There is a group of herbs that have the amazing ability to increase energy levels during the day, reduce tension due to stress, increase endurance, significantly accelerate the recovery process after illness and provide greater mental alertness and deep, restful sleep. As a bonus they are also non toxic and have no side-effects! I personally make sure that I take some of these EVERY DAY.
These superior healing herbs have been used for thousands of years, but serious scientific study did not begin until the 1940s when Soviet scientists explored the benefits of these substances in fighting stress, preventing and reducing illness, maintaining homeostasis, and strengthening the body. The research was part of the Soviet Union’s focused efforts to compete with the West in military development, the arms race, space exploration, Olympic sports, science, medicine, and industry. In 1947 the Soviet scientist, medical doctor, and pharmacologist Nicolai Lazarev gave these herbs the name “adaptogens” and defined an adaptogen as an agent that allows the body to counter adverse physical, chemical, or biological stressors by raising nonspecific resistance toward such stress, thus allowing the organism to “adapt” to the stressful circumstances. In other words, these herbs support the healthy function of EVERY system in the body and protect it from biological, chemical, environmental and psychological stressors.
According to David Winston and Steven Maimes in Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief, in 1968 a functional definition for adaptogens was formally given by Israel I. Brekhman, PhD, and Dr. I. V. Dardymov:
- An adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient.
- An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response in the body – an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents.
- An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.
Published in the 1960s, this definition is still used by many scientists. However, there is currently no binding definition for the term adaptogen. No recognized herbal or scientific organization has come forward with the definitive definition.
So, by now, after discovering what these amazing herbs can do, I suspect you are anxious to know which herbs are considered to be adaptogens. But first consider that adaptogens are food or medicine herbs; none are considered poisons. However medicine herbs are stronger acting than food herbs and need to be used with more careful attention to dosage and reason for use. Research is still ongoing, but I can provide a list of herbs that I believe have been agreed to by most researchers to be in the category of adaptogens and also are considered to be food herbs. I also am excluding herbs that are endangered.
The following adaptogens may not be considered food because they have a more medicinal taste. However they are safe to consume daily.
- Ashwagandha *
- Asian ginseng
- Astragalus root *
- Eleuthero *
- Rhodiola *
Astragalus root is traditionally cooked in stews and soups so that the taste is not noticeable. Ashwaganda, dang shen, and ginseng traditionally are cooked with congee (rice porridge, milk, honey, or ghee to make them edible and turn them into “medicinal foods.” Note that Ashwagandha leaves are toxic.
The mushrooms in the class of adaptogens can be cooked and used to make delicious soups, stir fries, casseroles, and stuffing. Note that cordyceps mushrooms need to be cooked to kill any harmful bacteria.
- Black reishi
These leafy plants have been cooked as potherbs, like spinach:
- Holy basil
In future articles I will describe each of these adaptogens in detail and include their history and some recipes. As the articles are written, a link from this article will be added so that you can use this article as an index. * Indicates available as tincture in Thyme’s Tinctures online store.