Adaptogens vs Rasayanas

Posted to Subscribers on 23 June 2013


Dear Subscribers,

Though this topic has been addressed from various angles in the past, it might be useful to try yet another approach. The term "adaptogen" came into existence in 1947 when a pharmacist in the former Soviet Union, Nicolai Lazarev, attempted to give a name to substances that improve the ability to cope with stress. The word found acceptance in the herbal community, but despite thousands of published papers, the medical community has been resistant to the concept. However, the FDA has allowed the use of the term as well as claims relating to functions associated with the use of adaptogens.

In general, adaptogens tend to be used to support the adrenals. The goal is to improve stamina and endurance so adaptogenic herbs and formulas are widely used by athletes as well as people who have to endure harsh conditions, such as danger, severe climates, and long periods of effort without sufficient down time. A good adaptogen will support the user without any unwanted side effects. Adaptogens are not stimulants and do not excite the nervous system. Adaptogens are safe; and the usual proof that they are working is that cortisol levels do not increase despite increased output of energy.

In addition, adaptogens help to mitigate the effects of chemical and biological exposures that might otherwise compromise health. They have to have great power to protect against damage. Obviously, their use would ideally begin before the stress, not after the fact, but they are used long-term by many people.

Just about every culture has its favorite adaptogen. Most of us have heard about ginseng use in China, Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan. However, there are several more really strong Chinese adaptogens: codonopsis is sometimes called the poor man's ginseng and is often substituted in formulas because it is so much less expensive. Ho shou wu and schisandra are two more wonderful adaptogens. Astragalus is also usually classified as both an adaptogen and immune enhancer.

In Russia itself, the most famous adaptogen is probably eleuthero root, formerly called Siberian ginseng, but since it is not actually a ginseng, this name is no longer used. Rhodiola is another popular Russian adaptogen Mumijo, the Russian shilajit, is an adaptogen and is widely used by athletes and special forces.

Going south, we have ashwagandha, an herb that is both an adaptogen and rasayana and perhaps somewhat surprisingly holy basil. All the aforementioned regions also use licorice in their traditional herbal medicines and it is, of course, also an adaptogen.

In the Andes, maca is the most famous adaptogen but now shilajit has been found in an uninhabited part of Northern Chile so surely this will find its way into the local culture as well as export market. Obviously, every region of the world must have herbs with adaptogenic properties. Just think of nomadic peoples who endure blistering sand storms or Laplanders in the Arctic with reindeer and snow or hunters in the Kalahari who might walk for weeks at a time without the comforts of family and tribe.

As we might expect, many adaptogens also have an effect on libido, and some might be androgenic in large quantities. This is not a risk for women unless the dose is very high and prolonged. Because of the interest in both safe and legal performance enhancing herbs, there is a tendency sometimes to confuse athletic endurance with sexual performance. The line is therefore a bit blurry so many herbs that are not officially considered to be adaptogens are sometimes touted as such when part of a male tonic. For instance, in Ayurveda, gokshura, Tribulus terrestris, and Kapi Kacchu, Mucuna pruriens, are often found in male potency formulas but rarely are they considered to be adaptogens, but some people on the internet are implying this to be the case.

Now, since we have been all over the map, let's tidy up the discussion by underscoring that adaptogens help us to deal with stress, both physical and emotional, without side effects. Generally speaking, they work mainly on the adrenals though they could have additional benefits. They are strengthening, normalizing, steadying, and incredibly safe, though it might be fair to say that in high doses, they are more suitable for long-term use for men than for women. However, that sentence really means long-term use, not occasional use, such as when a woman is working extremely long hours, as often happens when a family member is sick or going through a crisis.

Though adaptogens are not generally consciousness-altering, they are mood stabilizing. If half or more of what we experience in life is due to the attitude we have towards the events that are unfolding, then adaptogens are not the sorts of herbs one takes to enrich insight or cultivate a more benevolent view.

Rasayanas, on the other hand, are very much more suitable for such yogic endeavors. This cannot surprise anyone who knows anything at all about Indian culture. All rasayanas are longevity herbs though they are not performance enhancing in the physical sense as much as in the realm of more subtle activities such as the mind. It is probably somewhat fair to say that adaptogens are highly suitable for people trying to cope with the fast-paced modern world whereas rasayanas are more specific for people who need to recover after some injury or operation. They also are more geriatric in the sense that they are useful even when infirmities and senility have begun to rob people of their vitality and acuity. All rasayanas are also antioxidants and most help one to be more peaceful. They also generally support the memory, mind, and concentration. In short, rasayanas are regenerative and rejuvenating, They work on deep levels on all tissues of the body.

Shilajit is an excellent case in point because most of the Russian studies referred either to bones or endurance. Mumijo promotes healing of fractures and improves performance when under stress. However, shilajit is said to have the power to extend life to 100 or 1000 years and to enhance memory and spirituality. Obviously, there are no serious human studies of these claims, but the ancient literature gave the actual doses necessary in order to live 100 or 1000 years. One would probably have to be a maharaja to afford the doses!

There are literally thousands of studies of shilajit and yet no one really seems to know how it works. The best guess seems to be that fulvic acid promotes uptake of minerals that correct deficiency conditions. Obviously, there are no studies of 1000 year old people though it is alleged in the literature that shilajit is one of the substances used by yogis to endure the hardships of asceticism in the Himalayas. It is also alleged that the Sherpas use it, and no one ever got to the top of Mt. Everest without the help of hundreds of Sherpas.

Though the same terms are used for both Russian and Ayurvedic shilajit, the Russian shilajit is purified by water or chemicals whereas the Ayurvedic shilajit is purified using alchemical methods and heat. It is therefore neither raw nor live, but it is stabilized and has a shelf life of forever . . . as befits something that might in fact be hundreds of thousands of years old.

Many blessings,



Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2013


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Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2013

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