I say it often. Plants are medicine. They have the power to heal, strengthen, and calm the body and mind. In addition to topping up our everyday nutrition with diverse, life-giving plant foods, there are many herbs, in particular, adaptogens, that we can use to naturally promote calm focus, strengthen immunity, and energise the body. When stress accumulates and uncertainty looms, embracing at-home herbal practices can help to ground, support, nurture, and soothe us.
During a time that feels unstable, it’s helpful to consider how our rituals and daily practices – those daily moments of slowing down – can have a profound impact to our overall health and wellbeing. For me, both the ingredients and the process contributes to a sense of deep nourishment and healing, a powerful boost to both my physical self and overall energy.
Making space for herbal rituals offers us tools and the space to slow down, even for just a moment, allowing our physical, mental, and emotional systems to relax. Just like a nutrient-dense diet and a calming self-care practice, infusing your daily routine with a dose of herbs can turn daily rituals like making a tea, tonic or elixir, into an opportunity to check-in with yourself throughout the day. When you give yourself space, you can re-connect and re-centre. And that is the greatest comfort of all.
What are Adaptogens?
One way of looking at it is to see adaptogens as a kind of thermostat – they turn the heat down it it’s too hot and turn it up if it’s too cold, by sensitising or de-sensitising the cells in your body to chemical-based signals they receive. In other words, adaptogens help your body improve its ability to handle physical, mental, and environmental changes by supporting balance and promoting homeostasis internally. They calm and nourish the adrenal glands, and can stabilise everything from blood sugar to hormonal balance to blood pressure.
These corrective, tonic herbs have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Research has found that adaptogens work through two master control systems in the body. They support the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, an important crossroads in the body that controls endocrine function, as well as the nervous system and immune function, detox pathways, and the brain.
Here’s a quick whistle stop tour of what these glands do:
Pituitary gland: Known as the “master gland” of the hormones, it sits in the brain just behind the base of your nose. It controls everything from the oxytocin boost a new mother receives when she’s breastfeeding, growth hormones for muscle and bone development, thyroid vitality, and sex hormones for activating libido and stimulating fertility.
Hypothalamus: Neighbour to the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus is in charge of monitoring overall homeostasis in the body, including the critical water to electrolyte ratio in our cells, appetite and sleep cycles.
Adrenal glands: Sitting atop your kidneys, these triangular glands secrete adrenaline and are responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response: raising your heart rate and spiking blood sugar in order to trigger action.
How do Adaptogens Work?
This important trio works synergistically to mitigate the effects of stress – emotional, physical, acute, or chronic – and alchemise the rush of cortisol and adrenaline efficiently. Adaptogens help to neutralise the inflammation that happens when our bodies, after being regularly overloaded by toxins – pollutants in the air and in everyday products, herbicides and pesticides sprayed on conventionally grown food, to name just a few – are then bombarded with a constant flood of these stress hormones.
Our bodies are extremely resilient and adaptive under a variety of conditions. However, in our busy modern lives, the constant combination of stress, caffeine, poor diet, and lack of sleep keeps the stress response system turned on, putting the body at a persistent low level of threat. Stress and fatigue tend to be a huge struggle for just about everyone, causing detrimental effects to your physical and mental health. Chronically elevated cortisol levels can affect every system in your body like burnt out adrenal glands, overstressed digestive tract, anxiety, chronic fatigue, weakened immunity, inflammatory and autoimmune disorders and hormonal imbalances. Eventually adrenal fatigue can finally take over. When this happens, the fatigue, hunger, and inexplicable weight gain follow and feeling good in our bodies all of a sudden becomes an uphill battle.
5 Adaptogens to Calm, Restore + Recalibrate
These rejuvenating plants improve and recharge the health of your adrenal glands, counteracting the harmful affects of stress. Cells are accessed more energy and the ability to eliminate toxic by-products of our normal metabolic processes to help the body use oxygen more efficiently. More cellular energy in combination with boosting the adrenal glands strengthens your body’s ability to cope with stress, anxiety, and fatigue – calming you down and boosting you up simultaneously. Here are 5 of my favourite adaptogens:
Tulsi (Holy Basil): Tulsi is a staple for most plant healers, and a mainstay in Ayurvedic teaching. Also called Holy Basil, Tulsi boasts being “an herb for all reasons” – it’s antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and full of antioxidants. It’s also an adaptogen, meaning it modulates cortisol and stress response in the body. Tulsi also contains eugenol, a plant compound that elevates the mood, increases clarity and harmonises. My favourite way to enjoy tulsi is in a warm cup of chai (see recipe below).
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum): Referred to as the “Diamonds of the Forest,” there are a number of medicinal mushrooms including cordyceps, shiitake and chaga. Perhaps the best known and studied is reishi, which has been used in China for over 3,000 years. Reishi is high in beta-glucans, the polysaccharides that have been found to activate an immune response. It is known to be calming for the nervous system and can help with insomnia, nervousness and anxiety. I like to make a delicious plant-based Adaptogenic Latte with a combination of both reishi and ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): The easer of anxiety, depression, and sleep issues. It stabilises the endocrine/nervous system connection points, and modulates the stress response. It subtly alleviates psychosomatic stress and stabilises mood. Along with its immuno-modulating effects and anti-inflammatory properties, ashwagandha also lowers cortisol levels and helps increase antioxidant stores to fight oxidative stress, as well as soothes anxiety, nervousness and insomnia. I like to mix it into Moon Milk, a warm elixir of plant-based milk, spices and cacao butter.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus): Increases the amount of anti-stress compounds our bodies use to prevent and repair stress-related damage. By reducing the ability of stress hormones like cortisol to bind to receptors, astragalus boosts immunity and shields the body from the effects of stress. I recommend adding dried astragalus to a batch of Miracle Broth, or adding 20-30 drops of astragalus root extract to your daily tonics or elixirs.
Rhodiola Rosea (Golden root): Contains the phytochemical salisdroside, which helps resist anxiety and ageing. Other benefits include suppression of the production of cortisol, increased levels of stress-resistant proteins, restoration of normal patterns of eating and sleeping after stress, resistance to mental and physical fatigue, and protection against oxidative stress and toxic chemicals. Additional research has shown this adaptogen can protect the heart and liver, increase use of oxygen, improve memory and longevity, as well as aid in weight loss. One of the easiest ways to take it is in supplement form.
Where to Begin With Adaptogens
The wonderful thing about adaptogens is that they adapt to your needs. And because these adaptogens will meet you where you are in this moment in time, it may require some trial and error to find your personal favourites.
How to know which adaptogenic herbs or plants are best for your body takes a healthy combination of consulting an expert, knowing your body, and a touch of safe experimentation. Many adaptogens can seem similar in their benefit descriptions. Whilst there is overlap, each adaptogen has its own unique spirit and personality. For example, even though two different adaptogens are helpful for sleep, one might work better for you than the other.
When you’re getting started, stick to one adaptogen at a time. Slowly add it to your diet and notice how it works with your body. If you are significantly tired, or dealing with chronic fatigue or burnout, make sure to start with a very low dose of the gentlest adaptogens, alongside building your strength with nutrient-dense food, regulating your blood sugar level and getting plenty of restorative sleep and active rest. Once you get some energy back, you can branch out and try others, but carefully monitor how you feel.
Although many people experience instant effects after supplementing with certain adaptogens, it may take a while before you experience any changes depending on your base level balance when you start. However, it’s worthwhile to stick with one adaptogen for at least a couple of weeks before stopping it and trying another. Once an adaptogen has completed its job, the herb is eliminated or absorbed into the body without any side effects. Again, please remember, adaptogens work slowly and gently; you must be patient because they work subtly but the benefits are undeniable and long lasting.
The Bottom Line
Adaptogens are non-toxic in normal therapeutic doses. But one size does not fit all. The idea is to learn about adaptogens and work out which one – or which combination – fits you. Listen to your body and tune in. Trust your gut and intuition, but consult a medical professional if you are dealing with health issues or experience symptoms of discomfort. If you align your needs and cravings with the right adaptogen, it can be a powerful tool on your wellness journey.
Sourcing Good Quality Herbs
David Winston, an herbalist and ethnobotanist (see resources) recommends sticking with high quality herb companies, where the principals are actually herbalists – who follow the FDA’s good manufacturing practices and herbs are their business, rather than nutritional supplements and they have organically grown or consciously wildcrafted herbs.
In the meantime, here is my go-to readjusting, energising and calm focusing Tulsi Chai Elixir.
Tulsi Chai Elixir
2 tablespoons tulsi (holy basil) leaves or 3 tea bags, broken open
1 cinnamon stick
2-inch piece fresh ginger, sliced
6 cardamom pods, cracked
1 star anise
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon pure vanilla powder
4 black peppercorns
This tea is best taken when the whole spices are used. Use an electric spice or coffee grinder, or a pestle and mortar to grind and blend your spices. Begin by grinding the cinnamon, cardamom pods, cloves, anise, fennel seeds, and black peppercorns together into a rich powder. Add 4 cups filtered water and the tulsi tea, ginger slices and vanilla powder to a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then cover and continue to simmer for at least 10 minutes. Remove the cover and carefully pour the tea through a sieve lined with muslin, catching the ingredients to discard. Add 1/4 cup of the chai to a tea bowl or cup. The rest can be stored in a glass bottle in the fridge until ready to use (slowly reheat).
I love to make a latte by heating and frothing plant-based milk (oat, almond, or coconut) in a creamer. Pour over the chai and dust with bee pollen – a luxurious superfood loaded with anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties, plus vitamins and minerals. Food of the Gods. If you don’t want to use plant milk, you can stir a little ghee, cacao butter, or coconut oil into the chai. The addition of healthy fats aids assimilation and absorption of the wonderful properties of the chai.
For more at-home adaptogenic elixir recipes see here.
You should avoid experimenting with adaptogens if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medication for a mood disorder. It is always optimal to consult with a health professional when considering which herbs and adaptogens are right for you.
David Winston is a clinical herbalist and ethnobotanist with nearly fifty years of training in Chinese, Native American, and Western herbal traditions. His 2007 book with co-author Steven Maimes, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, is an excellent beginner’s guide.