Why adaptogens are central to all healing

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

When we think about treating illness in different ways, the goal is always to expeditiously return the body to a higher state of health and functioning. Unfortunately we usually just settle for a reduction in our symptoms, without the restoration of proper functioning.

In that process of returning to health, I think one of the most useful notions from Traditional Chinese Medicine is the idea of root and branch. Very often when I treat clients with a variety of symptoms, the are surprised to find that seemingly unconnected issues have a common root cause, and by addressing the deeper roots of their condition, many symptoms disappear without having to treat them specifically.

The reason for this is that there is a hierarchy of functions in the body. Our central control system for the vast majority of the processes in the body is the central neuroendocrine axis, usually comprised of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain, the thyroid, the adrenals, and either the testes or ovaries. This is sometimes referred to as the HPA or HPAT (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-thyroid) axis. They hypothalamus is the control center in the brain that gets feedback through nerves and the blood stream on a multitude of data from throughout the body - temperature, inflammation, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc - and directs impulses through the nervous system to adjust the activity of organs, hormones, and immune cells throughout the body.

This central HPAT axis is vital to regulation throughout the entire body, yet the majority of medical care does not directly assist or restore its functioning if it is not behaving correctly - mostly because it simply does not have the tools to do so. If there is inflammation, we have a panoply of drugs (and herbs as well, if one chooses to go that route) that can block certain types of inflammation, but the ultimate regulator of inflammation is this central axis. Simply putting something in the system that block pain and inflammation like ibuprofen or turmeric may help a particular symptom, but they are still just treating the branch, not necessarily the root cause.

It is always important to help heal this central HPAT axis in any chronic condition because it has the most leverage for regulating dysfunction in the body, and ultimately if it is not working correctly, all other treatments will simply be wagging the dog, unless it is minor peripheral issue for the body (like a local injury). So what can be done to help this axis? There is a classification of herbs known as adaptogens that were identified by researchers in the 20th century that had the ability to profoundly restore functioning in this central system. When stress, aging, trauma, infections, or any number of serious insults to this system cause systemic dysregulation, these botanicals have the power to restore and rebalance the entire system when they are administered properly. They are the epitome of restorative medicine.

The herbalist Donald Yance wrote a masterful book on the subject of herbal adaptogens, and references a great deal of research backing up their use, so I won't go into great detail. But suffice to say, adaptogens should take a central role in the healing of most chronic conditions, because they can so profoundly restore the central control centers of our body that regulate nearly every organ system, including the immune system, digestive system, our metabolism, and many others. Adaptogens include herbs like Eleuthero, Ashwagandha, Ginseng, Schisandra, Rhodiola, and many others.

In Chinese medicine, we frequently use adaptogens in our herbal formulas as the central herbs to treat a root dysfunction, alongside assistant herbs that help treat the branches as well. This results in a powerful, well rounded treatment approach that truly helps restore health, not just suppress symptoms.

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