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Anxiety, edginess, fatigue, and insomnia may seem like modern problems, but they’ve always been with us. While today’s version of a “bad day” doesn’t involve a saber-tooth tiger as it did in Stone Age times, it might include an attack from a wild boss, leaving you spent, sore, and sleepless. We live in the same bodies as those of our caveman ancestors, and that primitive body responds to stress by producing hormones that cause adrenal gland and sympathetic nervous system stimulation—as well as increased respiration, blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate.
With acute stress, the body returns to normal quickly. But if stress is prolonged, the effects can be damaging, spawning elevated cholesterol, digestive ulcers, and diabetes. Herbal adaptogens — often called “tonic herbs” — can help defend against this chronic stress and its deleterious effects on the body. They are safe, non-toxic, and have a generalized, normalizing, balancing influence on the body—these herbs not only help the body to cope with stress, but they also enhance immunity, combat fatigue, promote strength, and encourage muscle development and repair. “I consider adaptogens to be among the most important class of herbs to utilize for general health purposes,” says Roy Upton, executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.
Here’s a look at some of the most popular adaptogenic herbs and how you can benefit from their use:
For centuries, Siberians have used rhodiola, also known as golden root or arctic root, to thrive in cold climates. A traditional folk medicine in China, Serbia, Scandinavia, and Ukraine, tea made from rhodiola root helps people deal with physical stresses.
Folk use and modern research tell us that rhodiola supports the nervous system, immunity, exercise capacity, energy, memory, and sexual performance, and may even lengthen lifespan. A recent study found that rhodiola root extract had benefits for physical fitness, mental fatigue, and coordination tests for students during stressful examinations.
Swedish Herbal Institute scientists and their Russian colleagues compared 180 elite Russian cadets before and after routine night duty. Those who had taken a low-to-medium dose of rhodiola did significantly better than those taking either a placebo or nothing. Standardized preparations are commonly used at doses of 100–300 mg, one to three times per day.
Ayurvedic herbalism uses ashwagandha for general debility and exhaustion, memory loss, nerve diseases, cough, anemia, and insomnia, as it nourishes and regulates metabolic processes. According to Michael Tierra, author of numerous books on herbalism, “Ashwagandha is widely regarded by Ayurvedic doctors as the single most important and valuable herb for both men and women. It is good for all weakness and deficiency conditions. By building health overall, it builds sexual energy, and this is noticeable usually after three or four days of regular usage. It’s not a stimulant.”
Ashwagandha has antioxidant activity in the brain, which may help explain its effects, including its reported antistress, immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory, cognition-enhancing, and antiaging benefits. A typical dose is about a gram per day, taken over long periods, up to many years, as a rejuvenator.
An unassuming little garden plant, holy basil, aka tulsi, plays a central role in the folk medicine of South Asia. Much more pungent than pesto basil, holy basil has a bitter taste and larger leaves. In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, tulsi is believed to have adaptogenic benefits, and modern research confirms that it protects against damage from stress.
Tulsi is gaining serious attention in the scientific literature for diabetes, normalizing both blood sugar and blood fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides.
A placebo-controlled crossover study showed a significant reduction in blood sugar (17.6 percent) among people taking the herb. And a recent study showed that a tulsi extract significantly reduced fasting blood glucose. Research also reveals that tulsi is an antioxidant—not surprising, considering its high flavonoid content. Traditionally, tulsi is given as a tea, but you can also take it in capsule or liquid form. Follow label instructions for dosage.
Russian and Chinese traditional medicine has long used schisandra for increasing stamina. “Schisandra has a specific and powerful ability to support adrenals, lessening the negative effects that stress can have on the body. For those living a typical high-stress, high-performance, undernourished and under-rested American lifestyle, it is ideal,” says Upton.
Athletes have used schisandra to both increase endurance and combat fatigue. Multiple animal and human studies have determined that schisandra can help increase stamina and speed, and also improve concentration. One recent paper reported that this famous fruit even improved blood sugar and testosterone levels during heavy exercise. Another study found that schisandra enhanced exercise capacity by lowering lactate accumulation in the tissues. Remember that the effects are slow and gradual. Follow label instructions for dosage.
This well-known, but often misunderstood, herb has been shown in human studies to have a long-term antistress effect; to improve physical and mental performance, memory, and reaction time; and to enhance mood. Ginseng increases physical working capacity in humans in many ways, including stimulating the central nervous system, lowering blood pressure and glucose levels when they’re high, and raising them when they’re low. A preparation of Asian ginseng was tested among 232 chronically fatigued people. Those taking the supplement had improved energy, better concentration, and less anxiety.
A double-blind study tested the effect of ginseng on reaction time during exercise. Fifteen 19-year-old soccer players exercised until exhaustion. Ginseng improved their reaction time at rest and during exercise, and improved psychomotor performance during exercise without affecting exercise capacity.
Recently, Korean scientists studied whether ginseng extract would influence exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation responses. Eighteen male college students took ginseng or a placebo, and then performed a high-intensity running task. Inflammation markers were significantly decreased during the recovery period, and plasma glucose and insulin responses reduced markedly. These results suggest that ginseng could reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammatory responses.
Ginseng is generally indicated for daily, consistent use in moderate doses. “Ginseng and other adaptogens work best after one to three months of moderate use by regulating hormone levels and other biological functions to protect against the damaging effects of chronic stress,” says herbalist Christopher Hobbs, author of The Ginsengs. Follow label
instructions for dosage.
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have recommended eleuthero (aka Siberian ginseng) to boost energy and vitality for more than 2,000 years. And modern science has revealed that the herb contains a treasure trove of beneficial constituents.
A recent review paper pointed out that a great number of chemical, pharmacological, and clinical studies on eleuthero have been carried out worldwide, and considerable pharmacological experiments have persuasively demonstrated that the root possesses antistress, anti-inflammatory, and liver-protective activities. A paper in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology concluded that the active constituents, eleutherosides, help to alleviate both physical and mental fatigue. In one study, a 20-day course of eleuthero tincture caused a decrease in the blood coagulation induced by intensive physical activity, and the herb increased energy capacity and rehabilitation among athletes.
German Commission E, the standard for European herbal uses, lists eleuthero as a “tonic for invigoration and fortification in times of fatigue and debility, or declining capacity for work and concentration, also during convalescence.” Use 2–3 grams per day as a powdered root in capsules.
In 1993, the Chinese women’s track team smashed nine world records. Not one of them was ranked in the top 10 before these contests. Their secret? Cordyceps, a Chinese herbal remedy.
Cordyceps is one of the most unusual substances found in herbal medicine. The fungus grows on moth caterpillar larvae. The mycelium invades the carcass of the insect, converting the flesh slowly into fungal material. The end product is a mushroom-like construction in the exact shape of the bug. This form of fungus is found only in the harsh high-altitude environments of southwestern China, Nepal, Tibet, and isolated localities in Norway, Finland, and Sweden. Wild cordyceps is rare, and extraordinarily expensive. The source of medicinal fungus in most modern supplements is from mycelium grown in a controlled environment, on soybeans or a similar nutrient source, making the medicine much more available and affordable.
In traditional Chinese medicine, cordyceps has been used for approximately 1,500 years. It is classified as a general health tonic, with all the usual adaptogen qualities.
The main claim to fame for cordyceps, as with the Chinese athletes mentioned above, is increasing stamina. For example, the swimming endurance capacity of mice that took cordyceps tea was prolonged from 75 to 90 min. It also reduced stress-induced high cholesterol levels in rats. This was confirmed in a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, where cordyceps again lengthened swimming time, while reducing levels of toxic exercise waste products. In humans, cordyceps was shown to produce improvements in fatigue, dizziness, cold intolerance, tinnitus, frequent nighttime urination, low libido, and memory loss in elderly people at a dose of 3 grams per day.
Cordyceps has a number of qualities to recommend it for cardiovascular benefits. It lowered cholesterol in animals fed a cholesterol-enriched diet in a Korean study. A daily dose of 3–4 grams improved quality of life in a study of 64 chronic heart failure patients. Chinese scientists say that the mycelium lowers blood sugar and increases insulin sensitivity. In Chinese research, rats taking the fungus had less liver damage and subsequent fibrosis when exposed to a toxin.
Cordyceps is also strongly associated with increased sexual function. In-vitro research found that cordyceps increased 17-beta-estradiol, a type of estrogen that is vital to fertility, in human cells. In animals, it significantly stimulated testosterone production.
Most practitioners recommend taking 2–3 grams daily with meals, although Chinese doses are 3–12 grams per day. It may be one or two months before you will see the benefits of cordyceps, as it tends to take effect slowly.
Rich in both saponins and flavonoids, licorice root is anti-inflammatory. The structure of the saponins resembles adrenal hormones. This herb also enhances immune system functioning. Additionally, licorice is a potent liver herb, assisting the liver’s role in hormone balance.
This herb is commonly used in Ayurveda to improve eyesight, strength, sexual potency, and libido. Like many adaptogens, it is thought to enhance the effects of other herbs, which is why licorice is widely used in combination formulas. The generally recommended dose is 500 mg per day.
- Blood sugar balance
- Antioxidant, quenches free radicals
- Liver protection
- Improved ability to process toxins
- Reduced alcohol and sugar cravings
- Improved immunity, increased antibody production
- Increased energy and physical work capacity
- Increased stamina, motivation, and productivity
- Improved muscle tone and strength
- Enhanced recovery from illness
- Improved cognitive function
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved sleep
- Improved color perception, eyesight, and hearing
- Stabilized mood
- Enhanced protein assimilation
Use Adaptogens to Benefit these Conditions:
- Cardiovascular conditions (angina, hypertension)
- Cold and flu
- Immune suppression diseases
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Menstrual conditions (heavy bleeding, PMS)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Ulcerative conditions (gastritis, colitis)