Ian Spohn, ND, is a staff naturopathic doctor for Energique who enjoys challenging the dogmas of both conventional and alternative medicine. He is a passionate supporter of the paleo diet and classical homeopathy.
It is ironic that just as the world seems to be emerging from one global catastrophe, as if on cue, another one comes along to take its place. The war between Russia and Ukraine has become a significant source of stress for many people around the world. In this case, the stress as well as the conflict’s geographic and historical associations may call to mind a specific herb, known for its role in stress relief. Long before Samuel Hahnemann developed homeopathy on the principle of like cures like, the herbalist Nicolas Culpeper remarked that “the thorn gives a medicine for its own pricking, and so doth almost everything else[i].” So if Russia has become a source of stress to the world, perhaps a remedy for the stress should come from that very land.
The herb redolent of the current conflict is none other than the adaptogen Eleuthero, which is native to the former Soviet Union and was extremely popular around the time of Ukraine’s Chernobyl disaster. It was so popular in fact, that after the incident both Russian and Ukrainian citizens exposed to the subsequent radiation were given Eleuthero[ii] as an adaptogen, to enhance resilience in the face of that stress. Although Eleuthero can increase the body’s resilience against virtually any stressor, meeting the definition of an adaptogen, it is perhaps for this reason that it achieved its specific notoriety for combatting the effects of radiation. Scientific research has validated this effect: one study found that when mice were given Eleuthero prior to receiving what should have been for them a lethal dose of radiation, 80% of them survived[iii].
Obviously, no one on earth is hoping to live through a World War III scenario, but aside from potential nuclear catastrophes, there are other reasons why Eleuthero can be useful to have on hand. It can help the body to cope with more mundane sources of radiation, for instance: airport body scanners, heightened levels of wifi exposure, and diagnostic imaging procedures. While ultrasound and MRI do not involve radiation, anything utilizing X-rays can be considered a significant stressor to the body. In addition to conventional plain X-rays, imaging procedures that expose the body to radiation include CT scans, PET scans, DEXA scans, scintigraphy, anything involving a barium contrast, and mammography. It is ironic that a procedure for breast cancer screening would involve exposing the breast tissue itself to radiation, a known risk factor for cancer, especially since self-breast exams have been shown to be as effective as mammograms for reducing breast cancer mortality[iv]. Still, when imaging procedures are necessary, if nothing else Eleuthero can support the body’s general adaptation response to the stress of radiation.
It is interesting that Eleuthero does not seem protective when administered to individual cells in vitro[v], in contradistinction to other adaptogen herbs like Panax ginseng. This suggests that Eleuthero is not acting along any cellular mechanism, but rather acts holistically upon the entire organism. So much of the research on herbs today is being done in vitro, focusing on the ability of a given extract to inhibit cancer growth, kill certain pathogens, induce various immune factors or decrease inflammatory markers, so it is becoming easy to forget that many herbs (and also many diseases) seem to act more upon the whole organism. Stress is an excellent example of this: if you tell a person their house was just destroyed in a fire (and assuming they believe you), the immediate effects on their heart rate, digestion, adrenal output, etc. can be devastating, even if you’re lying and nothing has actually happened to injure them whatsoever. Because even unjustified sources of stress can become sources of chronic worry, raising cortisol levels, it is entirely possible that an imagined fear with no basis in reality can deplete the adrenal glands, shrink the thymus, inhibit the immune system, and lower sex hormone levels. While stress is not considered a disease, no one would deny that it plays a significant role in many if not most health problems, which makes adaptogen herbs like Eleuthero so valuable.
Because adaptogen herbs by definition exert a general, non-specific action on the organism, virtually all of them can enhance resistance to virtually any source of stress. Research on adaptogen herbs typically shows them effective against a number of different stressors: cold stress, restraint stress, swim stress, toxin-induced stress, just about any torment scientists have devised to cause stress in rodents becomes less harmful when they are fed adaptogens. This broad utility becomes a double-edged sword however, in the sense that it is difficult to establish specific indications for the use of any given one. Because their generalized action suggests them to be vaguely useful in any situation, they also seem specifically indicated in none, and are therefore prone to be overlooked.
In some cases, a certain adaptogen will develop a reputation for being especially useful against one particular stressor, but this occurs mostly through happenstance. Eleuthero, for instance, was given to Russian citizens after the Chernobyl disaster, and has ever since been associated with enhancing resistance to the stress of radiation. But it is likely that Eleuthero was chosen only because it is native to Russia and its properties well known at the time, as a result of research done on Russian Olympic athletes, not because it has proven superior to other adaptogens against the effects of radiation. A certain mythos has settled upon Eleuthero, as illustrated by the following story I was told when I first learned about the herb: following the Chernobyl disaster, forced evacuation, and establishment of a so-called exclusion zone where the radiation levels were deemed too high to support human life, roughly one thousand people defied the Soviet government by returning anyway, clinging to their ancestral homeland where a hundred or so have managed to survive ever since. Interestingly, those who survived and continue to live there are overwhelmingly the elder women, who claimed the strongest ties to their native land. This is all true, though I was told the reason these elder women survived is that being wise in the ways of their ancestral homeland, they all knew about Eleuthero, and were using it to withstand the radioactivity. While this makes for an enchanting tale, because Eleuthero is indeed native to what was the Soviet Union, in truth Eleuthero is only found growing in far eastern Siberia and Central China, and in fact nowhere near Ukraine or the lands near Chernobyl. So that part of the story is probably untrue, but it serves to illustrate the mythos surrounding the herb, as well as the general tendency to erroneously conflate the identity of people with the absurd political boundaries used to unite or at the moment, divide them. It also remains true that Eleuthero does enhance resistance to the stress of radiation[vi], just possibly not any more than other adaptogens.
This being said, most adaptogens have developed reputations for being especially useful in certain contexts, or have associated themselves with an affinity for specific organ systems. Ginseng, both Asian and American, has been well studied for its effect on sex hormone levels, both balancing and boosting them. Ashwagandha, besides being a general adaptogen, is also used to support healthy sleep and seems to have an affinity for the nervous system, while Astragalus seems to offer additional benefits for the heart and circulatory system. It’s tempting to think of Ashwagandha as more of a nerve-support adaptogen, and Astragalus as more of a blood-building adaptogen, with Ginseng acting more directly on the endocrine system, though in truth these indications may significantly overlap. Within this scheme however, such as it is, Eleuthero may be seen as an immune-supporting adaptogen, making it especially relevant for modern times. In truth all of them would be relevant, just as all of them can support the immune system under conditions of stress, but Eleuthero is particularly well-researched for its effects on the immune system. It has been shown to reduce sick days in factory workers[vii] and prevented bacterial infections in animals, but only if administered prior to the pathogen exposure[viii]. When given to animals already infected, Eleuthero actually worsened the symptoms, for which reason the Russians consider it contraindicated during the acute phase of infection[ix]. This implies that Eleuthero acts directly in support of immune function, and is reason to believe that among the adaptogens, it truly has this affinity.
Eleuthero is arguably the original adaptogen, being the first plant popularized as such since the term was coined. Perhaps for this reason it has faded into the background, overshadowed by an increasing range of newer, trendier adaptogens – Ashwagandha, American Ginseng, Maca, Schisandra, Rhodiola, Holy Basil, and a number of increasingly popular mushrooms, like Cordyceps, Chaga, Reishi, and Maitake. With so many current options to choose from, it’s tempting to simply join the enthusiasm behind the latest adaptogen trend. All of the above herbs have tremendous benefits and seem to increase non-specific resistance to stress, but each of them also has its own unique profile, and for an individual patient one might be better indicated than another. For this reason, it’s important to become familiar with all of them, and remember the old ones as well as the new.
[ii] Dupler D, Frey R, Odle T. Ginseng, Siberian. Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Accessed online 3/31/22 at https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ginseng-siberian
[iii] Miyanomae T, Frindel E. Exp Hematol 1988; 16(9):801-806
[iv] Mammography no better than physical breast examination, study shows. BMJ. 2000;321(7264):788.
[v] Ben-Hur E, Fulder S. Am J Chin Med 1981; 9(1):48-56
[vi] Miyanomae T, Frindel E. Exp Hematol 1988; 16(9):801-806
[vii] Farnsworth NR, Kinghorn AD, Soefarto DD et al. Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus): current status as an adaptogen. In: Farnsworth NR et al (eds) Economic and medicinal plant research, vol 1. Academic Press, London, 1985, p.178
[ix] Baranov AI. J Ethnopharmacol 1982; 6(3):339-353.
Any homeopathic claims are based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence. Not FDA evaluated.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.