maral-root-leuzia-carthamoides-capitula"Adaptogen" is a term coined by Russian professor of medicine and physiological medicine Dr. Israel I. Brekhman and colleagues to describe herbs that have the potential to increase the body’s ability to withstand stress. In this sense, stress refers primarily to physiological stress from athletic performance, work and trauma, as well emotional stress causing anxiety and insomnia. Brekhman and company were looking for herbs occurring naturally in Russia that have properties similar to well-known Chinese tonics, especially Panax ginseng. They were sponsored by the Russian government for the purpose of discovering a financially valuable indigenous plant resource.

A trio of Russian adaptogens

The first and still the most popular of the first Russian adaptogens is Eleutherococcus senticosus. Like all adaptogens, eleuthero has the ability to increase endurance and stamina. Studies have corroborated its benefit for athletes, people who work long hours, or exhibit symptoms of immune weakness.

The second Russian adaptogen is Rhodiola rosea. In addition to its endurance-enhancing properties, rhodiola has some other distinctive properties, especially on the nervous system, being beneficial for people with depression.

The third and lesser-known Russian adaptogen is Rhaponticum carthamoides, also known as maral root or leuzea. Like eleuthero and rhodiola, maral root naturally occurs in alpine and subalpine fields including the mountains of Siberia.

To call these "tonics" in the Chinese sense would have meant that these herbs would have to be classified and used in a way similar to how tonics are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which classifies tonics into five distinct categories based on usage: Qi, Blood, Yin, Yang and Jing. Apart from there being no long-standing record of use of these herbs in these ways, they are best categorized generally as adaptogens based on their broad actions.

Maral root

Maral root has distinguished itself among Russian military and eastern European athletes and a large number of body-building aficionados as specific along with Chinese ginseng for building muscle mass. It has a wide following that would attest to its libido-enhancing properties as well.

One of the characteristics of all three Russian adaptogens is that they strive under stressful climatic and growing conditions. According to herbalist David Winston in his book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief (Healing Arts Press, 2007), maral root is a long-living perennial that lives anywhere from 75 to 150 years and has a long history of use in Mongolian, Siberian and possibly Chinese medicine. In Siberia, where it grows, it is used as a folk medicine "to enhance physical and sexual energy, improve mood and concentration, and help people survive the cold and challenging climate of Siberia" (Winston, 2007). It is named after the maral deer who eat its roots especially during the mating season to maintain their strength. Maral root has a wide range of adaptogenic benefits serving as a cardiac tonic, antioxidant, immune stimulant and nervine with antitumor and hepatoprotective properties.

Among its many uses include:

  • Replenishes strength and energy reserves
  • Restores sexual potency in men
  • Increases mental awareness
  • Increases lean muscle mass
  • Helps decrease fatty tissue

Adaptogens have a wider range of effect than do the traditional Chinese tonics. One would hardly consider any of the Chinese tonics as a treatment for inflammatory conditions such as fevers and sore throat. However, in Mongolian medicine, "(maral) roots are used to treat people with respiratory, liver and kidney diseases as well as fevers and severe sore throats" (Winston, 2007).

The biochemical constituents in dried Rhaponticum root are tannins, phytoecdysones, flavonoids, glycosides, lignins, alkaloids, vitamins and an organic acid which helps people to maintain mental focus and alertness, especially under stressful conditions.

Ecdysterone plays a special role in regulating protein synthesis and thus increasing muscle mass in a similar way as steroids but without their harmful effects. Ecdysterone also helps enzymes including glutamate decarboxylase and acetylcholine esterase to synthesize in the brain and in the cells to assist in the production of energy. Finally it helps to protect liver cells from oxidation and DNA and cellular membranes from hydrogen peroxide.

Scientists believe that ecdysterone mimics natural steroid hormones in the human body and will increase them if they are insufficient. These steroid hormones are comparable to Kidney Yin and are depleted when the body or mind is subject to physical or mental stress.

From the traditional Chinese medical perspective it seems that the cooling properties of Rhaponticum makes it a unique Kidney Yin and Yang tonic. In Ayurveda it could be regarded as an herb that regulates Vata, ameliorates excess Pitta and regulates Kapha.

Maral root is a rare plant in the Asteraceae family and reaches as high as 4.5 feet. Because of its slow-growing rate, its sale is far more strictly regulated than either eleuthero or rhodiola. Nevertheless, I was able to purchase seeds from Horizon Herbs. Germination was not even but thus far I have three maral plants growing in the mostly temperate, low-lying mountains of Santa Cruz, California. One source I read described maral plants thriving in Texas. The potency of these plants grown outside of their native habitat is unknown, but considering its rarity in the herb market, I think it is worth experimenting growing it locally.

I’ve never seen maral root in stores, but it is seasonally available from various Internet sources. The maral root extract I purchase and use is from this source:


Winston and Maimes, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief. Healing Arts Press, 2007.

Leuzea-Rhaponticum carthamoides (Maral root): Introduction Questions and Application Prospects as Biologically Active Additives – Nikola Timofeev

tonguepillBefore there was any understanding of biochemical constituents, traditional herbal healing systems relied on flavors as indicators of medicinal properties. (Determining the properties and quality of an herb by its taste, color, texture, etc., is called "organoleptic" assessment.) Traditional herbalists have long associated corrective and potent therapeutic value intrinsic to the flavors, as follows:

Sweet – nourishing, tonic
Pungent or spicy --- metabolically stimulating and warming
Salty – affecting body fluids
Sour – Promoting digestion (as with fermented foods)
Bitter – clearing, detoxifying

To these, Ayurveda adds "astringent" as a sixth flavor, while Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) adds "bland" another extra "non-flavor," so to speak.

Flavors are perceived by taste receptors (taste buds) located on the upper surface of the tongue, soft palate, upper esophagus and epiglottis. The taste receptor cells send information to gustatory areas of the brain that influence our predilection or repugnance to certain foods.

Today, we know that the flavors are generally identified with known biochemical constituents. The bitter taste usually elicits a strong repugnance with the intention to protect us from non-nourishing and possibly poisonous substances. Biochemistry associated with the bitter flavor happens to include a large number of constituents with known therapeutic value such as alkaloids, bitter glycosides and so forth.

However, could it be that the bitter flavor itself, apart from its associated constituents, possesses its own intrinsic therapeutic value?

The well known traditional herbal principle of flavors may have found scientific vindication with this recent paper published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) entitled "Extraoral Bitter Taste Receptors as Mediators of Off-target Drug Effects." Here, a novel hypothesis offers a possible explanation as to why many drugs seem to affect conditions and diseases other than the ones which they are intended to treat:

"(W)e propose that any drug with a bitter taste could have unintended actions in the body through stimulation of extraoral type 2 taste receptors (T2Rs). T2Rs were first identified in the oral cavity, where they function as bitter taste receptors. However, recent findings indicate that they are also expressed outside the gustatory system, including in the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems. . . Bitter-tasting compounds can have specific physiological effects in T2R-expressing cells. . . . If our hypothesis is confirmed, it would offer a new paradigm for understanding the off-target actions of diverse drugs and could reveal potential new therapeutic targets."

T2R taste receptors found in the gastrointestinal system may provide a rationale as to why and how bitter flavored herbs (often called "bitters" as they are sold in innumerable alcoholic beverages throughout the world) can be used to treat different physiological diseases. T2Rs found in the respiratory smooth muscle system affect breathing and bronchodilation, which may substantiate at least one aspect of how bitter tasting herbs such as wild cherry bark and elecampane are effective for asthma and other chronic and acute respiratory diseases.

Of course, the authors of this study did not set out to make a statement regarding the efficacy of the flavors associated with herbs, but their research may provide supporting evidence for how the flavor of an herb may direct its effects.

From an herbalist’s perspective, a drug may be viewed in terms of its pharmacological action and its overall metabolically heating or cooling energy. There are many implications with all of this; for example, we may not only understand off-label benefits of certain drugs, but we can also appreciate how certain drugs such as antibiotics, corticosteroids and others, while good for a specific disease, may be especially contraindicated and harmful for some patients more than others.

Given the fact that so many diseases are caused by excesses of all kinds including an excess of consumption of the non-nutritional sweet forms of food, we may now understand both through traditional medicine and science the old adage, "It’s time to drink your bitter brew."

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