Stress and fatigue. Judging from the proliferation of coffee and cupcake shops popping up these days, clearly caffeine and sugar are what a lot of folks are using to try to fight back. The problem is, they don’t actually work. Sugar and caffeine do offer a quick lift, but the crash is never far behind – so it’s back to Starbucks to start the cycle again, turning your day into a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows. Fortunately, there are healthier ways to get through the day – and one of my favorites is with “adaptogens,” the special herbs that help your body adapt to stress and resist fatigue. Here’s my adaptogens-at-a-glance guide:
Adaptogens are a unique group of herbal ingredients used to improve the health of your adrenal system, the system that’s in charge of managing your body’s hormonal response to stress. They help strengthen the body’s response to stress and enhance its ability to cope with anxiety and fight fatigue – slowly and gently, without jolts or crashes. They’re called adaptogens because of their unique ability to “adapt” their function according to your body’s specific needs. Though the effects may initially be subtle and take time to make themselves felt, they’re real and undeniable.
Where have they been all my life?
Unlike big pharma drugs, adaptogens weren’t born yesterday. In fact, they’ve been used in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, to boost energy and resilience in the face of stress. Recently, several studies have found evidence to support what those of us in the sustainable wellness field already knew – that adaptogens offer positive benefits —and are safe for long-term use. (Take that big pharma!)
How do adaptogens work?
Adaptogens work a bit like a thermostat. When the thermostat senses that the room temperature is too high it brings it down; when the temperature is too low it brings it up. Adaptogens can calm you down and boost your energy at the same time without over stimulating. They can normalize body imbalances. By supporting adrenal function, they counteract the adverse effects of stress. They enable the body’s cells to access more energy; help cells eliminate toxic byproducts of the metabolic process and help the body to utilize oxygen more efficiently. In short, adaptogens are amazing!
Which adaptogens should I use?
I prefer combination adaptogenic herb formulas and the adaptogen herbs I consider most important include Asian Ginseng, Eleuthero, Ashwaghanda and Rhodiola Rosea. Depending on your needs and physical condition – consult your doctor before taking any herbs and see cautions below – you can take these adaptogens individually or in a combination formula like my Be Well Adaptogens. When buying a formula, look for one that has at least 3 of the above adaptogens and make sure it has some Rhodiola in it. Again, remember consult your doctor first to get the all clear before you start.
For thousands of years, Asian Ginseng has been one of the most valued (and expensive) medicinal plants in the world. It’s believed to affect the body by influencing metabolism within individual cells, and it has been studied extensively for its ability to help the body withstand stress. Western herbalists say that it restores and strengthens the body’s immune response, promotes longevity, and enhances the growth of normal cells. Research indicates that it promotes a sense of well-being and may protect against some kinds of cancer.
Dose: 100-200 mg per day of a standardized extract. Most standardized ginseng extracts supply approximately 4-7% ginsenosides. Or 1-2 grams per day of the dried, powdered root, usually taken in gelatin capsules.
Caution: At the recommended dose, ginseng is generally safe. Occasionally it may cause agitation, palpitations or insomnia. Consuming large amounts of caffeine with large amounts of ginseng may increase the risk of over-stimulation and gastrointestinal upset. If you have high blood pressure, your blood pressure should be monitored when taking it. Ginseng is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Eleuthero is used in traditional Chinese medicine for muscle spasms, joint pain, insomnia, and fatigue. In Germany, its use is approved for chronic fatigue syndrome, impaired concentration, and convalescing after illness. Western herbalists note that it improves memory, feelings of well-being and can lift mild depression.
Dose: 2-3 grams per day of the dried root.
Caution: As with Asian ginseng, Eleuthero is generally safe. But occasionally it has been associated with agitation, palpitations or insomnia in patients with cardiovascular disorders. If you have high blood pressure, your blood pressure should be monitored when taking it. I generally don’t recommend it for pregnant or breastfeeding women, even though limited research hasn’t turned up evidence of harmful effects in the fetus.
Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine. Like Asian ginseng, ashwagandha is used to help increase vitality, energy, endurance and stamina, promote longevity, and strengthen the immune system. Today, herbalists often recommend it for people with high blood pressure, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and impotence associated with anxiety or exhaustion. It enhances endocrine function, especially the thyroid and adrenals. Ayurvedic healers have long prescribed the herb to treat exhaustion brought on by both physical and mental strain.
Dose: 3–6 grams per day of the dried root
Caution: Avoid during pregnancy or if you are taking sedatives or if you have severe gastric irritation or ulcers. Also people who are sensitive to the nightshade group of plants should be careful.
Rhodiola rosea acts like a hormone thermostat, especially as it pertains to cortisol, one of our main stress hormones. I believe that cortisol, which is secreted in sync with your circadian rhythms is usually, if not always, out of whack when you’re stressed out and exhausted. This means the cortisol level is either too high when it should be low or not high enough when we need more. Getting your cortisol back in rhythm when you’re compromised is crucial and Rhodiola literally helps balance the cortisol levels in your body, raising or lowering it as needed. That’s why this herb is particularly useful for treating my stressed out clients! What’s more, rhodiola has demonstrated a remarkable ability to support cellular energy metabolism. It positively affects brain function, depression, and heart health. In my experience, most patients who take rhodiola start feeling better within a few weeks to a month.
Dose: 200 to 600 mg per day of a Rhodiola rosea extract standardized to contain 2-3% rosavins and 0.8-1% salidroside. Or 2-3 grams per day of the nonstandardized root.
Caution: Avoid if you have manic depression or are bipolar. Rhodiola is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Although it’s unusual, at high doses rhodiola can cause insomnia.