We all have it, we all complain about it, but we also all downplay the affect it has on our health and well-being. Small amounts of stress are motivating and propel us in a forward motion allowing us to be inspired and passionate. Large amounts of stress, such as family emergencies or financial burdens, are also a part of life and can’t always be avoided. Our body has an incredible ability to change how it functions under stress in order to protect us and then it quickly recovers from the event allowing us to rest and come back to a normal state of functioning. When stress goes on too long, and the body does not have a chance to recover, we begin to feel illness and dis-ease.
Adaptogens are an elite class of herbs that are superstars at helping the body to handle stress, recover from stress, and improve our stamina, focus, and vitality. These herbs are our “stress relief” herbs because of their ability to always bring the body back to a state of balance. If something in the body is functioning in a hyper or hypo state, adaptogens bring these functions back in alignment.
For an herb to be classified as an adaptogen it needs to meet a few requirements:
- The herb must be non-toxic to the recipient.
- An adaptogen produces a non-specific response in the body- an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
- An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.
Many herbs meet some of these requirements, and have adaptogenic properties, but only a few are truly considered adaptogenic herbs. Here are a few adaptogens that I regularly use in practice:
- Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is a mild adaptogen that enhances stamina and speeds recovery; excellent for athletes. It also enhances immune function and rebuilds white blood counts which is helpful for individuals recovering from serious immune depletions. This also a great herb for the “wired and tired” individual normally referred to as Type A personality.
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is an herb I use with people who suffer depression and depletions of the immune system. Rhodiola supports various endocrine glands and is useful for men and women who experience conditions related to glandular function deficiencies.
- Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has a protective energy that helps prevent illness. This herb is useful for people who get sick often and it also prevents immunosupression caused by chemotherapy. Astragalus enhances the inner strength of individuals receiving cancer therapies allowing them to respond better and to recover more quickly. Astragalus is also very useful for sweating conditions such as night sweats during menopause.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is believed to give its users the stamina and strength of a stallion enhancing vigor and sexual prowess. Sign me up! Along with it’s use as an aphrodisiac it has endocrine system benefits specifically with the thyroid and adrenal glands. This herb is also useful for anxiety, fatigue, cloudy thinking and insomnia due to stress.
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) this herb is most useful for those with adrenal fatigue and insufficiency. I add this to formulas for people who wake up tired, feel exhausted throughout the day, and have elevated cortisol levels. This herb is also useful for inflammatory bowel conditions and ulcers. It is also a great synergistic herb, which means that it just makes other herbs work better when placed together in a formula. There is some concern about using this herb with those suffering from hypertension because of its ability to raise blood pressure.
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) considers schisandra berries the “five flavors fruit” because each of the flavors are present in the berry (sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty). Because it has all of the flavors it has benefits for the five yin organs: liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, and spleen.
There are many more adaptogenic herbs, I have just chosen to highlight the ones I regularly use in practice. Most individuals today are suffering from some type of stress-related condition so it is no surprise that adaptogenic herbs most always make it into one of their recommended herbal formulas. Choosing an adaptogen that is just right for your unique needs is important, although you will experience positive benefits from choosing any one of them.
Winston, D., Maimes, S. “Adaptogens:Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief” Healing Arts Press 2007
Hershoff ND, A., Rotelli ND, A. “Herbal Remedies” 2001