Simply put, adaptogens are safe tonics that help the body adapt to stress so you’re less likely to launch into “fight or flight” mode yet still have good energy to handle what life throws your way.
Even though our adaptogenic herbs have been around for millennia, the term was coined and defined by Soviet researchers starting in the late 1950s. The popular term often gets misused for anything that’s remotely safe and health-promoting, but adaptogens are specifically safe, broad-acting herbs that boost energy and ease stress by modulating stress hormones like cortisol in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal glands (HPA axis).
You can assume all adaptogens boost energy, vitality, and longevity. Most also support libido, cognition, focus, and immune health. But each has its own affinities and some are more stimulating while others are more calming. Try finding those that best fit your personal needs. Adaptogens provide extra support, but keep in mind that they are not an excuse to ignore your body’s basic needs for sleep, a healthy diet, down time, and exercise so you can just go-go-go.
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Ginseng and Friends
True ginseng includes Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) in two forms—white (crude) and red (steamed)—as well as American ginseng (P. quinquefolius). All are warming, stimulating, and restorative; however, American is generally considered more tonic whereas red ginseng is the most stimulating and heating. Ginseng roots help you reconnect with your vigor when you feel depleted and fatigued. However, it is a slow-growing plant of deep woodlands, nearly eradicated in the wild from overharvesting and illegal poaching, and subject to rampant adulteration due to centuries of popularity.
If you buy ginseng, opt for organically cultivated, woods-grown ginseng from reputable sources. Otherwise, seek out more sustainable ginseng substitutes: bitter-tasting jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) leaves, eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) roots, and slightly sweet codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosa) roots. All of these herbs may aggravate overstimulation, insomnia, mania, and anxiety in sensitive people, especially if taken later in the day or alongside caffeine.
Long revered in Hungary and Siberia, this root (Rhodiola rosea) is one of my favorite energizing adaptogens, boosting physical energy and excelling at improving mental energy and mood. Many human studies support its use for stress, energy, cognition, and uplifting the mood, with some effects noted within just one day.
Seek cultivated North American rhodiola for sustainability reasons, and (as with ginseng and friends) use caution if you tend toward overstimulation.
This Ayurvedic root from India (Withania somnifera) is the adaptogen I use most often in my clinical practice because it’s deeply energizing yet also calms anxiety. It boosts thyroid function, supports nerve health, sleep, mood, cognition, fertility, and libido in all genders, and gently eases inflammation and improves muscle strength. It’s believed that if you take ashwagandha regularly for one year, you’ll have the strength of a stallion for the next 10.
Ashwagandha’s well tolerated by most people, but use caution if you’re sensitive to nightshade family plants, have hyperthyroid disease, or take thyroid medications.
Also known as five-flavor fruit (Schisandra chinensis), this berry wakes up your senses with an explosion of flavor that’s sour, slightly bitter, pungent, salty, and sweet. It benefits many body systems and is one of my favorite liver and detoxifying tonics. Schisandra promotes a clear, focused mind, boosts digestive juices, and supports long-term immune vitality. It balances energy levels and rarely overstimulates. It may interact with some medications and irritate people with a sour stomach or ulcers.
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum, syn. O. tenuiflorum), also called “tulsi” and “sacred basil,” has the most profound calming effects of these adaptogens. It uplifts the mood, promotes focus, eases anxiety, and decreases inflammation. Through cortisol modulation, it not only eases stress but also gently reduces blood sugar, cholesterol, and stress-related sugar cravings. It makes an excellent tea but can be enjoyed in any format.
“An alternative treatment for anxiety: A systematic review of human trial results reported for the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)” by M.A. Pratte et al., J Altern Complement Med, 12/1/14
“The clinical efficacy and safety of tulsi in humans: A systematic review of the literature” by N. Jamshidi and M.M. Cohen, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 3/16/17
“Rosenroot (rhodiola): Potential applications in aging-related diseases” by W. Zhuang et al., Aging Dis, 2/19