Herbalists are well familiar with the idea of multi-role materials. Consumers - the users of herbal medicines - seem readily to accept that an herb has many roles. For example, a cup of chamomile tea is readily accepted to have painkilling, anti-inflammatory effects as well as being soothing and calming.
- Cause and Effect
Chemists, on the other hand - those who practise allopathic medicine - do not like this approach. Rather, they look for single isolated chemicals with defined effects. Aromatherapy too has been moving in this direction. These single chemicals may then be described as the 'actives' or active part of the plant. For example, in Chamomile, the laboratory may isolate bisabolol and say that it is the substance that causes Chamomile to be anti-inflammatory. Certainly, bisabolol is an anti-inflammatory, but an herbalist would not accept that this single constituent is the sole reason why Chamomile works. The herb may well address the cause of the inflammation rather than reducing the effect of the cause - the inflammation.
Those trained in aromatic medicine or in Aromatherapy will also know that many essential oils also exhibit widespread activity. Lavender is the classical example, which seems to do everything. Such wide-ranging capacities are hard for mainstream chemists to accept. Even more difficult is a substance like Geranium. The classic textbooks on Aromatherapy point out that Geranium is not only multi-role but adapts to the needs of the person. It is often described as having hormone-like activity. Geranium, in some ways, is a misnomer as the Geranium used botanically is a Pelargonium. As any plantsman will point out, Pelargoniums with scented leaves are huge mimics. The Geranium familiar to aromatherapists is Pelargonium Roseum - the plant that smells of roses. Pelargoniums, however - according to their species - can virtually smell of anything, from Eau de Cologne to Vanilla.
The chameleons of the plant world are not common, but a number do exist. Mints, for example, similarly exhibit a wide variety of smells. Classically, Peppermint is so called not because it smells of mint (accurately, spearmint) but rather because it smells of pepper. Eucalypts too, often demonstrate quite wide-ranging odours not apparently associated with the genus itself.
Taking things a little further; non-aromatic plants too seem to have multi-role properties, depending on the perception of the individual. Many of these herbs fall under the definition of ‘tonic’. When pressed, many of us find it difficult to explain what a tonic means. I have found that usually people end up describing it as a 'pick-me-up' or perhaps as something that eliminates toxins from the body. Either way, a change from the present state is implied.
Today, we find the term adaptogen applied to such plants. Numerous studies have shown that certain plants or their materials have an ability to promote 'non-specific resistance' within the human being. Put another way, it is generally accepted that the idea of stress is at the bottom of many of our ailments and problems. As the cell forms the basis of our health and wellbeing, it follows that cellular stress contributes to our wearing out faster - in other words, premature ageing. Adaptogens therefore help us to adapt to stress and normalise our normal biochemical activity.
- Cellular Stress
Aromatherapists have long-promoted the idea of cellular communication as the real reason why aromatic medicine works. Of course any plant contains vitamins, minerals, proteins, oils etc. – a wide variety of active substances. Yet it is not always their analysis that provides the reason why they are effective. Rather it is their complexity, and that old hippy word synergy that makes them work in combination. One scientist working in the field of nutrition - I Breckhman, writing in the Annual Review of Pharmacology, stated that plants are rich in ‘structural information’. Such statements reinforce the traditional view that wellbeing is supported by more than chemistry alone.
When the body is placed under stress, action happens at a cellular level. Cells are not buried deep within us but are right at the surface - our skin. Sometimes when we talk about the living cell, it’s almost as if they are divorced from us; some sort of powerhouse built deep within us. Of course, cells are everywhere and make us up. They are what we are made of. So, when the body is placed under stress, beta-lipo-proteins are increased in the cell walls, blocking the passage of energy. These beta-lipo-proteins block hexokinase – an enzyme that is used in the transformation of glucose. Glucose, of course, is an energy source. Adaptogens prevent the formation of beta-lipo-proteins and so the activity of hexokinase is not inhibited, and glucose is converted into energy for the cells.
Some of the latest scientific evidence shows that adaptogenic substances can increase the ability of the cell to manufacture and use cell fuel more efficiently in periods of stress and strain - this researched by Avery in 1995. In particular, these substances appear to increase the capacity of the cells to use energy by activating MRNA (messengers) and TRNA (transporters). According to Avery again, adaptogens also act as antioxidants, protecting cellular membranes.
- Life’s a GAS!
If stress is at the root of many problems - including premature ageing – it is also the source of many other problems that the human organism manifests, whether that be diseases of the immune system such as arthritis, or skin problems (something as simple as contact dermatitis, or more complex like acne). An Austrian medical researcher, Hans Seyle, produced a model of stress called GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome). His findings showed that whenever the human organism is challenged by anything from overwork, lack of sleep, emotion, poison, viruses etc., the immune system reacts not only in a specific way but also in a non-specific way. GAS showed our reactions to be in three stages – alarm, adaptation and exhaustion. Assuming that we survive the first stage, the body adapts to maintain the equilibrium that it requires for life. That means that certain organs of the body are stimulated into increased activity. If the stress continues, sooner or later it becomes exhausted. What this means is that the body’s adaptive qualities are exhausted at a cellular level and the organism begins to break down, just like a computer on shutdown. What happens is that chronic fatigue or illness sets in. Eventually the body dies. The problems began at a cellular level where the cell was no longer able to adapt to the stress of whatever that may have been. A large proportion of all ageing diseases (perhaps 70-80%) occur because stress levels are too high and/or are long term. Certainly, high stress results in premature ageing.
To illustrate how we do not understand stress, wellbeing, health etc., the well-known American herbalist Christopher Hobbs wrote;
“A dog is barking outside your window, and after two sleepless nights, patience is short. You get up, open the door and yell “Be Quiet”, but to no avail – the dog answers with renewed enthusiasm. Back in bed, the hands of the clock seem in slow motion. The next day you have a cold…”
Rather than a cold, one could add eczema, psoriasis, dry skin, spots, lank hair, cellulite and other oedema and so on…
- Vital Signs
Looking at the animal world, we often see that they get ill, recover or die quicker than human beings. This is partly due to the factors we in layman’s terms would describe as their ability (or perhaps inability) to survive – whereby they just give up, exhausted. Their adaptation energy is not able to maintain life. Here we are not talking about energy by food intake, but what we may describe as vitality…cellular vitality.
Selye’s work demonstrated that adaptation energy is finite; we do not have an unending reserve and we cannot cope with stress indefinitely. Selye wrote:
“Our reserves of adaptation energy could be compared to an inherited fortune from which we can make withdrawals; but there is no proof that we can also make additional deposits. We can squander our adaptability recklessly, ‘burning the candle at both ends’, or we can learn to make this valuable resource last longer.”
There is currently no mainstream scientific knowledge or method of how to build up this process, or to obtain reserves.
- Don’t Stress About Stress
One of the things we must realise is that stress in itself is neutral. We need stress to survive. We need stress on our muscles otherwise they atrophy. We need stress in our mind/thinking otherwise that atrophies too. It is not necessarily the level of stress that is important but our adaptive response – our vitality – that is crucial to our survival. Our adaptive response is at a cellular level. Stress related illnesses come as a result of our failure to adapt. Essential oils help us to adapt. Our likes and dislikes are more important than we think. What makes us feel good is as important as any analysis of what ‘should’ do us good.
It is at this point that we can return to Nature’s aids. From the above we can see that our capacity to adapt disappears as we get older; not at a mental level but at a physical level. Our cells cannot cope. This is often shown directly on our skin. Our adaptogens are materials that reinforce our adaptability. They improve our body’s non-specific resistance to ageing.
It is known that the extent of adaptogenic protection is not equal to all organs. It appears that different plants have different affinities to different organs. It seems sensible, therefore, to look at the aromatic adaptogens - especially Rose Geranium and Holy Basil. All adaptogens have immunostimulant activity. What is not clear is whether the immunostimulation is related to the adaptogenic potential.
Adaptogens were first discovered in 1947 by the Russian scientist, Dr. Nikolai Lazarev. In fact it was he who coined the term. The world’s leading expert on adaptogens is Dr. Israel Brekhman, mentioned above. His first studies were conducted upon the well-known Korean and Chinese Ginsengs. However, he soon moved on from them and hundreds of experimental and clinical studies have been undertaken, especially in Russia, Germany and Sweden.
In 1958 Dr. Brekhman stated that an adaptogen must be “innocuous enough to improve minimal disorders in the physiological function of an organism, it must have a non-specific action, and it usually has a normalising action irrespective of the direction of the pathological state.” This will suit most aromatherapist’s experience with essential oils, although no work has been undertaken to relate the source of smell to the adaptogenic process.
- Don’t Panic – Panax!
One of the most famous adaptogens – promoted the world over – is ‘Panax Ginseng’. Chinese medicine has used this substance for close to 4,000 years. Its traditional use has been for states of imbalance, which implies correctly that if you are in balance that it will have no effect at all! As our study of ageing has continued over the last few years, studies show that Ginseng does have adaptogenic properties. For example, it improves the body’s ability to use oxygen, and helps lower blood pressure. As an adaptogen it does not work like a chemical high or low such as coffee, which through its caffeine content may stimulate activity but this is sometimes followed by an unpleasant dip in energy, perhaps even resulting in ‘the shakes’. The stimulant Rosemary gives similar effects in some people. Panax Ginseng is not the only Ginseng that is used as an adaptogen, it just so happens to be the most popular.
Another useful material is Eleutherococcus, commonly known as ‘Devil’s Shrub’. As with any adaptogen, there is a build-up process. Schisandra Chinensis is another adaptogen. In fact, many herbs demonstrate these capacities.
- In Conclusion…
In review, the action must be non-specific; in other words, it increases tolerance of virtually anything. Secondly it has a response to normalising action. Classically, if blood pressure is too high, it lowers it. If it is too low, it raises it. Interestingly enough, we might also be able to add a natural unprocessed honey to this category. Often this unfiltered honey includes everything from Propolis to pollen. Being ‘dirty’ is not what the supermarket wants. Perhaps this is why it, and pollen itself, has the attribute of reducing hay fever and other allergies.
It is known that the extent of adaptogenic protection is not equal for all organs. It appears that different plants have different affinities to different organs. It seems sensible, therefore, to look at the aromatic adaptogens, especially Geranium and Basil. All adaptogens have immunostimulant activity. What is not clear is whether the immunostimulation is related to the adaptogenic potential or the individual response.
It is true that people challenge the value of adaptogens, but we must realise that there are a number of specific problems related to the evaluation of an adaptogen. One obstacle is the non-availability of experimental stress models. When using stress models, the quantification of the stress source is not always possible. Equally we must understand that we do not know enough about the body’s stress response. What we do know is that stress induced in animals will always show in their coats, especially in the dryness of their skin. Any dog owner knows this from the flaking that will come to a dog’s coat very quickly when under stress. There should be no reason why the human organism should be any different from the rest of the Mammalia.
From this we can readily see that the essential oils previously noted – in particular Rose Geranium, Lavender and Holy Basil should be viewed in a broader light allowing them to adapt to the need of the human response.