Adaptogenic herbs, formerly called tonic herbs, are wonderful gifts from the plant kingdom. Because of their regulating action and other benefits, licorice root, the ginsengs, ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea, tulsi and other adaptogens play a big role in herbal medicine and medical systems throughout the world.
What are Adaptogenic Herbs?
This constituents in this elite group of herbs have the unique ability to protect, normalize and maintain balance and function of the body’s organs and systems due to stress and aging.
Adaptogenic herbs improve your endurance and capacity for mental and physical work by regulating the mechanisms that produce and use energy.
They strengthen the immune system and support the HPA axis, including the adrenal glands, both of which are taxed during prolonged periods of stress. Adaptogens help the liver detoxify and often possess powerful antioxidants.
Tonic herbs strengthen resistance to all causes of stress including mental distress and biological, chemical and physical factors. In one way, they are similar to homeopathic remedies or vaccines. They shock body systems with teeny-tiny shocks of mild irritation. Because of this conditioning, systems are better able to respond in times of major stress. This is an example of like cures like.
How to Use Herbal Adaptogens
Read the full herbal profile for each herb before choosing which are best for you. Select those that are most appropriate for your symptoms and situation. Heed potential interactions with your medications. Always follow recommendations for proper use.
Adaptogens are not meant to replace foundational health practices such as eating well and getting enough sleep, nor as a crutch to help you push yourself further. They are allies for when you need to help your body , normalize, stay in balance and cope with extra stress.
Start taking adaptogenic herbs when you anticipate upcoming stressful and anxiety-provoking situations (even good ones) and continue until the situation quiets down. Starting a new job? Have a colicky baby keeping you up nights while you are still trying to take care of yourself and go to work? Is it exam week? These are all good times to take adaptogens. Some of these herbs offer immediate feelings of calm, but generally work their magic over time. For help easing acute in-the-moment tension or anxiety, use herbs that provide quicker relief.
Often, you will need to take your doses at least twice a day for a few months or more for maximum benefit. This will vary by herb, the form you are using (extracts, teas, capsules) and what you want to accomplish. Depending on your needs, formulas may be best because they offer a broader range of benefits.
Used properly, they are safe, non-toxic and non-habit forming.
Adaptogenic Herbs and Their Uses
The following list of adaptogenic herbs and their uses will give you an idea of how and why different herbs are used and which ones may be helpful for you.
Rhodiola Rosea is a cooling adaptogenic herb. This popular tonic herb is sometimes called golden root, or rosavin, which is a main constituent of rhodiola.
Because of its broad range of actions, rosavin has several important health benefits:
- It is especially useful for normalizing heart rate after stress or exercise.
- It nourishes the HPA axis and promotes adrenal, thyroid and reproductive function.
- Rosavin inhibits cancers including leukemia, balances blood sugar, improves cardiac and cognitive function.
- It benefits the immune reservoir and your immune system’s first line of defense.
Salidroside is another important constituent. It may be responsible for rhodiola’s anti-aging, anti-anxiety effects. In laboratory studies, rhodiola actually restored malfunctioning body systems. Salidroside protected against oxidative stress, slowed aging and extended the lifespan of fruit flies and human cells.
Rhodiola’s specific benefits include the following:
- People who show signs of heat such as a red face, high blood pressure, and excessive anger may find rhodiola rosea helpful because it stimulates the release of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These brain chemicals are energizing and promote feelings of well-being and positive mood.
- Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder – unreasonable worry, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, irritability and tense muscles – all improved significantly during a 10-week study. Research has shown that even a single dose of extract can help you cope better with challenging situations and anxiety due to stress.
- This liver friendly adoptogenic herb boosts antioxidant reserves and protects liver cells from damaging toxins and oxidative stress.
- In anti-aging laboratory studies, rhodiola was shown to actually restore bodily systems that were malfunctioning. Salidroside protected against oxidative stress, slowing the aging process and extending lifespans of fruit flies and human cells.
- Larger amounts of rhodiola can be sedating and are used for colds, flu and stress. Thanks to its antiviral and antibacterial actions, this herb can help fight infections. One way it does this is by interfering with flu viruses
that try to attach to respiratory tract cells.
If you decide to give this adaptogenic herb a try, keep in mind that clinical trials were conducted using wild plants from Siberia. To experience the full range of rhodiola’s benefits, purchase extracts containing rosavin and salidroside.
Beware too much of a good thing with rhodiola. It may be best to start with small doses of approximately 100-150mg in the morning to see how you react. Lower doses tend to be stimulating, so choose the smallest doses if you want to boost your immune system or if you feel depressed. Personally, I like to add in a big pinch of chopped dried root to a loose tea or herbal infusion when I’m stressed or need a little extra endurance.
Until more is learned about the long-term effects of rhodiola, it is recommended that you take a one-to-two week break from it every three months. This is probably a good idea for any herb you are taking. Or perhaps take weekends and holidays off.
Eleuthero Root (Eleutherococcus setincosus)
Called “the King of Adaptogens” by ancient Chinese herbalists, eleuthero root is known for increasing productivity and helping the body contend with stress. It is a mildly stimulating, cooling adaptogenic herb formerly known as Siberian ginseng.
Eleuthero has been the subject of much study in Russia and other countries around the world for its benefits.
Most notably, this adaptogen:
- improves sustained energy and endurance for mental and physical tasks without energy peaks and drops typical of stimulants.
- helps you stay clear headed and focused under pressure.
- tones the HPA axis and is helpful for depleted adrenal function to help your body adapt and respond to stress more efficiently.
- enhances resistance to illness by strengthening the immune system (your first line of defense).
- larger doses promote sleepiness, making it helpful for insomnia.
Over-stressed healthy younger adults may especially find eleuthero to be an ally against the effects of stress.
Please note: Eleuthero is contra-indicated with alcohol consumption and a variety of medications. Although likely safe for most adults short-term, it may cause side effects such as heart palpitations or blood sugar changes. It should be avoided by people at risk for estrogen-driven cancers.
Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Licorice is a mild, warming herbal adaptogen. Older generations enjoyed this herb as genuine black licorice candies.
As one of the herbs for stress, it nourishes weakened adrenal glands, lowers cortisol levels, and helps balance the immune system. Like all herbal adaptogens, its benefits extend beyond stress relief.
Licorice helps heal gastric ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome due to its moistening qualities. It reduces coughs and histamine production.
Licorice is often found in herbal formulas (5-10%) because it tastes good and moderates the effects of stronger herbs.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera) is one of the best Ayurevedic tonic remedies. It improves the use of cortisone, strengthens the immune system and helps with sugar metabolism.
Like most adaptogenic herbs, it has a balancing effect on the body. Ashwagandha is mildly warming and gentle enough in action to make it suitable for children and the elderly. It has restorative, tonic, and nervine qualities that make it helpful for quelling nervousness and muscle tension. Ashwagandha stimulates the libido, the thyroid, and the male reproductive function. It calms the nervous system and eases nervous and muscle tension.
The chopped root may be added to food, but it is typically taken in capsule form at a dose of 600-1000 mg twice a day. Dr. Chopra suggests that a cup of hot milk with a teaspoon of powdered ashwaganda before bedtime as a remedy for anxiety and insomnia.
Combined with schisandra berry, ashwaghanda helps you be calm, alert, and focused. This combination also protects the liver.
Codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosula)
Codonopsis root is a mild tonic used as food. Soak the dried root to soften it and add to soups and stews. You can find packages of codonopsis at Asian markets.
This nourishing nervous system tonic may be used as a substitute for ginseng. It strengthens the HPA axis, especially adrenal function, and enhances the immune system. Its helpful for fatigue, weakness and ‘deficient’ insomnia. It helps improve poor appetite and stomach irritation and can help protect against ulcers caused by stress.
Holy Basil (Ocinum Sanctum)
Holy Basil, or tulsi, is Queen of Herbs in India. This wonder adaptogenic herb is credited with attributes that benefit mind, body, spirit, and soul.
Sacred basil is mildly stimulating and warming. It is a hot herb with a pungent, bitter taste.
In Ayurveda, Tulsi is said to embody the nature of pure consciousness (Sattva). It deepens meditation and provides spiritual clarity. It calms and opens the mind to feelings of harmony, devotion, and compassion.
Tulsi helps stabilize the HPA axis which regulates the stress hormone cortisol. It enhances normal immune function. By improving your body’s response to emotional and physical stress, it improves mood while reducing brain fog and mental fatigue.
Holy basil tea is a traditional Ayurevedic remedy for coughs and colds, headache, and a variety of ailments. It loosens mucus in the nasal passages and respiratory tract and improves circulation. It’s antiviral activity has been shown to reduce herpes and shingles outbreaks by half.
Tulsi is helpful for promoting good digestion and gut detoxification. It eases gas, nausea and GI pain and spasms. It can help lower blood sugar in type 2 diabetes. It repairs damage to DNA from over exposure to radiation.
Avoid Holy Basil if you are pregnant. It may have an anti-fertility action and thins the blood.
Organic India makes a tasty variety of tulsi teas. Enjoy plain or combination varieties for even more health benefits. Because I love all the tea combinations, tulsi is one of my favorite herbal adaptogens.
Schizandra berry (or schisandra)is one of the powerful adaptogenic herbs. This five flavor fruit, so called because its sour, sweet, bitter, warm and salty taste, has been used in Asia for thousands of years.
Schizandra helps the liver detoxify and supports the adrenal glands, which are taxed during times of stress. It strengthens the HPA axis and normalizes nervous system and immune activity.
The berries have the added benefit of gently stimulating the central nervous system and brain activity to enhance work, metabolism, cognition and athletic performance. Adults with ADHD may find this herb helpful.
On the other hand, it is also beneficial for insomnia.
Traditional users take one teaspoon a day. You can stir a teaspoon of the extract powder into fruit juice or infuse with other herbs. Over a few months time, the astringent, adaptogenic properties of the berries help you become less reactive and more inwardly resilient and grounded.
Make your own schisandra tonic drink by soaking 1/2 cup schisandra berries in a gallon of dark fruit juice. Soak for one day. Drink as needed.
Avoid during pregnancy and when feverish.
Cordyceps Mushroom (Cordyceps sinensis)
Cordyceps is technically a fungus. It acts similarly to mild adaptogenic herbs.
Cordyceps is a mild sedative. It supports the adrenal glands and makes cells use cortisol more efficiently. Because the glands produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, they don’t have to work as hard.
Other benefits are increased blood flow to the brain. It is useful for treating tinnitus and depression. It lowers LDL and VLDL cholesterol levels, strengthens the immune system, and has anti-tumor activity. Cordyceps modulates several cytokine pathways to reduce inflammation in the body.
This mushroom improves libido and sperm count in men. It speeds up muscle recovery and enhances athletic training.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
Maca root was prized by the Incans and has been used as a nourishing superfood and culinary staple for thousands of years in Peru. It boasts a high mineral content, 6 sterols, up to 20 essential fatty acids, protein, lipids, amino acids, carbohydrates and a high mineral content.
Peruvian ginseng does double duty as a gentle, effective herbal energizer. This powerful herbal adaptogen increases stamina, balances the endocrine system, boosts libido (1500 mg/day), and protects your organs and adrenal glands from the ill effects of cortisol. Maca balances mood by easing depression, stress and anxiety, and fatigue. It is particularly helpful for women during their menses and menopause. Maca is best avoided if you are at risk of estrogen driven cancers.
One tablespoon of maca powder added to food or smoothies is a typical serving. Start with a teaspoon or less to see how it affects you. Although it is generally considered safe to use as a food or supplement, it may be best to rotate a few days on and off because of its affect on hormones.
Astragalus (A. membranaceus)
Astragalus root has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. It is best known as an adoptogen, or tonic herb.
As an adaptogenic herb, astragalus helps your body cope with the effects of stress in several ways. When you are stressed, it is natural for your immune system to be suppressed, inflammation to flare, and your cortisol production to spike. Astragalus is an excellent herb for strengthening the immune reservoir and rebuilding depleted endocrine and immune activity. It supports cortisol production and has anti-inflammatory effects.
You may find this tasty, mild flavored dried root in Oriental markets. Add chopped pieces of root right to the soup pot or add finely chopped root pieces to foods and beverages.
Talk to your doctor before using astragalus if you are on immune suppressing drugs or lithium as it may interact negatively with these medications.
The ginsengs are widely recognized adaptogenic herbs.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is mildly stimulating to the central nervous system. It nourishes the HPA axis and lowers cortisol levels. It is a warming herb useful for chronic stress and has a mild effect on anxiety and depression.
American ginseng is useful for chronic fatigue and weakness and dry conditions such as dry coughs and dry eyes. American ginseng is probably a better choice for people in their thirties to fifties than Chinese ginseng.
Panax ginseng is a more stimulating and hot tonic herb. It is more appropriate for older men or those with very depleted energy.
According to master herbalist David Winston, other herbal adaptogens include Dang Shen, Amla, Guduchi, He Shou Wu, Jiagulan (Gynostemma) Lycium (Goji berry), Shatavari, Shilajit and Rhaponticum.
Adaptogenic herbs help your mind and body allay the negative effects of chronic distress so common in our modern lifestyles. Because of this, they help you stay healthier and live longer.