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Adaptogens and nootropics are becoming much more popular as the flaws in Western medicine become more and more apparent. David Winston has spent over 50 years studying herbal medicine. Today we discuss his book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.
Allan: 01:02 David, welcome to 40+ Fitness.
David: 01:05 Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.
Allan: 01:07 You know, more and more, in the last 10 years. It just seems like it's a, it's kind of a building thing, which I think is really good, there's more discussion about some of the natural healing properties of plants and herbs. Looking back at some of the Eastern medicine, Chinese medicine, Ayurveda from India, and actually adopting some of those now as treatments and protocols and not going with the chemicals. So your book Adaptogens really kind of gets into the history of this and to what they are and how we can use them. It's fascinating to me how much as out there and we're just still just kinda scratching the surface.
David: 01:56 Well, that's true. You know, it's interesting. This year is the 50th year since I started studying herbal medicine. And I joke a bit, but I'm not entirely joking when I tell people after 50 years, I now consider myself to be an advanced beginner. There is endless amount to learn whether we are talking about traditional Chinese medicine aryuveda, the middle Eastern Teb Al Nabawi, Kampo from Japan, et cetera, Tibet Medicine, American eclectic medicine, physio medicalism, all these traditions are rich in the use of plants for medicine. So these traditions in some cases go back at least 3000 years. Plus you then combine that with the vast amount of plant, medicinal plant research that is occurring throughout the world.
Very little unfortunately in the United States, but extensive amounts in China, India, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, France, Germany. So all around the world there is a tremendous amount of plant research and in many cases, this plant research, this modern plant research is confirming, although sometimes going well beyond the understanding that people have had for thousands of years of how these substances can help us to live healthier, better lives.
And one of the things that's really important to understand, a lot of people have this idea that it's sort of an either or situation. It's either Orthodox Western medicine or it's complimentary alternative medicine, herbal medicine, natural medicine. And honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. Where Orthodox medicine is strong tends to be where things like herbal medicine aren't that effective and vice versa. Where herbal medicine is really strong, tends to be in areas, especially dealing with things like chronic degenerative disease where Orthodox medicine often has little to offer.
So when it comes to the individual, the patient, the client, the real win-win is understanding which is appropriate in a given situation. Herbs are not the answer to everything. Adaptogens are not the answer to everything, but then nor does Orthodox medicine have the answer to everything. So understanding which therapy, which treatments are most effective, most appropriate for a given situation, for a given person is essential.
Allan: 04:36 Now an adaptogen is not just a chemical compound they're pulling out of a plant to, to make a new medicine with its, it's actually using the whole plant. Right? Can, you can talk about adaptogens, what they are and what they do?
David: 04:50 Absolutely. And this is going to get slightly complex. Um, but I will do my absolute best to keep it as simple as possible. So initially, you know, in all these ancient systems of medicine, there are tonic herbs. So in Ayurveda they're called Rasanayas, in TCM, in traditional Chinese medicine, they're known as Chi Tonics or kidney youn tonics or blood tonics. But these traditional definitions of a tonic remedy do not necessarily equate to what we today call an adaptogen.
An adaptogen is a modern scientific concept developed initially in the Soviet Union. The initial research was done by Professor Lazaroff starting in the late 1940s. If you think, wow, they must've been very, you know, forward-thinking to do this kind of research. The reality was this was initially military research and the Russians were, the Soviets were trying to do what cruise chefs said, and that was to bury the West. They were trying to find ways to make better soldiers, better cosmonauts workers so that they could outdo us and literally win the cold war.
Basically what happens is the research eventually goes from the initially started looking at chemical substances and with Dr. Breckman who is considered the father of adaptogenic research. He switches over to looking at plants and they eventually settle on a plant called, at the time in the United States, we learned about it known as a Siberian ginseng, but the proper name for it is Eleutherococcus senticosus and that's where the initial research starts. And what they did is they first promoted a definition of an adaptogen using a very simplistic three parameters.
Number one, the plant was nontoxic in a normal therapeutic dose. Alright, so that's, that's fine. The problem with that is that describes almost every herb in the material Medica. I mean they ask, there are some toxic herbs, but most herbs are relatively benign in a normal therapeutic dose.
Secondly, they decided that these herbs would create what was called a nonspecific state of resistance to stress. So that means they help you to resist stress, whether that stress is psychological, physiological, or environmental. But the problem there is that other categories of herbs including nervines, which we think of as nerve tonics, things that are common also help you to deal with stress more effectively. So that doesn't really mean that is absolutely an adaptogen.
And thirdly that they would have what is called an amphoteric effect on the body, helping to normalize function of multiple systems, especially the endocrine system, nervous system, immune system as well as the cardiovascular and digestive systems. So that was the initial definition. And that last started, I think that was, that definition came out around 1969 so after that and the intervening where now 50 years later, the definition has changed.
Now those first three parameters are all still true, but they have added to the definition. So in the 1990s they determined that adaptogens work primarily through two master control systems in the body. One is called the HPA axis, that's the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. This is the master control system of almost all endocrine function, much nervous system function, immune function and what also what deals with chronic stress in our lives. And then the second system is called the SAS, the Sympathoadrenal System. And this is your fight or flight mechanism, which deals acute stress. So in order for an adaptogen to be an adaptogen, there has to be evidence that it is primarily working through one or both of these two master control systems. Further research showed us that adaptogens also work on a cellular level.
So what does this mean? It means that they do several things.
Number one, they help reduce stress hormone production. So that's especially cortisol, norepinephrine, and they help prevent cortisol induced mitochondrial dysfunction. So for instance, some of the conditions associated with stress induced mitochondrial dysfunction include things like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome, which is one of the reasons adaptogens can be so useful as part of a protocol for treating those conditions because underlying those conditions is basically elevated levels of stress hormones, specifically cortisol, which shuts down the mitochondria, which are the engines of yourselves. So if your mitochondria are not working, you are going to have all sorts of problems with fatigue, with muscle weakness, with muscle pain, uh, with cardiovascular issues and et cetera, et cetera.
And they do this, not only do they shut down the excessive production of cortisol, but they do it by up-regulating certain stress modulators in the body. These are noticing heat shock proteins, fork head proteins and something known as neuropeptide Y.
So in order for an herb to be an adaptogen, it has to do every single one of these things. Of course the ancients had no idea about any of these things. So when they are talking about a Rasanayas or a Chi tonic, you know, those things, some of them actually turn out to be adaptogens, but of course, many of them do not because they don't meet the parameters of today what we know is an adaptogen.
Allan: 11:02 Okay. So kind of my key takeaways from this is that that one, adaptogens don't just address one part of the body. Like I think in the book you talked about how tumeric actually supports the liver, a single organ versus actually supporting the whole body through the, you know, HPA and through the SAS Yes. Right. And then the other piece of it is it doesn't just push us in one direction. It's sort of a balancing, getting us more towards homeostasis than pushing us in one direction just because we're stressed trying to push us unstressed. It's literally just kind of trying to find that balance.
David: 11:42 Correct. Now I will say that turmeric by the way of course is not in adaptogens. The turmeric, it just doesn't work on the liver. A tumor has much broader implications. In fact, the majority of herbs have a wider sphere than just working on a single organ. But adaptogens you could, yes, I think your, your definition, think of them as almost systemic remedies, but they're primary effects are on endocrine nervous system and immune function. That is where, because that's of course what the HPA axis and the SAS, those are the things that they are affecting. Now of course the reality is is that the SAS also and the HPA axis also affect skin function. They also affect circulation. They also affect reproductive function, both male and female. So again, very wide ranging effects.
And at the same time you'd mentioned homeostasis. Adaptogens work in a really interesting way. So think of it this way. We, we, anybody who has had anatomy and physiology learned about homeostasis, where the body tries to maintain its normal balance. So some things are maintained in very, very tight, like your serum sodium levels, your blood serum, serum levels of sodium have to be maintained with a very, very narrow range. And so the body will work exceedingly hard to make sure that it stays there. And the idea of homeostasis is everything's tries to stay the same. Well, in reality, there is a second process known as allostasis that the body uses to maintain homeostasis and adaptogens also enhanced allostasis.
What is allostasis? So any of your listeners who have ever gone surfing, and you don't even have to be a surfer, you could go skiing, you could go ice skating, skateboarding, anything where you need really good balance. So if you got up on a surfboard and you stand absolutely still, as those waves are moving you in every direction, you're gonna stay on that board for about a second. In order to stay on the board, you start moving and shifting your body weight to compensate for changes. That is allostasis. Allostasis is the body's ability to change in order to maintain balance and adaptogens help in that process.
Allan: 14:16 Okay. So most of the book we're talking about stress, so we're talking about our body is going through, it'll can go through acute stress, which just basically means, you know, I see a bear and Oh, I've got run, versus chronic stress where my CFO is the bear and he's on me every single day. And so that stress just sticks with me and my fight or flight is basically every waking moment. Adaptogens can kind of help us with that. Right. So can you kind of talk through the stress reaction process and then how adaptogens can support us as we deal with chronic stress.
David: 14:53 They're working on multiple levels and that's where it gets a bit complicated because, just to give you an example: I mentioned earlier that among these sort of molecular chaperones or stress chaperones that adaptogens affect, we have what are called heat shock proteins. These are molecular chaperones. And so these molecular chaperones heat shock proteins protect, mitochondria from stress induced damage. Then they also regulate a chemical called FOXO. It's a fork head protein and basically FOXO basically is a neuro. FOXO is upregulated and it promotes the synthesis of proteins that inhibit the effects of stress. It helps detoxify cells. It also has been shown to enhance longevity. I also mentioned it basically up-regulates in neuropeptide Y, which is a neurotransmitter which has been shown to relieve anxiety.
It's been shown to inhibit pain perception. It lowers blood pressure, it inhibits addiction, it inhibits cortisol release. So those are just some of the compounds that it is affecting and having a broad ranging effect on the body. So when we are under stress, there is a whole cascade of cellular and organ response in the body. And adaptogens are saying to the body, think of adaptogens as sort of like a stress vaccine. Some people call it a stress memetic. In fact, what adaptogens do is they say to your body, stress is coming. So let's get ready for stress. In that sense, it's a little bit like going to the gym. So many of your listeners probably work out, maybe some of them are runners. You did the first time you ran, you didn't run a marathon, at least not if you were smart the first time you start running a short distance and then the next day you run again and again, or you go to the gym and you start off with a low amount of weights and a small amount of repetitions and you gradually work your way up to where your muscles become stronger. We are more stamina, more strength and the ability to do more
Adaptogens work very similar to this. They basically say to your body, stress is coming yet ready. And so the body builds up so that it is more prepared to deal with stress when the actual stress comes, whether that is an acute stress or a chronic stress. The one difference between adaptogens and say going to gym is that if you go to the gym and you don't go to the gym for two weeks, you may lose a little bit of strength and stamina, but you still have a significant long-term effect adaptogens to be taken regularly because the effect doesn't have a long term effect. So these are things you would take on a regular basis. And of course, which adaptogens and individual takes are going to depend on the specifics of that person because it's important to note that adaptogens are not a one size fits all phenomenon.
A lot of people think, Oh, you need an adaptogens, just take any one. Well, that's not true. There are stimulating adaptogens. There are calming adaptogens. There are heating adaptogens, cooling adaptogens, drawing adaptogens, moistening, adaptogens, nourishing adaptogens. And so the key is, and that's more of course, one of the reasons I wrote my book, is that I wanted people to understand what I would call the personality of each of these adaptogenic herbs so that you can figure out which one or ones, because remember, traditionally in all of the great systems of verbal medicine, herbs are never taken as simple as meaning one herb at a time. They're taking in complex formulas.
Why? Because we are dealing with complex people with complex problems. And so the idea is which adaptogens or adaptogens and the sort of supportive herbs or companion herbs for adaptogens such as nervines Nootropics, we'll talk about this more later, or restorative tonics that you take with them to help create something that is actually going to be beneficial and work for the individual. Great herbalists don't treat diseases. We treat people.
Allan: 19:17 Let's go ahead and jump ahead then and let's have that conversation about the nervines and the supporting components and, and, and the Nootropics. Let's get into those. Just a little bit so they know what we're talking about.
David: 19:29 Okay. So we just, we've defined what an adaptogen is and we'll talk more about them. But there are other, and I include this in my book, there are other herbs that I would call companion herbs to adaptogens. They work really well with adaptogens.
And so the three categories of these, and the first is nervines are nerve vines in England and these are calming herbs. I mentioned that briefly before and they basically helped restore the emotional foundation. So for people who are especially type A personality, for people who are emotionally labile, for people who have number ten reactions to number one problems. Nervines can be really useful along with perhaps calming adaptogens. For a person like that.
Then we have water known as no a tropics. Now I have to define this because nootropics, some people call them smart drugs.There are three different categories.
There are the chemical smart drugs, which are often designer drugs created in the laboratory with no history of previous use and no record of safety. Uh, I am very leery about these substances.
Then there are the supplement, nootropics and these include things like L-carnitine and things like that which have a very good safety.
And then there are our herbal Nootropics and there are a wide variety of herbal nootropics. These herbs tend to be neuro-protective. They are anti-inflammatory on neuro anti-inflammatories. They enhance cerebral circulation, they enhance memory, focus, concentration. And there is some evidence that at least some of them may help at least slow, if not possibly help prevent something like dementia or Alzheimer's. But that is a very, very preliminary.
Then we have what I would call restorative tonics. And these are basically herbs that are nutritive. They help to enhance overall function, but they do not meet the definition of an adaptogen. So now I'll mention a couple specifically.
We have herbs like the goji berry. Very, very popular herb. And the Chinese herb astragalus. Herbs like this are wonderful nutritive herbs, but they are not adaptogens, even though a lot of people tend to throw them in that category, unfortunately, they just don't meet those definitions.
Allan: 21:58 Okay. If I came to you as a client and generally, okay, you're just a general description, over 40 and high chronic stress and you were going to kind of put together a general protocol, what are some of the things that would be included in that protocol?
David: 19:17 Well, unfortunately, that's not enough of a definition, a description that I could come up with something because I need to know everything about you.
You know, as is somebody who is a patient of mine. I need to know not only their age and their weight and their blood pressure. I need to know their medical history. I need to know, I need to know everything I can about them, you know, and they would bring in their blood work from their physician and their diagnosis is that they have from their doctor. And you put together a protocol that is specific to the patient.
Because remember as I said, great herbalists don't treat diseases. Medical men, Western medicine focuses in on disease. We don't focus in on disease. We focus on creating protocols to help people be well, to help people prevent disease. To help people to gain maximal health, strength, longevity, et cetera. So, but what I would look at is, for instance, if you were somebody who was deficient and depleted, I might include some stimulating adaptogens and stimulating adaptogens would include things like, perhaps, Asian Ginseng or Rhodiola.
On the other hand, if you were really depleted, deficient, exhausted all the time, then I want to make sure I include some of the nourishing adaptogens. So there may be something like American Ginseng. If you were a type A personality, you know, you can't shut your mind off, then we might consider some of your calming adaptogens such as Ashwagandha or Schisandra. And so there are different ones that we would use.
And by the way, not every single person gets an adaptogen. And I don't want people to think that adaptogens are panaceas. Adaptogens are incredibly useful. Don't get me wrong, I do use them a lot, but I'm using a broad spectrum of herbs. Adaptogens are just one part of that. And I need your listeners to understand. Adaptogens are not a replacement for the foundations of health.
Foundations of health are adequate, good quality sleep, a good diet, exercise, healthy lifestyle choices. So if you are eating fast food three meals a day, only getting six hours sleep, running yourself ragged, training for a marathon, working in incredibly stressful job, and smoking, I don't care how many adaptogens you take, it is not going to make up for the fact that you are abusing yourself. And in fact at best it's going to simply allow you to abuse yourself a little bit longer until you finally collapse.
It's kind of the whipping the exhausted horse. You can make it go a little further, but it's going to collapse. So adaptogens are not a replacement for the foundations of health, but for the average American who is overfed under-exercised, not getting enough sleep, especially when it's a situation where, for instance, you're actually trying to take care of yourself, but maybe there's a new baby in the house.
You're not getting enough sleep. Or maybe you just graduated from a law school, passed your boards and you just hired on to a new law firm and they're expecting you to work 70 hour weeks. Or maybe you are in college and you're having to pull all-nighters and study, which I do not recommend as it reduces comprehension dramatically.
But you know, adaptogens under those circumstances where you mentioned the example earlier where your boss is on your case all the time and it's incredibly stressful and maybe you don't have the option to change. Maybe you're in a situation where you live in a small town where there's only one employer and you don't have a lot of options. Adaptogens can be incredibly useful. Again, helping to prevent stress-induced cortisol elevation, helping to reduce the stress-induced anxiety, helping to reduce the stress-induced elevation of blood pressure and the resultant of course, mitochondrial dysfunction that comes with elevated cortisol levels.
And I will point out that elevation of cortisol can come from lack of sleep, obesity or stress And chronically elevated cortisol levels not only basically shut down the mitochondria in the cells. Chronic elevation of cortisol is proinflammatory and of course all of our chronic degenerative disease is inflammatory in nature. It raises blood pressure, it interferes with sleep, it interferes with digestion, it decreases the immune response, and increases the growth of tissue including skin tags, benign prostatic hyperplasia in men, fibroids, uterine fibroids in women cancer, chronically elevated cortisol is really not good. And so anything we can do to help our body to reset and be at a, you know, a healthier baseline on a regular basis is going to a long term have profound positive implications for our health.
Allan: 27:31 So I guess the way I kind of take this, as you know, you can't just say, okay, I need ashwagandha. I need a Chinese Ginseng or Asian Ginseng root. I need American ginseng root and everybody needs that. The reality is you're going to have to kind of put together a protocol for yourself based on your own personal needs.
David: 27:51 That's actually true. You know, they're there. First of all, as I said, not everybody needs adaptogens, period. But if you do feel you need adaptogens, and again, that's one of the reasons I wrote the book is so that each herb has its own monographs. You can read about it and say, wow, does this make sense for me? And I often mentioned like, I often use it with this or that so that people can kind of get a sense if they don't have access to a clinical herbalist or a naturopathic physician who's trained in botanical medicine or a medical doctor who knows herbs. If they don't have access to someone like that. They can at least educate themselves so they can decide which of these things may, would be most appropriate for them. And again, not everybody needs them, but I would say that, you know, discounting cultures where they're either people are actively starving, suppressed or at war, Americans are some of the most stressed out people in the world.
Allan: 28:51 Absolutely. That's why I moved to Panama.
I define wellness as being the healthiest fittest and happiest you can be. What are the three strategies or tactics to get and stay well?
David: 29:07 Well, three, let's go back to the foundations of health that I just mentioned. In 1910, the average American slept slightly over nine hours per night. Now, the average American sleeps less than seven hours per night. In the intervening 100 plus years, we have not evolved to need less sleep. We're just chronically sleep deprived.
So number one, make sure that you get minimum seven hours sleep at night. Eight is definitely better. If you're sleeping more than nine hours a night, that suggests some issues. So somewhere between seven and nine hours is probably ideal. But the key important thing is when you wake up in the morning, do you feel refreshed? Do you feel rested? Because even if you're getting 12 hours sleep at night and you wake up in the morning and you feel tired, you're exhausted, then you have some type of sleep issue. And so it is absolutely essential that you figure out what that is.
Because, no matter what you have, if you have sleep issues, your chances of having a heart attack increase. If you have sleep issues, your chances of dying from cancer increase. If you have sleep issues, your blood pressure's going to increase. It gives sleep issues, your cortisol levels are going to increase. So sleep is foundational.
Number two, move and move a lot. We sit too much. We are not active. And of course some people are not as capable as you know, heavy exercise. I'm not talking about you have to run marathons, do what you can, whether it is swim, whether it is dance, whether it is practice yoga, move
Number three (I'm going to go beyond three). Eat a healthy diet and I'm astonished at what people think is a healthy diet. I have my patients fill out a three-day diet diary and I'll just sit there and scratch my head sometimes. Because people tell me, I think I eat pretty well. And so of course, food is foundational.
You know, they say as computers, garbage in, garbage out. Well, the diet is the same way. Garbage in, garbage out. You are dependent on your food for what Chinese medicines called the Gushi, the Gransha, the nutrients of that food to feed every cell in your body. And so eat healthy.
I am not a big fan of fad diets. I think that you need to figure out what works for you. And some people can be very healthy vegetarians and I've met people who just can't do that diet. So it's not like there's one diet that is good for everybody. You have to figure out what works for you. But what I can tell you very clearly is fast food, for instance, fried foods, a heavy, heavy meat diet, things like that are generally not good for almost anybody.
Then number four, emotional health. Emotional and spiritual health are, in my opinion, again, foundational. Having loved ones, whether it is anything from a companion animal to friends, to a life partner, to community, social networks. these are incredibly important. And I am a big believer in the power of a higher power, of having some type of spirituality in your life. I am not necessarily talking about a specific religion, but having something that you realize that you are a small part of something greater than ourselves. So having a meaningful ceremony, whether you think of it as the Gaia, the power of nature, God, or Allah, that to me is not as important. Of course for individuals I'm sure it is very important. Their spiritual and religious beliefs and that's great, but find something that works for you and works within your life.
And so for me, those sorts of things are absolutely foundational to health. And then we have other things that can add to that. And some of them, like nutritional supplements can be useful. Although I am much more interested in using herbs because I think they are more, much more bioavailable. And in a form that people can actually utilize more effectively. Those kinds of things. Stress reduction techniques are sort of built based on that foundation.
Allan: 33:49 Well thank you David. You know, one thing I'll say about the book is if anything and everything that you want to know about adaptogens, this is the book, that's called Adaptogens, but it literally you, you covered the history, you cover what they are, how they work. You know, all the different types. Cause there's, there's lots of them. You said there was 250,000 plant species that we've identified and we're just starting to learn how those can help us. But this book really, I think you could have called it the encyclopedia of adaptogens or the complete book with androgens. It really is comprehensive. And so if you're interested in adaptogens, I strongly suggest you check out David's book.
David, if someone want to get in touch with you, learn more about the book or things you're doing, where would you like for me to send them?
David: 34:33 Well, couple things. Number one, if anybody is interested in the book, they can get it. You know, simply from Amazon, if they like or their local bookstore. It's widely available. You can also contact me or reach me through to websites. There is my school, I have a two year urge studies program for people who want to train to be clinical herbalists and that is herbalstudies.net and then I also have a website which is an educational website where people can download free articles, information articles from my library, which is one of the largest private herbal research libraries in North America. Information on my classes where I'll be teaching around the world. I teach all over the US, Canada, Europe, occasionally central America, and that a website is herbaltherapeutics.net and those are the two are places that people can get additional information or contact.
I also have through, I believe it's herbal therapeutics website. I have a Facebook page where I do posts about every two weeks so people can tune into those posts and read the old posts every on thing. I'm mostly on the topic of herbal medicine and my travels and things like that. And so hopefully people will avail themselves. The book, Adaptogens, herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. This is the second edition and I think anybody interested in the topic will hopefully learn quite a bit and be able to make better choices for themselves in their use of adaptogens, nervines, nootropics, and restorative tonics.
Allan: 36:27 All right, you can go to 40plusfitnesspodcast.com/403 and I'll have the links there for the book for David's sites and all that.
David, thank you so much for being a part of 40+ Fitness.
David: 36:39 Thank you Alan. It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.