Adaptogen herbs help the body to treat stress, anxiety, and to remain in equilibrium. They build up the immune system and are preventative remedies.
I live in Manhattan, New York City an island with 1.6 million people, skyscrapers, and little nature. The pace here is fast and stress and anxiety can be found around any corner with sirens, crowds of people, cars honking, subway delays, crime, etc. This exposure to constant chaos drew me to study herbs and apprentice at New York City's Flower Power Herbs and Roots as a way to understand how to naturally deal with stress and anxiety.
The National Institute of mental health states that stress and anxiety is normally treated with medication and or psychotherapy. The medications include benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and beta-blockers none of which are a cure as they only treat symptoms. Medications prescribed by doctor may have side effects such as, building up a tolerance and dependency and suicidal thoughts or behavior.
During my studies as an herbalist apprentice, I was most drawn to herbs that (see list below) treat stress, anxiety, and help the body remain in equilibrium. These herbs are known as Adaptogens which help the body deal with different types of stress including: physical, biological, emotional, and environmental. They have immune building properties and are more preventative than curative.
Adaptogenic herbs are not actively discussed in popular media because they are preventative remedies and preventative medicine is invisible. Invisible meaning that it prevents the dis-ease in the body that causes the state of imbalance. If the disease is prevented did it ever exist?
What are Adaptogen Herbs?
Adaptogens are natural substances (herbs and botanicals) that help the body adapt to stress, increase the body's resistance to physical, biological, emotional, and environmental stressors, and they provide a defense response to acute or chronic stress.
The formal and simple definition of adaptogens is that they are relatively nontoxic, produce a nonspecific defense to stress, and have a normalizing influence on the body.
Nontoxic means they cause minimal side effects on physical and mental health.
Nonspecific defense to stress means it builds adaptive energy to keep the body balanced as it faces daily stressors.
Normalizing influence means it enhances the body's natural balance by helping to return to a natural state. Adaptogens are able to influence the body in a calming or energizing way, depending on what the body needs. This is known as a bidirectional effect.
Whole Plant vs Individual Constituents
I am drawn to adaptogen herbs because they are the whole plant versus individual constituents. An example of an individual constituent you may have heard of are flavonoids, found in fruits, vegetables, and Tulsi. Even though the constituents are considered the active ingredient by drug makers, each plant has dozens or even hundreds of constituents that work together as a microscopic army to build up the body's defense system. If the active constituent is isolated then it is working alone on the body without its "army" that helps it to prevent adverse effects (aka side effects) on the body as a whole.
Types of Adaptogens
There are well-researched adaptogens, probable adaptogens, and possible adaptogens. There are also complimentary herbs for adaptogens including nervines and nootropics that work synergistically to combat stress and anxiety.
The herbs below are the ones that I like and keep stocked in my personal apothecary. You can find most of them at your local grocery store, health food store, or herb shop.
Withania somnifera - I include this herb in many of my herbal blends. The flavor is light and pleasant and mixes well with many herbs. It is one adaptogen that is well researched and officially classified as an adaptogen herb. It is calming and helps to regulate the thyroid and adrenal glands. It works to relieve anxiety, fatigue, and nervousness. I also like the alcohol tincture and the glycerite both are pleasant tasting and a great addition to your medicine cabinet. Add this herb to your day time - energizing herbal blends and/or to your night time relaxing/calming herbal blends.
Holy Basil (aka Tulsi) –
Ocimum tenuiflorum (Rama), sanctum (Krishna), and gratissimum (Vana). I love all three varieties and usually have at least two on hand. Rama is cooling and mellow, Krishna is crisp and peppery and Vana is floral and fragrant. Tulsi can enhance immune function and relieve anxiety while promoting cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and decision making. Tulsi has a beautiful flavor and is a complimentary addition to many herbal blends. Add this herb to your day time - energizing herbal blends and/or to your night time relaxing/calming herbal blends.
Glycyrrhiza glabra – this herb is SUPER sweet and a little goes a long way. It is typically used in herbal formulas for coughs and respiratory issues. It is an antiviral and anti-inflammatory. It also works well as a sweetener of bitter herbs and to mellow spicy herbs like ginger. This is another herb you can freely add to most blends but treat it the way you would treat a sugar alternative, it is extremely sweet.
Nervines are calming herbs that help restore emotional balance and nourish the nervous system. They help to relieve stress and anxiety. Both of the herbs below are gentle enough for children.
Matricaria recutita – is sweet yet slightly bitter. It is one of the most popular herbs used as tea and most people already know it and have it on hand. It provides relief to anxiety, upset stomach, and insomnia. Good for kids and adults.
Lemon Balm –
Melissa officinalis – smells lemony and minty and is on the sweet side. It helps to improve mood, promote better sleep, and it also has antiviral properties. This herb blends well with the other herbs mentioned. Good for kids and adults.
Nootropics enhance memory and improve mood. These are the herbs known as smart drugs.
Lavandula angustifolia and latifolia – this is a well-known herb used as medicine and in perfumes. It is calming to the mind and gut. It promotes restful sleep and prevents night-time waking. A small of amount of this herb goes a long way. It is so mighty that even the scent induces a calming force.
Rosmarinus officinalis – this is a well known culinary herbal spice and it also used as medicine. It is used to treat cloudy thinking and reduce anxiety. Add it to your herbal teas, infusions, and foods.
If you want to learn more, I highly recommend, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, by David Winston with Steven Maimes (pictured above). Most of the information in this blog post is attributed to it. It goes into detail on all the herbs above plus many others. It is a great addition to any herbal reference library.
Daytime Infusion Blend Recipe
Ashwagandha 2 parts
Holy Basil 1 part
Lemon Balm ½ part
Licorice ¼ part
Nighttime Infusion Blend Recipes
Ashwagandha 2 parts
Chamomile 1 part
Lemon Balm ½ part
Lavendar ¼ part
Anxiety Disorders, The National Institute of Mental Health, https://www.nimh.nih.gov, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders#part_2225
David Winston with Steven Maimes, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief