Life can be a challenge at times. All manner of stressors can harm the body or mind, and often both. While we and our animals have built-in mechanisms for coping with stress, and additional ways to protect ourselves, increase our resilience and improve our repair capacity, there’s one you may not know about yet: adaptogenic herbs, or adaptogens.
Adaptogens are an interesting bunch of herbs. They are a diverse group of plants, yet they all have similar actions on the body. This shared effect is where the term “adaptogen” comes from, as these herbs contain substances that help us adapt to the various stresses of life, both physical and psychological. In the process, the body becomes more resistant to whatever might cause it harm, because the adaptogens promote healthy self-maintenance and repair.
Some of these herbs you’ll have heard of already, such as Siberian ginseng (eleuthero) and the various Asian and American ginsengs. Others include rhodiola, schizandra, aralia, rhaponticum, and ashwagandha. (Several medicinal mushrooms also have some adaptogenic properties.) While each has its own unique set of properties, these herbs all share features that are particularly useful to bodies under stress. Let’s take a look at how adaptogens can help three different groups of dogs.
The adaptogens are among the most widely studied medicinal herbs. In fact, they have been more extensively studied than many drugs. Much of the research has focused on the effects of adaptogens on exercise capacity and mental performance, with human studies primarily involving athletes and people in stressful or tiring jobs.
In short, adaptogens improve endurance (resistance to fatigue), work capacity under stress, focus and learning, and recovery after strenuous activity. They also help moderate mood and reactivity; they’re calming for those prone to anxiety or aggression and enlivening for those prone to depression. In working dogs, these various properties translate into:
• Better performance, both during an event and over the season/career
• Greater enjoyment of work and play
• Fewer injuries and illnesses, and faster recovery from injury and illness
• Longer career (i.e. delayed retirement)
It must be added, however, that there is no substitute for good training and considerate care, and there are no shortcuts to a winning performance. The adaptogens don’t confer super-powers on a dog; they simply help him do his natural best under the stresses inherent to the job.
Dogs with chronic disease
Another feature adaptogens share is an ability to help the body self-regulate. When the body is disordered, these herbs can help it return to a state of balance – to the normal functions, capacity and responsiveness of a healthy body.
Not surprisingly, the systems most benefited are those with central roles in self-regulation:
• Central nervous system
• Cardiovascular system
• Endocrine (hormonal or glandular) system
• Immune system
• Digestive system
Adaptogens have positive effects on virtually every organ system in the body, but their effects are particularly potent on those five systems. Furthermore, in various studies, adaptogens have proven to be both protective and regenerative. They protect tissues from damage and facilitate repair or regeneration when damage has occurred.
These herbs are generally not sufficient on their own when disease is severe or chronic, but they can be a tremendous help alongside appropriate medical care, sometimes even reducing the dosage of drugs required. Over time, for example, they may reduce the quantity of insulin required by diabetics, or the cardiac drugs needed in patients with heart disease.
When it comes to cancer, adaptogens each have anticancer properties that are distinct from their role in supporting immune function. Studies have shown that some adaptogens reduce the rate of metastasis (spreading of cancer to other sites) and increase survival in animals with cancer.
It is important to note that these herbs do not cure cancer. They can, however, supplement cancer treatment and reduce the harmful effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Along with countering the cellular consequences of stress, adaptogens have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. Since the three processes implicated in aging are chronic stress, oxidative damage and inflammation, adaptogens are especially helpful to the aging body. In fact, one of the traditional uses of adaptogenic herbs in their cultures of origin (various Asian and European countries) is as a tonic in convalescence and old age.
In human studies, improved quality of life is one of the most consistent findings. Elderly patients who take these herbs typically report that they feel better physically, mentally and emotionally. Here are some specific effects that may be of particular benefit to senior dogs:
• Improved immune function
• Improved function of the other key systems listed earlier
• Improved muscle mass and thus strength, coordination, comfort and confidence
• Improved alertness, memory, mood and quality of sleep
In my experience, these herbs add considerably to the quality of life in senior dogs, even helping to clear the mental fog that often causes confusion, anxiety and forgetfulness.
Which adaptogens are best?
Each of these herbs has its own “signature” properties in addition to those they share with the other adaptogens. So depending on the situation, a single adaptogen may be all that’s needed to help support a dog through whatever he is dealing with. For example, rhodiola is a lovely herb for anxious animals (and people!). Schizandra is great for mental focus when you’re tired and just have to press on. Siberian ginseng can help ward off a cold, and rhaponticum is particularly useful for its nonhormonal anabolic properties.
Most of the time, though, a combination of adaptogens works best, as it provides a broader range of benefits. Most of these herbs can be found singly or in various combinations in human health food stores, natural grocery stores, and some fitness centers. My preference is to use a product specifically prepared for animal use, using species-appropriate formulations and concentrations, and with species-specific dosing instructions and veterinary input. There are now a number of good adaptogenic products for animals on the market. One of my favorites is APF Pro by Auburn Labs (auburnlabs.com).
How much, how often and how long?
It depends on the product you’re using, so follow label directions and/or your veterinarian’s advice. If you’re buying adaptogenic products formulated and labeled for humans, it’s usually okay to scale down the dosage for dogs according to body weight. All the adaptogens studied so far have nice wide safety margins, so if you accidentally give a 50-pound dog an entire human dose, he is unlikely to come to any harm.
I usually recommend giving the product once a day, in food. When dealing with serious illness or stress, I’ll often recommend being extra generous with the dosage and giving it twice a day.
You may see an effect after the first dose, particularly if the herbs are being used for mental or emotional support. True adaptation (i.e. greater general resistance to stress, rather than simply coping better with a current stress) takes longer and involves repeated dosing over at least two weeks. Beyond that point, I find I can often use a lower dosage for maintenance. But that’s something to discuss with your veterinarian.
Adaptogenic herbs are a great addition to a dog’s healthcare program, but they should always be used alongside proper medical care, a good diet, daily exercise, and all the other things that go into keeping a dog healthy and happy.