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Herbal Adaptogens for Stress & Healing

March 15, 2015

Beyond the Quest for Energy

Stress is a primal experience for all living beings; it’s not just us busy modern humans that have to contend with it. Constant environmental flux, pests and pathogens are a daily source of stress in the plant world and because of that plants have evolved a sophisticated electro-chemical system for maintaining internal balance in the face of stress.

Some plants, known as ‘adaptogens’ have a high level of biological intelligence for responding to stress and they can impart these amazing qualities to us.

Adaptogens like Ginseng which became popular in the fitness industry are typically thought of as an alternative form of energy without the draining effects of caffeine and other stimulants like ephedra. So these herbal allies have been promoted for years as a means to fuel greater endurance in work and sport.

But this marketplace image of adaptogens just feeds into the erroneous assumption that performance is more important than balance when it comes to how we manage stress.

Adaptogens offer a much broader and more meaningful level of support than simply giving us more energy to keep going.

A Wealth of Benefits

In North America we are seeing many chronic health issues mushroom in both young and aging populations that stem from disorder in the endocrine or immune systems, causing autoimmune, metabolic and inflammatory responses to run amok in the body. Plant adaptogens are non-toxic medicines which can gently coax the body back to a more ordered and healthy response to stress.

Herbal adaptogens are historically considered to be tonic herbs that have a general broad reaching benefit on our health; they can impact mood and cognitive function, energy levels and physical performance, blood sugar and blood pressure control, as well as modulate our inflammatory response and resistance to disease and pathogens.

Adaptogens were always legendary in the local culture for promoting long life because of their ability to harmonize and optimize multiple body systems at the same time.

Something very unique about herbal adaptogens is that they have a bidirectional normalizing effect on our physiology. They can either turn up or turn down responsiveness in a given system. For example, if our immune system is overactive in the case of allergies or underactive in the case of frequent colds, an adaptogen will modulate our immune response in the necessary direction.

This is why they are called adaptogens because they help our body adapt optimally to stress of all kinds, whether it is physical, chemical, environmental, viral, emotional or psychological in origin. Adaptogens enhance our immunologic, hormonal and metabolic response to stress, stabilizing our stress biology and improving how our body uses energy.

Adaptogens as Personal Allies

Herbal adaptogens are in my opinion a need-to-know category of natural supplementation for the treatment of a wide range of chronic illnesses and should be the backbone of any preventative, anti-aging strategy.

When we reach the stage in our life journey where we can recognize the impact of stress on our health and energy, we need to begin gathering tools. Herbal adaptogens are an invaluable tool for boosting the stress intelligence of our body as we slowly work on the basics of a healthier lifestyle – rest, relaxation, diet and exercise.

You can incorporate herbal adaptogens into your life simply by choosing to use a single adaptogen that speaks to you and addresses some of your specific needs for a least one month at an appropriate dosage. A customized formula will most often provide greater therapeutic affinity than a single herb but requires the advice of an experienced herbalist. Please contact me if you want to incorporate high quality adaptogens into your lifestyle and would like a personalized evaluation.

A great resource for further learning is: Adaptogens-Herbs for Stress, Stamina & Stress Relief by D. Winston & S. Maimes

Get to Know 7 Great Adaptogens


Rhodiola is my personal plant ally that I use during the winter months to fortify my immune system, replenish my adrenal glands, support my energy and concentration and ward off depression. Similar to Holy Basil it almost instantly enhances mood and cognitive function. Rhodiola oxygenates the blood, signals the body to generate more energy and increases circulation to the brain and muscles. In a single dose it can improve mental and physical energy levels, performance and recovery. Continued use of Rhodiola protects the heart and brain from the impact of stress by balancing the production of stress hormones.


Traditionally licorice root is used for dry coughs, respiratory ailments and gastric irritations like ulcers. It is an important immune modulator which can normalize an overactive immune system in cases of allergies, leaky gut and other autoimmune conditions. Licorice is a natural anti-inflammatory in part because it restores depleted adrenal function and low cortisol production, a combination that has significant benefit for IBS and IBD. Licorice protects the liver from damage due to poisons, viruses or drugs. It is a good adjunct for use with steroid hormones like prednisone as it increases their effectiveness and reduces their toxicity.

Holy Basil (Tulsi)

Holy Basil regulates cortisol production and protects our body from the damaging effects of stress, with a specific affinity for the brain. It improves circulation to the brain and so is useful in cases of brain fog, depression and difficulty with memory or attention. This plant is a powerful antioxidant which benefits the lungs and sinuses and  is therefore very supportive in cases of asthma and airborne allergies.

Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng)

Siberian Ginseng is slower acting than adaptogens like Rhodiola or Panax Ginseng, but is also less stimulating, which for some is ideal. With regular use Eleuthero will build physical endurance, energy and stamina and improve recovery time. Studies show it to be a good regulator of hypertension and hyperlipidemia and over time will reduce the occurrence of colds and infectious diseases. This is a good plant ally for people who work long hours in high performance professions who have difficulty getting adequate rest.


The Chinese word for the reishi mushroom is Ling zhi which means ‘spirit plant’, considered to be a rare herb for the immortals and emperors of ancient times. The Chinese say that reishi restores the spirit in our heart. While not as energizing as ginseng or Rhodiola, reishi is uplifting to the heart while improving cardiovascular function on many levels. Reishi is most studied for its ability to stimulate a powerful increase in cancer-fighting compounds in the body. It is also well known for its immune enhancing effects, both strengthening in cases of immune deficiency and balancing to excessive immune system response. Reishi also protects the liver and enhances its ability to detoxify metabolic waste.


Astragalus is best known as a restorative for a depleted immune system. It is most beneficial for people who are prone to frequent colds, flus and viruses with a special affinity for those who tend to sweat easily, suffer from night sweats, hot flashes or chronic diarrhea. This plant ally is a useful adjunct during cancer treatment because it counteracts the immune suppression caused by chemotherapy while inhibiting the growth of tumors. Astragalus is not meant to treat acute infections but as a slower acting immune system restorative.


Ren shen as it is known in Chinese medicine is the most well-studied adaptogen of all time and is considered one of the great tonic remedies for people who have reached a stage of  exhaustion, depletion or general weakness. Panax Ginseng is the most energizing of all the adaptogens so is more suitable for those whose immune and adrenal systems are worn out from stress or chronic illness. This plant will regulate the stress biology of the body and normalize immune response and is particularly useful as a cancer adjuvant, in chronic fatigue and long-term autoimmune conditions.


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