Our bodies face stressors every day—biological, emotional, environmental, and physical. Staying balanced is a key factor in overall health and well-being. We can find equilibrium with a category of herbs called adaptogens, known to improve the body’s ability to function under stress.
Adaptogens have been used for centuries in China and India, but their efficacy was not explored scientifically until the mid-twentieth century when scientists from the Soviet Union began to study their positive effects on energy, immunity, and stress response.
A Delicate Balance
When the body experiences stress—from heightened emotions, lack of exercise or sleep, poor diet, or general “busy-ness”—hormones including adrenaline and cortisol may get out of whack. This causes a negative effect on the bodily processes that depend on hormones, including blood sugar regulation, cardiovascular function, and digestion.
While some stress is normal, the nervous and adrenal systems of many Americans are perpetually out of balance. Reining in tension with lifestyle changes is a great place to start (diet, exercise, relaxation), and adaptogens can give our efforts a boost by helping to regulate stress hormones.
Being in constant battle mode can result in reduced energy levels that leave us feeling burned out. Before you reach for another cup of coffee, consider stimulating plant-root adaptogens that can give you an energy boost without the caffeine.
Ginseng (Panax spp.) is the go-to herb when you feel sluggish. Used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, Asian ginseng (P. ginseng) not only boosts energy but can also improve libido, regulate blood sugar levels, and protect the liver from toxins. The same is true for American ginseng (P. cinquefolius). Unfortunately, due to the host of benefits they offer, both types of ginseng are in high demand and most wild stands have been overharvested. Shop for brands that have been sustainably harvested.
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is a close relative of ginseng and has been shown to boost energy levels. The subject of a large-scale study with more than 5,000 participants, eleuthero has been shown to significantly improve the body’s response to mental and physical stress. Participants who took eleuthero demonstrated better health, performance, and vitality in a stressful environment compared to a control group who did not receive the herb. People who work long hours or atypical shifts may feel more energized and balanced when supplementing with eleuthero. This herb can be helpful for athletes, as it boosts endurance and increases stamina while also helping the body recover faster after strenuous activity.
Codonopsis (Codonopsis spp.) is not as well documented as ginseng and eleuthero but may still be an effective energy booster. Called “poor man’s ginseng,” it can be used as an affordable alternative to ginseng to fight fatigue and aid recovery.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) has demonstrated its ability to boost energy and vitality. Because of its fast action, it is especially helpful for those who need a quick pick-me-up. It also provides long-term physical and mental energy.
Sometimes stress calls for a more subtle, relaxed response. These adaptogens are up to the task. In contrast to stimulating root-based herbs, these stems and leaves provide more peaceful energy.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum, syn O. tenuiflorum), also known as tulsi, induces calm and can help relieve anxiety while working to balance stress hormones like cortisol. Fast-acting holy basil can also improve immune function and inflammation response, both of which can take a hit when we’re stressed.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is similar to holy basil, and the two work well together, but its calming properties are slower to take effect. Studies have shown that gotu kola can help relieve symptoms of anxiety, improve memory, and boost circulation.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a multipurpose adaptogen that has become popular for its ability to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s also considered an effective treatment for nervous exhaustion and stress-induced insomnia. In a study of patients with anxiety neurosis, treatment with ashwagandha resulted in reduction of a host of symptoms including fatigue, headaches, and irritability, with 25 percent of participants experiencing complete remission of the disorder.
Boost Brain Function
Modern life can leave us drained both physically and mentally. If you’re not feeling as sharp as you used to, these adaptogenic herbs may be just what you need to improve memory and attention by normalizing neurotransmitter levels and increasing mental stamina. Gotu kola is known as a calm-energy adaptogen, but it shines for its ability to improve mental function. Studies have demonstrated its beneficial effect on working memory.
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) offers a host of benefits, including supporting concentration. It acts as a mild stimulant for the nervous system, boosting mental activity and improving work performance. It also serves as a calming agent by relieving symptoms of anxiety and stress, thus making way for better mental clarity.
Stress can put a damper on immune function, making us more susceptible to viruses and infections. Adaptogens can strengthen our immune response and make it easier to fight pathogens.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has antibacterial and immunity-enhancing properties. It contains polysaccharides that improve immune system function and help ward off viruses, including the common cold and influenza.
Medicinal mushrooms including chaga, maitake, reishi, and shiitake, while technically not plants, are adaptogens that strengthen immune response by providing a healthy challenge that makes the system more effective at fighting off pathogens. By training immune cells to be less reactive to the “small stuff”—the causes of allergies and autoimmune disease—they may be more effective when it really counts.
- Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes ($18.95, Healing Arts Press, 2007)
- Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism: Elite Herbs and Natural Compounds for Mastering Stress, Aging, and Chronic Disease by Donald Yance ($50, Healing Arts Press, 2013)
- “Adaptogens: A Review of Their History, Biological Activity, and Clinical Benefits” by Alexander Panossian and Hildebert Wagner, American Botanical Council, http://cms.HerbalGram.org
- Body Into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self-Care by Maria Noël Groves ($24.95, Storey, 2016)
- “Understanding Nervines & Adaptogens,” Mountain Rose Herbs, http://blog.mountainroseherbs.com