Adaptogenic herbs help improve the body's ability to combat stress -- whether emotional, physical, or environmental. If you're looking for natural ways to relieve the symptoms of everyday stress and anxiety, adaptogenic herbs may be an option.
History of Adaptogenic Herbs
While many adaptogenic herbs can be traced back centuries to traditional Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, it wasn't until 1947 that Soviet scientist, Dr. Nikolai Lazarev, came up with the term "adaptogenic." According to Bionity.com, adaptogenic herbs were given the following specific criteria in the 1960s by Dr. Israel I. Brekhman and Dr. I.V. Dardymov:
- Adaptogens are non-toxic.
- Adaptogens produce a non-specific response in the body in order to increase the body's natural ability to resist stress.
- Adaptogens have a normalizing effect on the body.
Although the herbs have been extensively studied in Russia and studies are ongoing, the herbs are not widely accepted by Western mainstream medicine. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration does not approve adaptogenic herbs for treatment uses. Despite this, the herbs enjoy popularity among holistic healers, naturopaths and those looking for an alternative to conventional anxiety relieving medicines.
Popular Adaptogenic Herbs
While the overall list of adaptogenic herbs is extensive, there are several that are popular and used regularly by supporters. The herbs are commonly taken as supplements or teas but may also be found in juice, dried, and fresh forms.
According to the Natural Health Research Institute's (NHRI) website, animal studies show Ashwaganda has strong antioxidant properties that help boost immunity and reduce cell-damaging free radicals in the body. In addition, studies show the herb may positively alter brain chemistry to improve memory, relax the body, and help relieve stress.
The American Cancer Society's website states that astragalus root is a traditional Chinese medicinal herb that supporters believe kills cancer cells, heals burns, improves weakness, fights colds, and helps prevent heart disease. The site also indicates that some studies show the herb may improve immunity and enhance the effects of immune therapy for some forms of cancer.
Ginseng is a popular adaptogenic herb with many potential benefits. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center's website, ginseng has antioxidant properties that improve cell strength and boost immunity. In addition, Asian ginseng has been found to increase mental clarity.
This herb, also known as tulsi, is a member of the mint family and native to India. Dr. Andrew Weil believes compelling studies show the herb may have impressive stress-fighting abilities. In addition, animal studies show the herb may have antioxidant, antiviral, and antibacterial properties and may help reduce pain and regulate blood sugar.
Licorice root's sweet taste makes it a popular sweetener for candies, drinks, cough medicines and throat lozenges, but the herb may also have strong adaptogenic benefits. It's believed to help treat digestive disorders -- which may be stress induced -- and lung problems. However, licorice root may not be safe for everyone to use. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, large quantities of licorice root may:
- Increase blood pressure, salt and water retention
- Affect cortisol levels in the body
- When taken with diuretics, dangerously lower potassium levels
Wild growing mushrooms are treasured for their medicinal properties and have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine for their strengthening benefits. According to NHRI, the following mushrooms have powerful properties:
- Cordyceps: Found growing wild in western China, Cordyceps is believed to boost immunity and greatly increase endurance and stamina. In fact, NHRI mentions that in 1993, eight Chinese women runners who included Cordyceps in their training diet not only ran the fastest 26.2 miles in the nation's history, but they also broke three world records in the Beijing National Games.
- Maitake: These mushrooms are enjoyed for their taste but are also believed to have the ability to strengthen and add vigor to the body due to their content of immune boosting polysaccharides. Exciting studies on the mushroom are ongoing to verify its ability to reduce cholesterol, treat cancer, and reduce obesity.
- Reishi: This mushroom has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to strengthen the body, help insomnia, and treat coughs and asthma. Reishi mushrooms may also help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce anxiety, and increase mental clarity.
Noni comes from a tropical evergreen shrub and is often consumed in juice form. It's been used for centuries in the Pacific as a general health tonic. NCCAM suggests that studies show noni has antioxidant, anti-tumor, and immune boosting properties. Studies are ongoing to determine noni's effect on breast and prostate cancer cells.
NCCAM cautions that noni is high in potassium so people with potassium restricted diets should avoid the herb. In addition, noni has been shown to cause liver damage.
This herb is found in arctic areas and is believed to have strong adaptogenic qualities. On his website, Dr. Andrew Weil tells of a 2002 review by the American Botanical Council which reported studies concluded rhodiola helps prevent fatigue, stress and the negative effects of oxygen deprivation. The herb is also believed to help fight depression and anxiety.
A 2011 National Institutes of Health (PubMed) abstract indicates that rhodiola shows encouraging signs of antidepressant activity. A separate abstract that evaluated various studies on rhodiola's effectiveness concluded that the herb may have positive effects on mental and physical performance and some mental conditions.
According to a PubMed abstract, animal studies show this diverse adaptogenic herb protects against the stress of several issues:
- Heat shock
- Swimming in a decreased pressure atmosphere
- Heavy metal intoxication
- Aseptic inflammation
Schisandra also shows strong antioxidant activity and is shown to increase endurance and mental clarity. Studies indicate the herb may help relieve symptoms of a wide range of conditions including (but not limited to):
- Psychiatric disorders
- Epidemic influenza
- Gastrointestinal disorders
Suma, also called Brazilian ginseng, is native to the Amazon and tropical areas of Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Venezuela. The herb has been used by people native to these areas for centuries to increase energy, invigorate the body, and help sexual function.
The American Pharmaceutical Association Practical Guide to Natural Medicine indicates that suma is recommended by North American herbalists as an energizing adaptogen. In addition, some studies show suma may help fight cancer; however, these studies are not conclusive and much more research is necessary to conclusively determine suma's health benefits and potential side effects.
Fight Stress Naturally
Stress and anxiety seem to be a daily part of life in today's fast paced world. While some stress can be tolerated, too much will quickly wreak havoc on overall health. Adaptogenic herbs may help your body combat the negative effects of stress, especially when combined with a lifestyle that includes a healthy diet, regular exercise and meditation.
To avoid negative side effects, please consult your doctor before using any adaptogenic herb to manage stress or treat an ailment, especially if you are pregnant or have a medical condition.