Healing with Natural Herbs: Adaptogens

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Most people are aware of the common ways to combat stress. We have all heard about improving our diets, exercising, and beginning a meditation practice.  But did you know that an array of botanicals (plant substances) exist that help the body return to physiologic balance? Introducing, the magical world of adaptogens.

An adaptogen is an herb that increases the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote, restore, and balance healthy physiologic functioning. Adaptogens work by increasing the body’s resistance to multiple stressors.  Stressors that can be physical, emotional, chemical, or environmental. They are effective against both acute and chronic stress. They combat fatigue, enhance mental performance, reduce physiological stress, reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and improve overall health and wellbeing.

Although the term is relatively new to the Western vocabulary, adaptogens have been used for many centuries by nearly every culture around the world. In Chinese Traditional Medicine, they are called “tonics”, and in Ayurvedic Medicine, they are referred to as “rasayanas.” The list of adaptogens is long. The following is not a complete list of adaptogens, it is simply a short list of my personal favorites:

  • Ashwagandha = One of the Rasayana herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. It is known to promote intellectual capabilities, improved memory, improved concentration, improved sleep, and mental well being, as well as promoting youth and longevity. Because ashwagandha is an immune stimulant, those with autoimmune conditions should consult a knowledgeable provider before starting to use this plant.
  • Cordyceps = The cordyceps mushroom has been revered for thousands of years. It is so special and rare that it was reserved for use only by the emperor and royal family in ancient China. In folk medicine, cordyceps are used to help people with kidney disease and heart problems. This mushroom is used to promote energy and vigor. In the U.S., cordyceps are making a big splash with athletes. They utilize this mushroom for its energy, power, and endurance-enhancing properties.
  • Reishi = The reishi mushroom has long been revered in Chinese Medicine for its life-enhancing properties. Studies have shown its constituents are capable of increasing a nerve factor in the brain called nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF helps with the development and survival of brain cells. Many Taoist monks believed the reishi nourished and calmed the spirit and used them to support a meditative life. They referred to this as “Ling Zhi” or “spirit plant.” You might consider using the reishi mushroom if you are working towards spiritual enlightenment.
  • Lion’s mane = This mushroom widely utilized in Chinese Medicine promotes memory, boosts cognition and focus, and protects against brain injury. It is also said to strengthen the immune system, stimulate digestion, and protect against cancer. When I think of the lion’s mane mushroom, I think about brain health, wellness, and protection from neurodegeneration.
  • Holy basil = Also called “Tulsi,” holy basil is widely utilized in Ayurvedic medicine. Holy basil is referred to as the “mother of medicine of nature,” secondary to being revered as an elixir for life and benefactor of the spirit. Holy basil is utilized to treat anxiety, depression, adrenal fatigue, and to reduce acne. It is considered the most antiviral of all herbs in Ayurveda. An easy way to experiment with this adaptogen is to purchase “tulsi tea.”
  • Licorice = This is commonly used in Chinese medicine to treat sore throats, hoarseness, and lung ailments. Practitioners of Integrative Medicine prescribe a type of licorice called “DGL” to treat heartburn and other gastric related disorders. Licorice has a full spectrum of benefits to include being an antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, demulcent (moisturizing effect), and balancing hormones.

Adaptogens should not be considered as a stand-alone cure-all. They should be consumed as a part of an overall lifestyle that includes, a healthy nutritious diet, exercise, good sleep, laughter, stress reduction, connection with others, and living a life of passion and purpose.  There are many books and articles one can find to learn all about adaptogens. Just as you are unique, so is each adaptogen. As with all “plant medicines” we ingest, we must take care to understand their benefits and contraindications and always use due caution. Make sure to consult a healthcare provider knowledgeable in botanicals to get started.