Adaptogens for Cold, Flu, and “Pandemic Season”
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Herbs that kick stress and boost immunity
Cold and flu season has been upstaged by a global pandemic. As we respond to the risk of COVID-19, many of us are also grappling with the social and financial strains accompanying lockdown and uncertainty. This has stress levels high, and stress tragically undermines immune function, thereby increasing our risk of catching respiratory illnesses.
Simply put: stressing about COVID-19 may very well increase our risk of getting it. Stress management is thus an immune support strategy in and of itself.
Stressing about COVID-19 may very well increase our risk of getting it.
Thankfully, an entire class of botanicals can help us with both curbing stress and fighting microbes. Aptly known as the adaptogens, these plants help us adapt to the world around us by naturally improving our stamina, supporting our mental and emotional resilience, and boosting our ability to ward off bacterial and viral illnesses.1-3
While people typically think of adaptogens – herbs like andrographis (Andrographis paniculata), eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.), ginseng (Panax spp.), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), and their combination products — as remedies for stress and fatigue, there is a surprising amount of evidence showing that these herbs can also prevent and treat respiratory infections. In fact, a recent (2020) review published in the medical journal Pharmaceuticals summarizes the data from earlier studies on the topic. The authors of the review, Alexander Panossian and Thomas Brendler, explain that “adaptogens can be useful in prophylaxis [prevention] and treatment of viral infections at all stages of progression of inflammation as well as in aiding recovery of the organism.”4
Adaptogens might help protect us from getting sick with viral respiratory infection.
In other words: Adaptogens might help protect us from getting sick with viral respiratory infections in the first place – but, if we do fall ill, adaptogens may reduce the severity and duration of illness.
How adaptogens work
After reviewing 33 randomized controlled trials including data from 7,175 patients treated with adaptogens, Panossian and Brendler summarize that adaptogenic herbs helps us stay healthy and safe through virus season via the following mechanisms:
- Adaptogens boost innate and adaptive immunity – the two stages of the immune system that helps us fight off infections.
- Certain adaptogens can directly inhibit viruses from docking on our cells, thus hindering viral replication.
- Adaptogens have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Adaptogens aid in the detoxification and repair of cells damaged by oxidative stress.
- Adaptogens activate the signaling pathway for melatonin, a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.5
- Adaptogens improve our quality of life as we convalesce (heal from illness).
According to the authors, adaptogenic herbs – whether used alone or in combination with other products – may improve cough, sore throat, runny nose, sinus pain, headache, and overall symptoms of acute respiratory tract infections (as compared to placebo, usual care, and other herbal therapies). They also explain that when people did get sick, taking adaptogens helped them recover faster and take fewer sick days from work than those who didn’t take adaptogens.
A closer look: preventing pneumonia
Adaptogens may also reduce the risk of the painful and potentially life-threatening complications of viral illnesses – namely pneumonia.
One of the studies included in the review was a 1986 placebo-controlled, double-blind trial of 1,376 patients.6 In this study, patients with acute respiratory illnesses during the influenza virus epidemic were treated with the adaptogenic herb eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) or with placebo and followed for three months. The patients who took eleuthero had a much lower rate of flu complications like pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus pain – indicating they’d had a milder infection than the patients in the placebo group.
Two consecutive open-label studies also found eleuthero supplementation to be of value in children with respiratory viral infections. Of the 764 children in one study, 396 were treated with eleuthero liquid for a month. At the end of that month, the morbidity rate (rate of illness) of the children in the eleuthero group decreased by 3.6-fold.7 In a similar study of pre-school aged children, prophylactic administration of eleuthero extract was observed to decrease morbidity by 30 to 40%.8
Prophylactic administration of eleuthero extract was observed to decrease morbidity by 30 to 40% in pre-schoolers.
A 2001 pilot study of 100 volunteers found that ginseng (Panax spp.), another adaptogenic herb, protected against contracting acute respiratory illness and decreased the duration and severity of symptoms in those who did get sick.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to provide an exhaustive summary of every trial included in Panossian and Brendler’s 2020 paper, it is worth mentioning one more trial. In this randomized, controlled trial of patients with pneumonia, an herbal adaptogen blend (containing rhodiola, schisandra, and eleuthero) was administered to a subset of patients. While all patients in the study received antibiotics, those who took the adaptogen blend recovered from the acute phase of pneumonia two days faster than the others. These people were thus able to stop taking antibiotics two days before the rest of the patients. They also had increased mental performance during the rehabilitation period and enjoyed a better overall quality of life than their counterparts who only received antibiotics.9
Those who took the adaptogen blend recovered from the acute phase of pneumonia two days faster than the others.
Although there were some reports of unpleasant side effects associated with various adaptogens in some of the studies – namely transient gastrointestinal upset, which also can occur with illness and its treatment in general – Panossain and Brendler explain that the risk of more serious side effects is much higher with synthetic antiviral medications and other drugs than with adaptogenic herbs.
From the data presented in Panossian and Brendler’s review, it is clear that adaptogenic herbs can help us stay healthy at all stages of viral infection. By supporting the neuroendocrine-immune system in a variety of ways, adaptogens can help us respond to stress in healthier ways, prevent viral illness, treat viral respiratory infections, reduce our risks of secondary pneumonia and other complications, fight inflammation, and speed up our recovery.
ReferencesClick here to see References
- Wagner H, et al. Plant adaptogens. Phytomedicine. 1994;1(1):63-76.
- Panossian A. Understanding adaptogenic activity: specificity of the pharmacological action of adaptogens and other phytochemicals. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2017;1401(1):49-64.
- Belyaev I, et al. EUROPAEM EMF Guideline 2016 for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of EMF-related health problems and illnesses. Rev Environ Health. 2016;31(3):363-97.
- Panossian A, Brendler T. The role of adaptogens in prophylaxis and treatment of viral respiratory infections. Pharmaceuticals. 2020;13(9):1-32.
- Panossian A, et al. Novel molecular mechanisms for the adaptogenic effects of herbal extracts on isolated brain cells using systems biology. Phytomedicine. 2018;50:257-84.
- Shadrin AS, et al. Estimation of prophylactic and immunostimulating effects of Eleutherococcus and Schizandra chinensis preparations. Far East Acad Sci USSR. 1986:213-5.
- Barkan A, et al. Effect of Eleutherococcus on respiratory viral infectious morbidity in children in organized collectives. Pediatrics. 1980;4:65-6.
- Sheparev A, Kozlenko I. Effect of preventive administration of Eleutherococcus extract on health of children under school age. Far East Acad Sci USSR. 1986:201-3.
- Narimanian M, et al. Impact of Chisan® (ADAPT-232) on the quality-of-life and its efficacy as an adjuvant in the treatment of acute non-specific pneumonia. Phytomedicine. 2005;12(10):723-9.
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Dr. Erica Zelfand
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