The Russian Herbal Tradition

Herbal History

Russia's pharmaceutical repertoire is made up of 55 to 60% botanicals, the highest proportion of total drugs in the industrialized nations. Germany is runner up with less that 30% and the United States utilizes a mere 1.5 to 2% presently.

There may be many reasons for Russia's high usage of herbs but perhaps the most compelling reason is its trade history with its hundreds of ethnic minorities, its neighboring 21 countries, from Iraq to Japan and its many colonies of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russian American Company colonized Fort Ross, in what is now Sitka, Alaska, in 1783. Ft. Ross is now called the Castle Hill archeological site and has yielded trade items from 17 countries ranging from Turkey and Norway to Korea, Japan and Spain via Mexico where they had a colony established in 1578. The Russian physicians must have been gratified with the diverse discoveries of the finest phytomedicines of their own territory of eleven time zones as well as much of the rest of the known world. Among these diverse herbal traditions, there was one regional tradition of marked distinction.

Many recall Kurosawa's film, 'Dersu Uzala', about the life of the Golt tribesman in Russian Far East (Primosrskii Krai). This area was part of Manchuria until the Russians took when China was distracted by the French and English during the Opium wars. The Golt, Ulchi, Nanai and many other local tribes of the tiger habitat, Boreal forest were the informants for much of Chinese TCM as well as the Russian herbal repertoire. The tribal herbs of use and dependence included Schisandra, eluthero, chaga, licorice, Rhodeola rosea, Aralia and ginseng. Today, these herbs are all included in the category of "Adaptogens".


By 1948 the pharmacognosist, Nikolai Lazarev, PhD had noted the ethnobotanical use of certain herbs in southern Siberia and the Far East as tonics. These aboriginal tonics were used to allay fatigue after lengthy periods of exertion during hunting & fishing, long journeys, warfare and childbirth. Curiously, many indigenous botanicals were used in preparation in advance of these stressful activities. Lazarev's coining of the term "adaptogen" found its origins in this ethnobotany of many tribes. The appellation, adaptogen, has been criticized as being too broad to be scientific. The species that have been recognized as adaptogens and studied by Lazarev's famous student, Israel Brekhman, PhD do have a unifying clinical definition, however. The effect and utility of these mostly unrelated vascular and non vascular plants lay in their action on the fight-or-flight hormone, cortisol.

The Pubmed database lists 2,700 pages of study titles for cortisol! The relationship between cortisol and acute stress and chronic stress is well established. The relationship between adaptogens and cortisol level modulation is well established. The relationship between chronic stress and at least 83 common diseases including cardiovascular, stroke and gastric ulcers is also well established. There are simply no more widely indicated medicines than the Russian adaptogens.


The proof is in the pudding. The Russians (Brekhman) made Elutherococcus world famous with its use in combination with other adaptogens with their record winning Olympic teams and their enduring Cosmonauts. What is little known is that the Soviet Party leaders were also pampered with these herbal regimens. The former Soviet Union was highly centralized and autocratic so it was possible for Dr. Brekhman to utilize large, highly controllable experimental samples. He used whole work brigades of factory workers, ships at sea, schools and even whole villages where participation was obligatory! Brekhman published over 235 research books and papers on adaptogenic species.

The World and Olympic record smashing Chinese swimming and track teams under the coaching of Ma Junren secretly used adaptogens. Ma's most famous star, Wang Junyia, the 5'3, 100lb. distance runner, set world records in 4 events in 1993. Wang's training mileage was an astounding 175 miles per week, double that of other world class athletes who were suffering over-training stress at their lesser distances. Wang broke what was considered the unbreakable 10,000 meter 10K record by 42 seconds and her stable mate, Dong Liu, was just 10 seconds behind her!

Sanctioning bodies of the sports world were confounded at not finding illegal steroid use in testing the Chinese athletes. The inside story is that, in addition to bronchodilator Cordyceps, Ma was utilizing adaptogens including Rhodiola rosea, Eluthero and the ecdysteroids of Leuzea carthamoides which is a legal herbal alternative to anabolic steroids. Leuzea has none of the negative side effects of anabolic steroids. Leuzea is in Russia's 'Redbook' the listing of threatened plants and there is an active black market of unlicensed roots through the Chinese border near Leuzea's only indigenous habitat, the Altai Mountains of Siberia. It is important to trade only with Russian licensed Leuzea and Rhodiola. Leuzea is also popular supplement for performance horses including thoroughbred racing and equestrian three-day eventers. Tendon and joint health is an overriding concern with athletic horses as well as the lean muscle gain and fat loss that also are affected by Leuzea.


The Little Mountain Botanicals line is all collected from sustainable, OTCO certified organic, wild populations with the exception of Rhodiola rosea and Leuzea. Although the whole range of adaptogens is inventoried in the US at Little Mountain Botanicals, to ensure sustainability, LMB is currently undertaking the sub alpine organic cultivation of Leuzea and Rhodeola rosea under the direction of wild plant domestication expert, Andy One of Trout Lake, WA, USA.

Currently, all Russians have access to a wide range of OTC adaptogen preparations on the shelves of their neighborhood Apotekas, the drug stores where prescriptions are filled. From sports to geriatrics, humans and animal, these herbs merit as wide use in the US and Europe as in Russia and China.


"Stress blend" or "anti-stress formula" have become appropriate replacements for the old familiar term "tonic". Adaptogen stress fighters promise to be the most important new category of OTC and DSHEA compliant dietary supplements.

Copyright 2002
Key Herbs 2004
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