In herbal medicine, herbs are put into groups to explain the effects they have on the human body. Hypnotics assist sleep, sedatives calm the nervous system (very different to prescription sedatives), tonics rejuvenate and revitalise, and demulcents soothe and protect. There are many different types of herbs that cover every organ and body system. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help the body respond to stress, and increase physical and mental performance. They do this by acting on the adrenals directly or the hypothalamus, but as most herbs are multitalented, this is not all they do.
Which herbs are classified as adaptogens?
The Korean & Siberian Ginsengs (Panax ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus), Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), Withania (Withania somnifera), Astragalus (Astragalus membranceus) & Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa) are adaptogenic herbs. Generally, a herb that assists with performance under stress by regulating the adrenals or the hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA axis), improving mental and physical performance, while reducing fatigue, is classified as an adaptogenic. These types of herbs are often prescribed to treat physical, mental or emotional stress, depression and anxiety, and to assist those that require extra support to perform at their best on a daily basis (e.g. students, busy mums and dads, those in high pressure jobs). The goal of treatment with adaptogens is to reduce fatigue and anxiety levels, regulate cortisol, improve focus, concentration, motivation and endurance.
As with all herbs, treating the individual is important; there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Finding the right herb for the right set of conditions is essential, and this relies on the assessment of a number of different factors. Due to emerging evidence of the damaging effects of chronic mental and physiological stress there is an overwhelming amount of research to guide clinical practice and administration of adaptogenic herbs.
Korean Ginseng (Panax Ginseng) – A trial examining hyperactivity and inattention in children aged 6-12 found that Korean Ginseng was able to improve both these parameters significantly (1). It has also been shown to enhance cognitive performance during periods of high mental demand, and helps to lower blood sugar levels (2).
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) – This fabulous herb is not quite as well known as some of the others mentioned here, but there is strong evidence regarding its use in stress, depression and even athletic performance. One clinical trial asked its participants to rate feelings of anger, anxiety, depression, stress and confusion over 14 days. The incidence of all 5 emotional states were found to be significantly reduced with overall improvement in mood also noted (3). Interestingly, Rhodiola has analgesic and anti-inflammatory benefits, which is perhaps the reason it is highly sought after to promote athletic endurance.
Withania (Withania somnifera) – Otherwise known as Ashwaghanda, Withania is certainly one of the better known adaptogenic herbs. It has an amazing ability to improve mental performance while also having sedative properties, making it great for those who deal with high pressure in their daily lives, but also suffer from anxiety or an overactive mind. Well researched and with hundreds of studies examining its use and application, I could easily write a book on the benefits of Withania. In brief, it possesses anti-stress, anti-tumour, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-diabetic properties. It acts as an antioxidant, helps to regulate programmed cell death (important for cancerous conditions), supports mitochondrial and endothelial function (4). Need I say more?
Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa) – Rehmannia is a herb better known for its immune modulating effects, however, studies show that can help to lower cortisol levels, reduce vascular inflammation, oxidative stress and regulates blood sugar (5). In addition, Rehmannia is a liver protective herb, helping to reduce hepatic inflammation and elevated enzymes (6).
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) – Astragalus possesses some remarkable properties. Used to treat everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease, research support its use in physical performance, specifically, for reducing fatigue & lactic acid build up, increasing hepatic and muscular glycogen stores, and increasing endurance capacity (7).
Nutritional support for adrenal and nervous system health
Herbs are an effective means of helping the human body cope with the demands of a stressful lifestyle. However, it is always important to support the body nutritionally as well. Stress depletes essential nutrients, in particular B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin C and zinc, so ensuring that you are eating a diet high in these and other nutrients is very important. Although it is common to experience sugar and salt cravings during periods of stress, this is a sign that your body requires a little extra nourishment – try to increase your intake of lean protein and healthy fats to support metabolism.
As always, do not self-prescribe herbs. Make sure you speak to your qualified natural health professional. If you have any questions regarding these or other herbs and nutrients, feel free to contact us.
(5) Ruxue, Z., Jinhuang, Z., Zhengping, J., Yongxiang, Z., & Guoming, G. (2004). Hypoglycemic effect of Rehmannia glutinosa oligosaccharide in hyperglycemic and alloxan-induced diabetic rats and its mechanism. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 90(1):39-43