Part 2: The Power of Adaptogens: Unlocking Their Potential for Better Health



In this episode, Wilson speaks to David Winston of Herbalist & Alchemist, who is the world’s leading expert on adaptogens. In this episode, they discuss:

  0:18: How practitioners can best help their patients understand the use of adaptogens.

  1:15: Energetics, primary and secondary uses. Look at each adaptogen, and if it makes sense for you.

  6:11: Treating the person, not the problem.

  7:33: Treating people with chronic stress, the rise in interest in adaptogens.

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Good morning, David, how are you doing today?



I'm wonderful, Wilson, how are you?



Excellent. Thank you for joining me on Herbal Explorations to discuss all things adaptogens. For those that don't know David Winston's work, he's a herbalist and teacher that blends herbs from many different herbal traditions to create what I consider truly unique formulas at Herbalist & Alchemist. I consider him the foremost expert on adaptogens. Prior to reading your book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, it's no longer my opinion, but fact.



Yes. And I think that's an excellent explanation of that. And how can practitioners best help their patients understand the use of adaptogens? We talked about a lot of times people start understanding, "Oh, I read about this latest thing or this is adaptogen," and they go to their practitioner and say, "Hey, I want to get into this thing and start this adaptogen regimen." What would you say? How can practitioners help people understand whether adaptogens are for them or which ones they should be taking?



So I'm going to start off by telling you an actual story from my clinical practice. So I had a patient many years ago, and he was telling me this story. He had been to the doctor, and he had to take his little son with him. And they're leaving the doctor's office, and his little son grabs his pant leg and tugs and says, "Daddy, Daddy, we forgot to ask the doctor something." He said, "What? What did we forget to ask the doctor?" He said, "We forgot to ask the doctor if Cialis is right for you."


So the point is, is the adaptogen right for you? So does it make sense for that person? So somebody who we were talking about, like with Rhodiola who's easily over stimulated, or has yin deficiency is most certainly not appropriate for that person. One of the broad parameters that I would say is, for instance, I think of ... And I'm going to give you sort of my ginseng and ginseng-like plant schedule.


So for eleuthero, I think of eleuthero being most appropriate for people who are 15 to 35 years old. They have all their vital energy. They're strong. They're well. Except they're undergoing some persistent stress. New baby in the house. You just passed the bar, and you got hired by a law company, and they expect you to work 70 hours a week. You're in college and you're pulling all nighters for finals. You are an athlete and you're running marathons. There is a significant amount of physiological or psychological stress in your life, and you need something to help you deal with that. Eleuthero works perfectly well. Would I give eleuthero to a 70 year old? Unlikely.


So then we have American ginseng. American ginseng is the least stimulating and probably the least powerful of the three Panax species. And by the way, there is also a Vietnamese ginseng, and there is a Japanese ginseng, and the evidence suggests that both of them are also adaptogenic except they're just not commercially available as far as I'm aware.


So American ginseng is moistening. It is deeply nourishing. It is not particularly stimulating. And unlike white Asian ginseng, which is warm, and red Asian ginseng, which is actually hot, the American ginseng, people say it's cooler. So people think it's cold. It's not. It's neutral to slightly warm. So I think of American ginseng as being most appropriate, again, for people who are maybe 40 to 60.


They're basically in good health, but they've started noticing that jet lag is harder to deal with. They're more sensitive to temperature. They're more sensitive if they get a poor night's sleep. They're starting to notice some of those first signs that happen as you get older where you just don't quite have the energy reserves, the qi, the jing, that you had when you were younger.


And there are exceptions to all this. So if I have somebody who's 24 years old, and is cold all the time, and depleted, and deficient, and has what I would call deficient insomnia, they don't have the energy to sleep, I might be giving them red ginseng. So don't assume that these are hard and fast categories. But Asian white ginseng I tend to use for people who are more like 50 to 70. They've definitely started to lose some of that vital energy. They may have started to have some myocardial issues, fatigue, tiredness, impaired sleep quality, things like that.


And then the red ginseng I tend to use for people who are 70 and older. But again, I could use it for somebody who's 24 if they fit the pattern. They're cold. They may have things like mild congestive heart failure, deficient insomnia. These are people that really need something that is deeply nourishing, deeply stimulating. And the thing about insomnia, you have somebody with excess insomnia, you give them red ginseng, and they're up all night. You have somebody with deficiency insomnia and you give them red ginseng, and they sleep wonderfully because it gives them that deep energy so that they can sleep and go into delta sleep where the body heals.


And so that is just a really broad little outline, but it gives you a sense of a time and place, and you're really looking at the person. Age is actually a secondary thing. You're really looking at the person. How deficient are they? How depleted are they?

If we look at another adaptogenic herb, for instance, something like Rhaponticum, rhaponticum is probably the most anabolic of all of the adaptogens, and so builds muscle mass.


So you have somebody who's elderly with muscle wasting, or you have somebody who's younger but is doing things that require a tremendous amount of physical activity ... Again, athletes, marathoners, somebody who's working a job that is just ... A miner, whatever. Then that probably would be more appropriate for them. The biggest problem with rhaponticum is it's really hard to get decent quality rhaponticum. There is some stuff coming out of Canada that I've seen that is actually pretty nice, but most of the rhaponticum comes out of Russia. And at the moment, I think most of us are probably not wanting to buy anything coming out of Russia.






So you're really looking at each adaptogen and if it makes sense for you. And, again, I guess the third reason I wrote the book is I tried to give really nice monographs on each adaptogen so that we could paint a picture so people would get a sense of, okay, this is really where this herb shines. So you see what I would call the personality of the plant. And it's the energetics, yes. It's also the chemistry. It's the primary uses, the secondary uses. What is it doing? How is it doing it?


And then you look at the person and you say does it make sense for the person? Not the name of the disease, because you can have five people all diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. They're not five rheumatoid arthritis's. So just like in TCM or Ayurveda, they're not going to get the same treatment. Well, any good herbalist, if they're treating diseases, your level of efficacy is going to be poor. Hippocrates said more than 2000 years ago, and he was right then, and it's correct now, it's more important to know the person that has the disease than the disease the person has.



It's absolutely true. You treat the person, not the problem. So last question of the day. Thank you for such an enlightening discussion and overview of adaptogens. In recent years, even before the pandemic but especially during the pandemic, there's this explosion in adaptogens. What do you think accounts for that?



Well, I would say there are several factors. Number one, this last two and a half year period has, I think, for many people been one of the most stressful periods of their entire life. None of us have dealt with, unless somebody was alive, and if they were alive, they were probably really young, they're still alive, the 1918 flu epidemic. We really haven't dealt with anything. We've had some smaller scale epidemics, and we've had some diseases that have affected specific countries or populations, but nothing quite like this. And so it's been incredibly stressful.


And while probably a good 15 or so percent of the population in normal times is anxious or depressed, that number pretty much doubled during COVID. And I don't know about where you are in California, but here, I have good news. The pandemic is over, or at least the people around here are acting like it is over. Unfortunately, it is not. Virtually nobody wears masks. Nobody is taking any precautions whatsoever, unfortunately. And a lot of people have just kind of gone back to their normal lives.


But for a good part of that two year period, there was just a tremendous amount of stress. And so that's one reason that people are looking for adaptogens and other herbs, like your nervines. Things like fresh oat, American skullcap, chamomile, lemon balm and lavender and things like that. People are looking for those kinds of things because they are wound tight at the moment.


Plus, of course, with the pandemic, you had not only the fear of getting COVID, but there's addition issues, economic issues. Lots of people lost jobs, at least initially. And then of course, there's the constant fear if you think that way, about the possibility of getting COVID. I will tell you clinically, in the past four or five months, I've treated at least six people who got mild COVID who had minor symptoms and now have severe long COVID. So the fact that somebody had a mild case of COVID is not a guarantee that everything is going to be okay.


And so there is certainly that. We live in a crazy, complicated world, and so just speaking about the US and not talking about other parts of the world, but we live in a culture that is deeply divided, where anybody who thinks differently from you now is not just somebody with a different opinion, they're now the enemy. They're on the other side. They're on the other team. Successful countries need to find a way to realize that we're all in the same boat together, and we don't need to all think the same, we don't need to all believe the same, but we need to have respect for one another, and try to find some common ground. But that has kind of disappeared.


And so politically, economically they're talking about possible recession, on so many levels, we are dealing in an incredibly stressful time. And of course then there is the whole advertising thing, which then goes into what we talked about earlier about people calling things adaptogens that aren't adaptogens, or sticking adaptogens in things that make no sense for an adaptogen. You don't need to use adaptogens in your cereal. You don't need adaptogens in your soda. The amount that they're going to put in there is probably close to homeopathic, so it's unlikely to be of any benefit anyway.


The point is that they are wonderful remedies for people who are experiencing chronic stress or long term acute stress. And so that's one of the reasons I think that adaptogens have gotten such an incredible push over the last several years. Plus more and more people are utilizing the term, whether correctly or not, and so there's greater consumer awareness that there is this category of substance. Because a lot of people wouldn't even necessarily know that they're necessarily herbs. I'm sure there's people out there talking about adaptogenic vitamins and stuff like that.


Although, I will tell you there is actually some very early preliminary evidence that suggests there may actually be a supplement that is adaptogenic, and that's melatonin. Which is really interesting. But don't don't say, "Oh, he said it is." I'm not saying it is. I said some very early preliminary suggestions maybe. But for the most part, we're talking about plant medicines. We're talking about herbs.


And so I think for all of those reasons, adaptogens have found their way into the marketplace, and everybody thinks they need an adaptogen. Which, again, not everyone does. If you're really anxious, yes, there are calming adaptogens like ashwagandha or cordyceps, which are calming adaptogens. Schisandra is a calming adaptogen, although maybe two or one or two people out of a hundred will take a schisandra and get stimulated by it. But for most people, it's actually a gentle, calming agent. Wonderful for that.


So there are some calming adaptogens, but then again, we have these other categories of herbs, like the nervines, or if we're in the UK, nervines, which are really appropriate for dealing with anxiety. Or our anxiolytics like bacopa, suan zao ren, ziziphus seed, gou teng, gambir, we have things like lavender and rosemary and holy basil, which are phenomenal anxiolytics. We have things like lavender and rosemary and holy basil, which are phenomenal anxiolytics. And so, again, the more you can treat the person, not just the disease, and the more you look at this herb or combination of herbs and match it to the person, the more clinically successful you are going to be every single time.


Yeah, you don't need to know the energetics. If somebody has wart, you're treating a topically. If you have a good wart remedy, stick it on there. But for most conditions, and, again, things like poison ivy, I don't know the energetics. A wart. I don't need to know the energetics. But if you are dealing with chronic stress, if you are dealing with autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, if you are dealing with chronic skin problems, arthritis, et cetera, there is no arthritis herb. There is no depression herb. So people hear these little soundbites of information.


St. John’s wort, has become the depression herb, and saw palmetto was the prostate herb, and black cohosh is the menopause herb. There's only one problem with each one of those statements that I just gave you. They're wrong, wrong, and wrong. St. John’s wort, from an herbalist perspective, I categorized depression under 14 different subtypes of depression. And in TCM, you have the same kind of thing where you're looking at the underlying cause. Is it liver chi stagnation?


What is the cause of the depression? Treating depression, whether you're using Prozac or St. John's Wort, at best, it's going to be about 40% effective unless you treat the person who is depressed. So St. John's wort works for three of the more than 14 types of depression. Black cohosh, it has some benefit for menopausal symptomology, but as a simple, most women are going to be underwhelmed. And you're going to say, "You ever try herbs?" And they say, "Oh, yeah. I tried black cohosh. It didn't really help very much."


Because, again, you're trying to treat a symptom with a simple, with a single herb. And the same thing is true with saw palmetto. Saw palmetto is useful in a formula for a benign prostatic hyperplasia, but by itself, it is underwhelming. And so what happens with those little soundbites of information is people try herbs based on that, and more than often, they are disappointed, and they think, "Eh, I tried herbs. They don't work." That's not herbal medicine. That's an allopathic use of herbs, or more or less herbal marketing.



Yes. A lot of it is because there's this marketing perception of what it should do, and it should do it under certain conditions, and you fit that pattern, and the person has to be very specific into that pattern. So I think that's amazing. I got two closing comments.


One is: schisandra is very calming unless you take it and chew it. And I do a lot, and the five flavors really will give your system a nice little temporary shock, then you relax. But chewing it really makes it fun. I just love how that herb tastes, although it's not for everyone to chew. I think you're right, adaptogens are the category of herbs for these stressful times, and I think it's just so much stress in the world out there that it's a great category to span and explore and see what you need and how it can help specific people with specific issues. So I love it.


Thank you so much for your time and your knowledge. Really appreciate it. And thank you for writing the book. And I recommend anyone that really wants to do a deep dive to get the newest edition, the updated expanded edition. It has so much information there. It is so well written. And thank you for your time, David.



Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to speak with you today.