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Allostasis and Adaptogens

Allostasis and Adaptogens

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Published by Robyn Klein

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Published by: Robyn Klein on Jun 07, 2012
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1Allostasis Theory and Adaptogenic Plant RemediesRobyn Klein, 2004
 Introduction
The role of stress in disease has only recently been appreciated by medicine. Stress has been associated with the progression of chronic gastritis, HIV, trauma, allergies, tumor growth,many chronic diseases such as syndrome X, diabetes, and the common cold (Elenkov andChrousos, 1999). Stress hormones such as catecholamines have been shown to enhance bacterialgrowth
in vitro
and play a role in the infection of a host (Belay et al., 2003). Treatment of stress pathologies is of great concern today because of their increasing incidence in the United States(McEwen, 2003). Medicine is in need of novel remedies that can treat conditions resulting fromdysfunctional stress response despite recent developments of new drugs to treat stress(Dubowchik et al., 2003).The central nervous system, endocrine system and immune system interact in a predictable way to maintain homeostasis while under severe or chronic stress. Researchers are ingeneral agreement that humans and other mammals exploit a separate cascade of physiological processes in order to adapt to stress beyond everyday life homeostasis (McEwen, 2002;Schulkin, 2003). This second system is explained by the theory of 
allostasis
, which suggests a process to protect organisms from unexpected or severe stressors. Such chronic or continuedtypes of stressors can result in wear and tear on tissues and organs, termed
allostatic overload 
.This overloading causes a predictable dysfunction of regulation of stress neurotransmitters andhormones, leading to a wide range of pathological conditions (McEwen and Wingfield, 2003).The contribution of plant compounds to pharmacology has been estimated in the billionsof dollars, though the interest in plants as sources of novel medicines has diminished mainly because of political and technological reasons (Newman et al, 2003). Yet many scientists feel
 
2that billions of dollars worth of natural products still remain undiscovered and unexplored(Verpoorte, 1998; Raskin et al., 2002; Carlini, 2003; Wu et al., 2003b).With respect to prevention and treatment of stress, plant remedies used by other countrieshave not been thoroughly explored by scientists in the United States. A case in point is thestress-reducing health products made from plants that have been researched since the 1940s inRussia (Panossian, 2003). These plant remedies were accepted into medical practice in Russia as
adaptogen tonics
after they were found to increase resistance to stress in mammals and humans,with little to no side effects (Russian National Pharmacopoeia, 1983). While practicallyunknown to western conventional medicine, adaptogen remedies have nonetheless beenmarketed and sold in the United States since the 1970s to treat stress and fatigue (Seifert, 1976).The theory of allostasis and allostatic overload is especially intriguing to this discussion becausethe concepts provide additional evidence for the mechanism of action of adaptogenic plantremedies.The aim of this paper is to suggest that the theory of allostasis supports the proposedmechanism of action of adaptogen remedies and this mechanism may be useful in developingnew strategies to treat stress dysfunctions. I will first discuss the physiologic mechanisms of thestress response, review the theory of allostasis, and then introduce some plant remedies possessing adaptogenic activity. Lastly, I will show that the theory of allostasis can be linked tohypothesized mechanisms of the adaptogenic effect.
The stress response
Pathologic conditions related to stress have been a subject of science since 1911 whenWalter B. Cannon (1911) applied the engineering concept of stress to a physiologic context,suggesting that emotional stimuli were capable of causing physical damage to the body. Other 
 
3theorists continued developing this idea that organisms attempt to maintain homeostasis andrespond to unexpected challenges. Hans Selye (1936) proposed the
 general adaptation syndrome
that examined the actions and consequences of stressors on the healthy organism. Hisreasoning suggested that every organism must be able to adapt to environmental and socialconditions that are stressful and potentially life threatening. These adaptive responses must benonspecific because they must be able to respond to a myriad of stressful conditions, whether itis extremes of heat, cold, lack of food, injury, disease, or psychological conditions such as fear.The limiting factor of this ability, according to Seyle, was the
adaptations energy
of theorganism. That is, the body is able to adapt to stressors up to a point. But prolonged stress candiminish or wear out this capability, and when this happens we are at risk for maladaptation anddisease.Throughout the progression of stress theories emerged the idea that the ability to maintaininternal viability despite extreme or unexpected stress events could not be produced byhomeostasis alone (Sterling and Eyer, 1988). Homeostasis regulates set points in the body suchas glucose or oxygen in the blood and blood pH. For example, homeostasis can adjust bodytemperature in response to slowly evolving environmental changes such as summer or winter temperature conditions. However, when the organism is exposed to harsh or unexpected eventssuch as a sudden drop in temperature or prolonged severe temperatures, it must react and even predict these events in order to adapt and survive. The process of homeostasis can only adjustset points in the body within the realm of a normal continuum. Events that are severe or  prolonged shift the organism from a homeostatic response to an auxiliary set of adaptation processes (Sterling and Eyer, 1988). That is, adaptation to a normal flux of set body points isone process, while adaptation to unexpected or prolonged changes induced yet another relatedsystem of physiological processes that works in concert with homeostasis. This realization

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