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The Excitement of Adaptagens

By Laurel Redmon, 2005

In the early 20th century, American allopathic medicine experienced a paradigm shift from looking at people constitutionally to a focus on allaying specific symptoms. This cultural climate still exists, and informs most mainstream drug and herbal therapy. Tonic herbs with their food-like properties fell into obscurity until only recently.

In our current century, herbs stand poised to guide the way to more holistic and prevention-based medicine. Herbal tonics increase an organism’s strength and efficiency, curing symptoms on a broader, more profound level by addressing root causes of illness and weakness.  To understand this process, it is helpful to consider a few fundamental differences between herbs and drugs.

Herbal remedies can be contrasted to drugs on multiple levels.  For instance, drugs often contain just a single compound that has been synthesized and concentrated.  Herbs can contain upward of 300 constituents per single agent.  This lessens the frequency and severity of side effects in the case of the herb.  In this context, Tonic herbs can be thought of as super-nutritious foods, with affinities for Qi, Blood, Yin or Yang versus a single chemical bonding to a receptor site. Thinking about the number of chemical constituents in even a simple formula can be mind-boggling.

Though factors such as growing conditions and processing can further change “ingredients” in an agent, we are able to trust a long lineage of superior doctors who have observed effects of different herbs over centuries. For example, some useful plants contain toxic compounds.  They may be used in minute doses (a low dose botanical) to affect major change in an acutely or seriously ill organism. The historic pharmacopeia of Chinese Herbalism include agents spanning toxic minerals and gems to fruits and grains that have no lethal dose.

Of the tonic herbs there is a distinguished group called adaptagens, what I term the “Emperor herbs”.  Adaptagenic herbs are distinguished by especially low toxicity and the ability to support multiple organ systems. Another uniting factor in this group of plants is that they assist the body’s ability to adapt to stress.  Stress occurs in multiple forms: in our culture major stressors are physical, emotional and chemical.  Even free radical damage to cells caused by processed foods and hydrogenated fats can be considered a stress on the body.  Few substances have the ability to offset these stressful factors in this manner.  Indeed, medicinal mushrooms have an ability to treat diseases including cancer (via shrinking tumors and increasing various white blood cells) and prevent the manifestation of said disease in healthy people.

 Not all adaptagens are placed in traditional tonic categories in the Chinese pharmacopia: for instance, Dan Shen /Salvia miltiorrhiza is classed as a blood-invigorating herb but has been the focus of extensive modern research confirming its adaptagen status. Its impressive breadth of application includes anxiety, angina, Reynaud’s symdrome and emphysema. Similarly, there will be many more discoveries in the future that expand the number of herbs in this special category. (The table below is in no way exhaustive.)

With some basic knowledge of your patient’s constitution via classical diagnostic techniques including looking, listening and touching, adaptagens are safe to use as a single agent.  Formulas, while indispensable, can carry a greater risk of side effects and necessitate a more thorough course of study. The Emperor herbs are an excellent starting point to enjoy the benefits of Chinese tonic therapy. Athletic, sensitive or generally health-conscious people can feel the benefits, which have been likened to feeling stronger, more solid, content and enjoying increased endurance.  Simply put, adaptagenic herbs are safe agents that prevent disease of all stripes and promote well-being and longevity.  Who would want to live without them?





Special Functions


(1-3x daily decoc-tion)


wu jia pi/

wu jia shen

Eleutherococcus sentinosis




Liver and Kidney

Treats wind dampness

Strengthens bones and tendons

Diuretic, slightly Sedative, Antineoplastic


Regulates blood pressure: treats hyper- and hypotension.

ling zhi


Ganoderma lucidum






Nourishes heart,

Calms spirit, tones Qi and  blood, stops wheezing

Asthma and allergies, hepatitis and heart disease



antineoplastic, antibiotic, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol

ren shen


Radix ginseng



slightly Bitter

slightly Warm



Nourishes yuan qi, spleen and lung qi, generates fluids, calms spirit, nourishes blood, treats exterior conditions with deficiency

Shock, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, heart disease, facilitates childbirth


Modern research indicates similar function for leaf, stem and fruit of ginseng plant - a much more sustainable option

dong chong xia cao



Sweet Warm



Tones kidney yang and essence.  Nourishes lung qi. Stops cough and wheezing

Tinnitus, renal disease, sexual dysfunction and fertility enhancement 


Modern use for cancer, high blood pressure and cholesterol.  The cultivated form is much cheaper and perhaps more therapeutically consistent.

xi yang shen


Radix panacis quinquefolii








Nourishes qi and yinyin.  Generates fluid and clears heat

Counteracts damage caused by radiation


More yin-toning and heat-clearing than ren shen.  Better for typical American constitutions (yin deficient with heat).

dang shen


Radix codonopsis





Nourishes the spleen and lung, tonifies yin and blood

Increases macrophages and red blood cells.  Can arrest dysfunctional uterine bleeding.


Can prevent and treat ulcers, even caused by NSAIDS.  Regulates blood pressure like wu jia shen.  A sweeter herb, could cause stagnation.


wu wei zi


Fructus schisandrae chinensis






Astringes lung qi (stops cough and wheezing). Nourishes the kidneys, generates fluid and stops abnormal sweating.

Astringes jing, stops leaky yin. Calms spirit.

Promising to treat hepatitis, asthma and Meniere’s disease.  Not for excess and acute external conditions


A cold-hardy flowering vine known as Magnolia vine in horticultural commerce,  has a broader market than most Chinese herbs and medicinal foods.



To summarize this table, a person with Liver and Kidney Yin deficiency with a propensity to wind-cold-dampness could use wu jia shen.

For hepatitis or deficient asthmatic conditions, especially with insomnia or anxiety, ling zhi and wu wei zi would be good choices.

In cancer treatment, support or prevention, xi yang shen, dan shen and medicinal mushrooms are appropriate.  In addition to ling zhi, hei mu er, bai mu er, fu ling and dong gu (shiitake) are therapeutic in this application.

For cardiovascular support/disease prevention xi yang shen and dan shen can help both hypertension and hyperlipidemia.

For mental clarity and to decrease chances of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, use ren shen and dang shen.

To support athletic performance and physical endurance, use dong chong xia cao and wu jia shen, herbs trusted by Chinese Olympians.

In situations with anemia, blood deficiency or poor circulation, try dan shen and dang shen.  This combination nourishes and invigorates the blood.


 References and suggestions for further reading:


Bensky, Dan / Gamble, Andrew. Chinese Herbal Medicine; Materia Medica. Eastland Press: 1993

Chen, John / Chen, Tina Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. Art of Medicine Press Inc.:


Foster, Steven / Yue, Chong Xi. Herbal Emissaries. Healing Arts Press: 1992

Hobbs, Christopher. Medicinal Mushrooms. Botanica Press: 1986

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