Stress takes such a toll on our lives that anything we can do to relieve it is worth considering. In the world of medicinal plants, adaptogens are stress-relieving superstars. These nontoxic tonic herbs have a general (nonspecific) normalizing effect on the body.
While at least 20 medicinal plants are considered adaptogens, six of the most important are holy basil, rhodiola, ashwagandha, astragalus, cordyceps and Asian ginseng.
Holy basil, also known as tulsi (its Hindi name), is a traditional Ayurvedic herb from India. Modern research defines it as neuro-protective, stress-reducing, and protective against the damaging effects of ionizing radiation. It also decreases the incidence of gastric ulcers, improves endurance, and helps elevate mood.
Cold-loving rhodiola has long been used in cool climates and mountainous areas of more temperate countries. In Tibet, for example, this adaptogen traditionally treats lung problems, improves circulation, and enhances energy and immunity. Its modern uses include the treatment of some types of depression, altitude sickness, fatigue, unbalanced blood sugar levels, and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Rhodiola also helps improve memory.
Ashwagandha improves endocrine function and is a calming rather than stimulating adaptogen. This makes it effective in the treatment of anxiety, fatigue, confusion, and nervous exhaustion. It is sufficiently rich in iron to help treat iron-deficiency anemia. Researchers have observed that ashwagandha enhanced cognition and improved memory in both humans and animals.
Astragalus is best known as an immunity booster, helping to prevent colds, flu, pneumonia, bronchitis, and other respiratory infections. An energy builder, this adaptogen is popular today with cancer patients to help counter the side effects of radiation treatments and chemotherapy.
Cordyceps is an unusual adaptogen because it’s a fungus that grows on certain caterpillars. Long used in China for health and stamina, it is popular among athletes because it enhances aerobic capacity and cellular energy stores. Cordyceps also promotes better lung function, including relief of chronic bronchitis symptoms.
Asian ginseng, a heavily studied herb, has been shown to normalize immune function and treat adrenal exhaustion. Patients with mild Type 2 diabetes have responded to this herb with reduced blood sugar levels and fewer diabetic complications. Asian ginseng is best known for preventing fatigue, slowing the aging process, and increasing muscle strength and endurance.
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 R. Yance ($50, Healing Arts Press, 2013)