and unprocessed root (Sheng di huang) are used. Sheng di huang is cold and bitter and used to decrease fever, staunch bleeding, and remove deep (Blood) heat from the body. It is useful for skin rashes and decreases thirst. It moistens the intestines and opens the bowels. Shu di huang is sweet and slightly warm. It promotes red blood cell production, and treats dizziness. Both forms nourish Yin and Blood and generate fluids in the body. Both are used for diabetes; the raw form for severe thirst and the processed form for nourishing and maintaining. The prepared form is greasy, moistening and cloying, while the raw form is bitter and cold. Both should be used cautiously in animals with weak digestion.
Dose: 5 to 8 grams of the dry root decocted daily, or 45 to 90 drops of tincture daily.
Two traditional Chinese formulas that are incredibly useful in practice contain Shu di huang. The first is Liu wei di huang wan, which contains herbs to keep the body cool and replenish fluids. It also has herbs to protect the digestion from being damaged by the heavy, dense nature of the Rehmannia. The second formula is Zhi bai di huang wan, which is the same formula with two additional herbs to clear more heat and generate fluids. The latter formula is ideal for the severe PU/PD signs seen with hyperthyroid cats, diabetics, and elderly, nocturnal terriers. One sees vocalizing at night, excessive painting, red skin, hot ears and agitation. Liu wei di huang is useful for maintaining these patients once Zhi bai di huang has cooled them off. Liu wei is also used for animals with increased thirst, panting episodes and anxiety, which occurs mostly in the late afternoon and evening.
6. Astragalus membranaceas (Milk vetch, Huang Qi)
The root is used for medicine. It is sweet and slightly warming. Astragalus is adaptogenic, cardiotonic, immunostimulant, diuretic, tonic, hypotensive, and antioxidant. In TCM, Astragalus is considered a Qi and Blood tonic. It is used to tonify the Spleen, heal tissues and discharge pus.
This herb is a lovely adjunct treatment to all things cancer: add it to cancer treatments and for chemotherapy and radiation support. It will help boost low white cell numbers, and is used in recovery after severe blood loss, especially for resultant fever. Astragalus is used when the appetite is poor, organs are prolapsed, and there is shortness of breath. Ischemic heart disease, manifesting in angina, showed marked improvement in patients taking Astragalus, as compared to Salvia miltorrhiza, nifedipine or control. It has been used classically for excess sweating in debilitated states.
Dose: Decoct 10 to 15 grams of dry root per day; tinctures are dosed at 2 to 3 ml per day.
7. Schizandra chinensis (Wu Wei Zi)
The berries and seeds are used as medicine. Energetically, Schizandra is warm and dry. It is adaptogenic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-asthmatic, hepatoprotective, astringent, and an immune stimulant.
Traditionally, Schizandra is used as an astringent for Jing leaking out, as with spermatorrhea, diarrhea, leucorrhea, urinary incontinence, and excessive sweating. Its mild central nervous system stimulant activity makes it a nice choice to treat exhaustion, and there are many studies backing its use for hepatitis B and C. It combines well with licorice for asthma, and combines with Ganoderma for fatigue and altitude sickness. Use Schizandra to generate fluids and relieve thirst when there is intense dry mouth and thirst in chronic disease.
Dose: Give 0.25 to 0.5 grams of dry powder per day; tinctures 0.5 to 1 ml BID.
8. Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice root)
This herb is used in both Chinese and Western herbal traditions. The root is the portion of the plant used. It is antiviral, anti-inflammatory, adaptogenic and hepatoprotective. Licorice strengthens exhausted adrenals and helps with chronic viral infections. It shows its brilliance for linings and their respective coatings. It helps with chronic inflammation, especially gastrointestinal, urinary and throat inflammation. It is soothing and calming for ulcers and colitis attacks. It repairs the gastrointestinal lining and helps relieve painful spasms. Licorice supports and protects the liver, and is part of the solution to decrease inflammation and calm the immune system in chronic hepatitis. Used in TCM to harmonize a formula, it carries the herbs to all parts of the body, showing its usefulness as a universal rebuilder.
Dose: 1 to 4 grams decocted daily; tinctures are dosed at 1 to 2 ml daily.
9. Oplopanax horridum (Devil’s club)
Oplopanax is antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, adaptogenic, hemostatic, emetic and antipyretic. It is an important plant for Native Americans, used to treat arthritis, rheumatism, diabetes, respiratory problems, digestive complaints, and as a purgative and emetic. It has been used topically for infected wounds and snakebites.
Oplopanax teaches proper boundaries. Like a sweet, old Labrador who lets the other animals take his food and toys, one needs this plant when being taken advantage of. It’s also used for lingering respiratory illness following an acute episode, deep inhibited coughs that need to rise to the surface, and acute respiratory infections — it is a strong respiratory stimulant and expectorant.
Dose:Tinctures are dosed at 15 to 30 drops BID.
10. Centella asiatia (Gotu kola)
The aerial parts of the plant are used. It is antioxidant, andaptogenic, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcerogenic and anxiolytic. It’s a cerebral tonic, circulatory stimulant, diuretic, nervine and vulnerary. It is used today to encourage wound healing, and aids in repairing and rejuvenating the nerves and brain. Look for mental fog and lack of focus. It may be used with Gingko biloba to tonify, which will improve circulation, thus enhancing the effects. Besides its benefits for the nervous system, it also is good for blood cleansing, and can be used for chronic skin conditions and for those who form abscesses easily or develop ulcers. It may help normalize connective tissue metabolism, so is useful in treating autoimmune syndromes, scleroderma and keloid formation.
Dose: Dry leaves 200 mg BID; tinctures 20 drops BID.
11. Avena sativa (Oat berry and straw)
This herb is antispasmodic and a diuretic, stimulant, nervine and adaptogen. In TCM it is a Kidney Qi tonic. It restores the urogenital system and is brilliant for nourishing and calming the nervous system. When the oat berry is immature and green, it has a milky stage, which produces an amazingly effective nerve tonic that brings clarity and grounding. A tincture of milky oats is a remedy that produces powerful medicine from even a few drops.
Oats are useful for those with weak, debilitated digestion and in cases of gastroenteritis, ulcers and dyspepsia. It helps those with chronic debility regain their strength and become mentally and physically substantial again. It also has restorative effects on the reproductive system and treats uterine and ovarian disorders.
Dose: 1 to 2 ml daily.