I was talking to a client the other day about the nature of the adaptogen herbs and I’m not sure that I gave a very comprehensive account of how incredibly useful they are. This got me thinking that an article about them might be an interesting read for aficionados of natural medicine.
Adaptogens are herbs that help the body to adapt to stress, support metabolic function and aid the recovery of balance within the body. They are unique in their ability to balance endocrine hormones, modulate the immune system and support metabolic processes. They have the potential of bi-directional activity producing changes by stimulating several systems in the body having the capability of either toning down those that are hyper-functioning or strengthening those that need activation (hypo-functioning). An example of bi-directional activity can be found in Asian ginseng. This herb contains ginsenoside Rg1 which stimulates the nervous system as well as Rb1 which calms it. In other words, adaptogens fine-tune the stress response by increasing adaptive energy! This may sound a bit out there but there are plenty of positive accounts of these superior healing herbs found in Chinese and Ayurvedic literature as well as a host of studies on their safety and efficacy for use in western natural medicine.
Many of the herbs I use on horses and other animals include the adaptogens because they can be so useful for the following reasons:
- they are capable of modulating or boosting immune response, the latter by triggering an increase of white blood cells;
- they have antioxidant actions;
- they can delay fatigue during exercise;
- they protect the heart muscle;
- they can lower and stabilize blood glucose levels;
- they can optimize fat utilization for energy;
- they have anti-stress qualities that aid the stabilisation of the neuroendocrine system.
When you look at this list it becomes apparent that the adaptogens can be used to great effect for a number of conditions affecting horses including fitness training, equine metabolic syndrome, Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance, and also strengthen the ability to withstand the pressures of physical and mental stress by enabling them to adapt quickly to challenges without succumbing to exhaustion and/or disease.
Having worked with the rehabilitation of traumatised horses, one area in particular that interests me is adrenal fatigue. The prevalence of this is hardly surprising when you consider the nature of the horse in the context of the flight mechanism. We continually ask our horses to act against their natural response by locking them up in stables and transportation for hours on end, then we expect them to react benignly to controlling gadgets such as saddles, tack whips and spurs, all of which act against the animal’s natural instinct to free itself from restraints. Is it any wonder that things can get out of hand both mentally and physically!
Adrenal fatigue is caused when the adrenal glands cannot meet the demands of chronic stress due to the diminished output of hormones from over-stimulation, subsequently producing a cumulative effect within the whole body. Chronic fatigue is the outcome of over-compensation when other areas of the body are forced to work harder. Adaptogens are extremely useful to aid the adrenal glands to shut down quickly and they support adrenal function by allowing cells access to more energy and preventing oxidative damage.
I’m of the opinion that adaptogenic herbs can be very useful, in combination with other herbs, for many aspects of equine management, especially when you consider that stress occurs in so many forms ranging from light tension to life-affecting conditions which can involve the physiology and psychology of the horse.
Les Rees Equine Naturopath