What are Adaptogen Herbs and How Do You Use Them?
I love growing medicinal herbs – less domesticated, they tend to be very hardy, require little pampering, and are easy to maintain. Ten years ago I started my collection in pots on a tiny deck of our suburban townhouse, and many of these were brought with me to my current homestead. If you have any interest in growing your own medicinal herbs, I encourage you to give it a try!
Some of the plants that grew in great abundance this year were adaptogen plants, and I want to take a little time to talk to you about these important medicinal plants – what the research is showing, how to use adaptogen herbs, and a few simple adaptogen herbal recipes for you to try at home.
Adaptogen Herbs and
Why You Need Them
What are Adaptogen Herbs?
“All plants contain adaptogenic compounds, because plants have to contend with a good deal of stress themselves.” ~ James Duke, PhD, Scientist and ethnobotanist.
We all experience different levels of stress in our lives, and our bodies strive to adapt. There is a category of herbs called adaptogens that support health and balance, especially the body’s ability to cope with stress, both acute and long-term.
Adaptogen herbs support balanced health, working in a variety of physiological ways with many different systems within the body. These herbs have been used for thousands of years – the healers of the past used these plants often, and now scientific research is expanding our understanding of the many benefits of the adaptogen herbs.
Benefits of Adaptogen Herbs
Research shows the adaptogens enhance general health and well-being in a variety of ways, including:
- Increased energy and vitality. Adaptogens strengthen the entire body by protecting the energy resources from depletion – they have been shown to increase the production of energy at the cellular level (ATP in the mitochnodria).
- Powerful antioxidants. Adaptogens protect against free-radical damage and offer powerful antioxidant protection for cells.
- Healthier aging. By reducing inflammation, reducing oxidative stress, enhancing brain function, protecting liver health, and more, adaptogens may help slow the aging process.
- Reduce anxiety and depression. Adaptogens have a direct effect on nervous system health – research supports they improve mood and relieve stress.
There are dozens of known adaptogens, and research is uncovering more and more about how they work within the body to offer many benefits.
Here is a short list of adaptogen plants that have a long history and growing research supporting their safe use:
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
- Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum, Ocimum gratissimum)
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza globa)
- Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
- Shisandra (Shisandra chinensis)
- Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus)
- Shiso (Perilla frutescens)
- Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)
- American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
The beauty of plant medicines, and something that is not well understood, is the synchronous way they work within many body systems simultaneously, to restore balance and health. Unlike most manufactured pharmaceutical drugs, each plant contains a multitude of chemicals that work both individually and in complement to support the body holistically.
Research is showing that there are, however, adaptogens that seem to have greater affinities for specific systems and I will list a few here with their corresponding benefits.
Adaptogens for adrenal support:
- Holy basil
- American ginseng
Anxiolytic, or anxiety-reducing adaptogens:
Adaptogens for improving depression:
- Holy basil
- Asian ginseng
- Holy basil
How to Use Adaptogen Herbs
Ideally you would speak with your doctor, or an experienced herbalist for recommendations. I am fortunate to have a medical doctor and a nurse practioner who support evidence-based uses for complementary medicine, and they both recommended and encouraged me to use several adaptogen herbs.
I encourage you to do your own research, and be aware that just because something is “natural” does not mean it is without possible side-effects or risk. Herbal remedies can interact with prescription medications and there can be other contraindications.
I also encourage you to shop wisely – herbal remedies are not regulated, and there are a great many products that are of very low quality (and may not even contain the ingredients they claim!) Some of the companies I use and trust include:
- Mountain Rose Herbs
- Gaia Herbs
- Frontier Herbs
- Nature’s Way
Whenever possible, I prefer to use dried herbs, either whole or in powder form. This allows me to see, smell, and taste the herbs, and they are closer to their natural state. It’s also less expensive to purchase in bulk this way. I have a few simple recipes to share using powdered and whole dried plant.
But sometimes convenience and the benefit of having a more precise measured dose means purchasing capsules or tinctures. I encourage you to consider what works best for you.
Power balls, or Zoom balls as herbalist Rosemary Gladstar calls them, are a delightful way to treat your mind and body with medicinal herbs. They are a combination of nut butter, natural sweetener, and powdered herbs. Many years ago, my first herbal teacher, Kat Maier from Sacred Plant Traditions demonstrated this recipe for making adaptogen “Zoom Balls”.
You can vary the recipe depending on what type of nut butter you want to use, the herbal benefits you are looking for, and you can dress them up with chocolate, chopped nuts, shredded coconut, and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom.
- Nut butters you can use include:
Sunflower seed butter
- Sweeteners can be:
Real maple syrup
- For these Power Balls, we will use:
¼ cup astragalus powder
¼ cup eleuthero powder
¼ cup ashwagandha powder
1 tablespoon ginger powder
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup cocoa nibs (or organic chocolate chips)
¾ cup almond butter
½ cup raw honey or pure maple syrup
1. Over low heat, gently warm the nut butter and honey mixture. Just warm enough to make them soft and easier to mix. Once combined, remove from heat.
2. In a second bowl, stir together the powdered herbs and spices.
3. Slowly add the powdered ingredients into the nut butter/honey mixture until a thick paste forms.
4. Once the mixture has cooled, add the cocoa nibs (adding too soon will make a gooey mess).
5. Form the paste into 1-inch balls. If you like, you can roll these in cocoa or shredded coconut.
6. Store the balls in an airtight container and enjoy 2-3 daily.
CLICK HERE to download the pdf recipe.
And here is a lovely video with Rosemary Gladstar demonstrating a recipe for her Zoom Balls:
Uplifting Adaptogen Tea
Tulsi is a lovely aromatic adaptogen and I love it as a tea, both hot and cold. It’s also great combined with other herbs like chamomile and lemon balm.
For one cup of tea, combine 1 teaspoon dried tulsi (any variety, but my favorite is Rama) and 1 teaspoon dried lemon balm. Add boiling water and allow to steep for 3-10 minutes. Strain leaves and enjoy hot or cold. You can add a touch of honey if that is your preference.
I want to remind you that herbs are supportive, but should be part of a holistic approach to health. True health includes strategies to manage and reduce stress, good nutrition, adequate sleep, physical activity, time in nature, creativity, supportive relationships, and spirituality – are all necessary to good health and living joyfully.
More articles on herbs for stress: