Herbs are powerful medicines. In fact, an estimated 50 percent of all modern medicines are derived from herbs, including aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) from the salicin in willow bark, morphine from the opium in the poppy plant, and paclitaxel (Taxol), a chemotherapeutic agent, from the taxanes in the yew tree. Among the most powerful and wide-acting herbs are a class called adaptogens.
Adaptogens help your body adapt to stress. Research shows that prolonged, nonstop stress can drive you into chronic disorders and diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, high blood sugar, diabetes, overweight, digestive problems, and more. Stress is so destructive to physical, mental, and emotional well-being that it can worsen any health condition.
Along with their ability to counter stress and thereby aid in the prevention and treatment of ill health, adaptogens can also restore and rejuvenate your cells, tissues, and organs (including the brain) to improve mood, increase focus, and boost physical energy. In my clinical practice, I have found six adaptogens that are uniquely effective.
This Asian herb, also called eleuthero, can improve mental function, strengthen memory, and clear up brain fog. Researchers reported in Nutrients that people who took eleuthero for three months saw improvements in memory, thinking ability, and resistance to stress. It is excellent to take right before a presentation, test, or other challenging mental task. It is also good for banishing fatigue, according to a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
This is my favorite adaptogen. I used it myself during medical school and residency for improved stamina, concentration, and better mood, and to relieve exhaustion.
Dosage: Take 2 to 3 grams of dried root daily or 2 to 4 milliliters (mL) of a tincture two to three times daily.
Warnings: In high doses, siberian ginseng may increase blood pressure.
This herb is rich in rosavins, salidrosides, and other compounds that help control stress. It is excellent for boosting cognitive function. In a scientific paper published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, researchers reported that the herb can relieve feelings of stress, anxiety, anger, confusion, and depression in people under severe stress; reduce fatigue in doctors on night shifts; and improve concentration, work speed, and quality.
Dosage: Look for a product standardized to contain 2 to 3 percent rosavin and 0.8 percent salidroside rhodiola. Take 200 to 400 milligrams (mg) daily, ideally in a formula that combines rhodiola and eleuthero.
Warnings: Because it is mentally stimulating, rhodiola rosea is contraindicated for people with bipolar disorder. It can lower blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Rhodiola can stimulate the immune system, which can worsen autoimmune diseases. Like grapefruit, it can affect how the body processes medications that are broken down by the liver.
This gentle, balancing adaptogen—from Ayurveda, the ancient system of natural healing in India—can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, researchers reported in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. As a result, it may help with stress, insomnia, and mild anxiety.
Dosage: Take 1 dropperful of a tincture (about 40 drops or one teaspoon) three times a day in a shot of water. (Tinctures taken directly can irritate the mucosa in the mouth and digestive tract.) Or take a 500 mg capsule twice daily. You can also add it to tea, soups, or bone broth. Because it is a non-stimulating adaptogen, you can take ashwagandha long-term.
Warnings: If you are allergic to nightshades, like white potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers and eggplants, do not take ashwagandha. Also avoid it if you have hormone-
sensitive prostate cancer or if you take benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, or barbiturates.
Also known as holy basil, tulsi is another gentle adaptogen that you can take long-term. And like many adaptogens, tulsi is useful for insomnia and mild anxiety, according to a study in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. There, researchers also cited evidence that it can help lower artery-damaging blood fats like LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. If you’re considering quitting smoking, consider tulsi: According to the experience of many herbalists and their clients, it helps reduce the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. It can also elevate mood in people with mild depression, according to a study from researchers in India.
Dosage: Take 1 to 2 tablespoons of tulsi tincture in a 12-ounce cup of water.
Warnings: Don’t take tulsi for two weeks before or after surgery because it can slow blood clotting.
Maca is a cruciferous vegetable similar to broccoli, native to the Andes mountains of Peru (and purportedly used by Mayan warriors for strength and stamina). It’s a great alternative to caffeine to boost energy, mood, and perhaps libido, according to a report in Food & Function. And a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology shows it can also boost athletic performance and sexual desire.
Dosage: Add a tablespoon or so of the dried or powdered root to a daily smoothie. (Maca is more like a food than an herb and doesn’t dissolve well in water.)
Warnings: Maca is contraindicated in Hashimoto’s disease (autoimmune disease of the thyroid). Extracts from maca might act like estrogen. If you have any condition that might be made worse by estrogen, do not use these extracts.
This adaptogen—the primary tonic for women in Ayurvedic medicine—can improve symptoms associated with menopause, like hot flashes and insomnia, according to a study in the Journal of Research into Traditional Medicines. Shatavari also stimulates the digestive tract, helping relieve constipation, according to a study in the International Journal of Ayurvedic Medicine.
Dosage: Take 30 to 90 drops of tincture, two to three times daily.
Warnings: Because it is rich in phytoestrogens, do not take shatavari if you have a history of estrogen-receptor-positive breast or ovarian cancer.
When choosing an adaptogen, discuss the herb with your doctor or another qualified health professional familiar with nondrug treatments. Although adaptogens are generally safe, there can be contraindications. For example, many adaptogens are contraindicated if you are taking medications to inhibit the immune system or to thin the blood.
For anyone with a complex, chronic disease, such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes, discuss an herbal supplement with a medical professional before taking it.