Probably the most important use of ginseng and its saponins is as anti-stress agents. Stress, a normal feature of life, can readily be reproduced experimentally and is apparent in all impaired and injured animals. Stress manifests in many forms e.g. reaction to external conditions such as the "fight or flight" phenomenon, heat, cold, noise, starvation, physical restraint, etc., reaction to psychiatric states e.g. fear, anxiety, emotional strains, psychosomatic diseases, etc., and reaction to disease, bacterial and viral infection, physical injury, wounds, surgical operations, chemical agents, pollutants, etc. In particular, the pace of modern society places individuals in abnormal situations where stress is often markedly increased e.g. overworking under harsh managerial pressure, excessive worry, fear situations, etc. As early as 1936 Hans Selye had stated that there was a general adaptation syndrome revealed in rats that had suffered severe trauma from agents such as cold, surgical injuries and poisoning and that the adaptation was independent of the nature of the damaging agent. The syndrome developed in several steps including:-
a) increase in the size of the adrenal glands;
b) decrease in the size of the thymus gland, the spleen, the lymph glands and the liver;
c) breakdown of adipose tissue;
d) formation of acute erosions in the digestive tract, etc.
After the initial general alarm reaction, the body commences adaptation to the new situation. Therefore there is a continuing search for agents that ameliorate stress syndromes by encouraging or accelerating such adaptation or normalisation.
The eminent Russian pharmacologists I.I.Brekhman and I.V.Dardymov, working in the Biologically Active Substances Division of the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok in the 1950's and 1960's, carefully studied the ability of ginseng (Panax ginseng), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus spp) and related Araliaceous drugs to increase the nonspecific resistance of the host to several types of stresses. This normalising phenomenon presented by ginseng was referred to as "adaptogenic activity", a controversial concept. In effect there was a higher state of defence preparation and the adaptogen, which was also known as a non-specific immunomodulator or neuroimmunological regulator, was defined as being:-
a) innocuous, causing minimal disorder in the physiological functions of the organism, b) non-specific in action i.e. it should increase resistance to adverse influences of a wide range of factors of physical, chemical and biological nature, and c) normalising, in that it acts irrespective of the direction of the preceding pathological changes (Brekhman and Dardymov, 1969a).
Although the adaptogen proposition was not readily accepted by many orthodox allopathic-trained pharmacologists, evidence steadily accumulated.
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