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Stress is a normal part of life, whether triggered by traffic, annoying people, travel, financial or business issues, major life changes, challenging physical demands, or exposure to toxins. But beyond a certain point, it can do more than set our nerves on edge. Stress can make us tired, irritable, depressed, or anxious. It can disrupt sleep and hormone balance, give us heartburn or a headache, provoke cravings, and make it easier to catch a cold or the flu.
Rather than addressing specific symptoms, one category of supplements bolsters our natural ability to deal with stress and rebalances whatever went out of whack, regardless of the trigger. They’re called adaptogenic herbs.
What Are Adaptogenic Herbs?
Botanicals that fall into this group have been used therapeutically for thousands of years, but the word “adaptogen” wasn’t coined until the 1960s by two Russian scientists who were studying plants, Drs. Israel Brekhman and Nikolai Lazarev. They found that certain herbs were particularly good at adapting to and surviving in harsh conditions, and had been helping humans to do the same for a very long time.
In traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, adaptogenic herbs have been called tonics or elixirs because of their wide-ranging benefits. Before trade existed on a global scale, different adaptogens were used only in their native regions but now, the sheer number of choices can lead to confusion.
Each adaptogenic herb has some unique characteristics, which can make it easier to pick one. However, according to Brekhman and Lazarev, all adaptogens also possess these three qualities:
- They are safe and nontoxic.
- Their combination of bioactive substances (all plants contain many) works in more than one way, influencing multiple processes in the human body to improve the ability to deal with different types of stressors. A substance that focuses only on lowering cholesterol or blood pressure, for example, would not be an adaptogen.
- They have a normalizing effect, rather than seeking only to increase or decrease a certain function. For example, the same dose of an adaptogen might lower an elevated substance in the human body or raise it if levels are too low, depending upon what was needed to restore balance in a given situation.
The multiple mechanisms and benefits of adaptogenic herbs are unlike any drug, and the concept of such substances is foreign to the symptom-fix mentality of Western medicine. With their ability to restore harmony among the processes that drive our bodies on a daily basis, adaptogens offer a rejuvenating, holistic path to wellness. And they are growing in popularity, not only in supplements but also in health-enhancing teas, coffees, and other beverages.
Among the many choices, these are some of the top adaptogenic herbs, research highlights, and, the main benefits of each.
A Canadian review of adaptogenic herbs that are used in Ayurveda, India’s ancient healing system, called ashwagandha “the best known and most scientifically investigated of these herbs.” Other research, which was reviewed in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that the herb reduced anxiety scores by 56 percent, whereas psychotherapy reduced scores by only 30 percent.
Ashwagandha calms the central nervous system. In addition, because it reduces unhealthy levels of inflammation, it can also help relieve arthritis. In lab and animal studies, the herb has suppressed the growth of leukemia and prostate, lung, colon, and breast cancer cells.
There are two patented ashwagandha extracts found in many supplement brands:
KSM-66: Benefits include less stress-related food cravings, enhanced endurance and muscle strength, better recovery after exercise, improved memory, and improved sexual function in both men and women.
Sensoril: Benefits include less short-term memory loss, improvements in mental function among people with bipolar disorder, reduced anxiety, and healthier function of arteries, which reduces risk for heart disease.
Key properties: Anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immune balancing, and rejuvenating.
Nicknamed “magic mushroom” and “caterpillar fungus,” cordyceps is technically neither one. Its shape resembles a mushroom but it is a fungus that doesn’t literally grow on caterpillars. It comes from a Himalayan region of northern India, where it grows on caterpillar larvae that lie about 6 inches underground. Traditionally, it has been used for many ailments but especially to enhance longevity and treat erectile dysfunction.
In recent years, this adaptogenic herb has been recognized for improving energy and sexual function, enhancing immunity, and protecting against or helping to reduce the effects of type 2 diabetes. For kidney transplant recipients, it has improved kidney function and reduced inflammatory damage to the organ. For people who exercise, it can improve endurance and stabilize levels of blood sugar during prolonged physical activity.
Key properties: Energy-enhancing, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer, immune balancing, and reduce damage from radiation treatment for cancer.
There are two varieties of ginseng, Asian and American, and another herb that sounds similar—Siberian ginseng, also called eleuthero—which isn’t, botanically speaking, the same herb. All three are adaptogenic herbs and are sometimes combined.
American and Asian ginsengs share multiple qualities: enhancing strength, stamina, and sports performance; improving blood sugar and insulin function in type 2 diabetes; protecting against cancer; and enhancing immunity, leading to fewer colds, for example. American ginseng has also been shown to improve memory in healthy people and in those suffering from schizophrenia. Asian ginseng has reduced menopausal symptoms and improved postmenopausal heart health, relieved cold hands and feet in women, and helped alleviate chronic fatigue syndrome.
Eleuthero, or Siberian ginseng, also enhances immunity, physical performance, and endurance. Better neurological health and, in postmenopausal women, healthier bones and cholesterol levels are other benefits.
Key properties: Performance-enhancing, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer, memory enhancing, and immune stimulating.
Used traditionally in Asia and Eastern Europe, this adaptogenic herb relieves depression, as well as enhancing energy, improving mental performance, increasing physical endurance, and reducing anxiety. A study of people with mild to moderate depression found that rhodiola relieved most symptoms. In a study of doctors on a night shift, rhodiola improved mental function, in arithmetic tests, for example. Another study found that among military cadets undergoing sleep deprivation, the herb reduced fatigue. And in another, students taking stressful exams functioned better mentally and were less tired.
Key properties: Performance-enhancing, both mentally and physically, anti-depression,
3 More Popular Adaptogenic Herbs
As well as reducing the effects of stress and restoring overall balance, each of these adaptogens has some distinctly different benefits.
Holy Basil: Also known as tulsi, this herb protects against chemical stress from exposure to environmental toxins, as well as stress from noise or cold. In addition, it helps normalize levels of blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood fats, and improves memory and mental function. Holy basil is anti-microbial and can be used in mouthwash, sanitizing wipes, to purify water, to preserve food, and to protect against bacterial infection.
Maca: A native of Peru, maca is sometimes called “Peruvian ginseng,” simply because it is used in a similar way as an adaptogenic herb—the two plants are not related. Enhancement of sexual function and fertility, in both men and women, and treatment of menopausal symptoms are other traditional uses. In a study of postmenopausal women, it
relieved depression and lowered blood pressure.
Bacopa: Also known as Brahmi, this adaptogenic herb is traditionally used to treat loss of mental function and memory in older people, and has gained popularity as a memory and learning enhancer. And, it has anti-epileptic properties.