Chronic stress might be the worst enemy of well-being. Not only does it feel like a demon on your back whispering terrible things in your ear all day long, it can lead to a host of other issues, from insomnia to digestive problems to heart disease.
Approximately 75 percent of Americans report feeling stressed out on a regular basis, an unsurprisingly high response considering the myriad pressures of keeping up with bills, caring for family and processing our newsfeeds.
The other 25 percent probably might be barely conscious or filled out the survey wrong–or they may have discovered adaptogenic herbs.
Practitioners of Chinese and ayurvedic medicine have used medicinal plants for thousands of years to treat stress-related conditions, but it wasn’t until 1947 that Soviet scientist Dr. Nikolai Lazarev defined the term “adaptogenic” to refer to any herb that raises the body’s ability to resist stress. Modern herbalists have identified more than several dozen from a variety of plant families, each with a particular set of benefits that may include increased vitality, immunity and mood. Some like ginseng and gotu kola are well-known in the West while others such as shatavari and ashwagandha are still entering the alternative health lexicon, but adaptogens as a whole are gaining traction.
“Adaptogens are becoming more and more popular because they’re generally pretty safe, and they work,” says herbalist Maria Noel Groves, who has been working with adaptogens for over 15 years in her New Hampshire practice and through her website, wintergreenbotanicals.com.
Groves is the author of the recently released Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self-Care, a beautifully illustrated reference tome that is an essential addition to the experienced herbalist’s toolbox as well as an excellent first text for those new to the topic. In the midst of a cross country book tour, she will deliver a talk on using adaptogens for stress and energy at Brighter Day Natural Foods on Thursday, Sept. 22.
“Adaptogens are great to explore even if you’re new to herbs,” assured Groves from the road last week.
“They can help people feel better right away and help transition to the deeper work of changing their diet or exercising more or whatever long term changes need to be made.”
She explains that adaptogens go to work at the root of the body’s stress response: The endocrine and nervous systems.
“That’s where our bodies produce stress hormones, and the herbs help modulate the output so we’re not overproducing or underproducing them,” she says, adding that maintaining a state of optimal health is the goal of herbal medicine rather than treating a specific symptom or disease.
Groves was first introduced to herbs by her mother, a holistically-minded nurse who kept a garden, and began researching them more deeply in college while studying journalism. She first learned about adaptogens while serving as the editor for National Health magazine in 2000, and transitioning to a full-time herbal practice has been the culmination of a lifelong passion.
“I knew from an early age that there were more to plants that most people realized,” she recalls.
“I thought it was fascinating that herbs had superpowers.”
Groves classifies adaptogens as stimulating, balancing or calming, and adds them to her clients’ tinctures or teas based on specific properties.
“Each one has its own special powers. I use ashwagandha a lot in my practice because it’s gentle and can help people sleep better. Schizandra is great for liver support, and gotu kola works well for brain function and circulation,” she lists.
“Holy basil—some know it as ‘tulsi’— balances cortisol and blood sugar and can improve mood and relieve anxiety. It’s a very enjoyable experience to have a cup of holy basil tea.”
Panax ginseng is perhaps the most well-known stimulating adaptogen for its popularity in Chinese medicine, but overharvesting has led to illegal poaching and inferior imposter products. Groves and other ethically-minded herbalists prefer more sustainably-grown energizing herbs such as rhodiola and codonopsis. But such remedies work cumulatively and aren’t a quick fix for fatigue caused by stress.
“It’s not like having a cup of coffee,” she clarifies. “I tend to view them as a continuum.”
Groves’ booksigning and lecture is presented by Georgia’s Lowcountry Chapter of the American Herbalists Guild, a “lively group of herbal enthusiasts” who host monthly educational gatherings and share resources.
“This is the first time we’ve done an event focused on adaptogens,” says Claire Brodhead, the chapter’s vice president.
“I am thrilled that we’re able to bring this knowledge to the Savannah community because when incorporated into one’s life, adaptogenic herbs have the potential to decrease stress, improve energy, and support wellness on many different levels.”
Using herbal medicine to maintain good health is nothing new for Brodhead, the daughter of longtime community health advocates and Brighter Day proprietors Janie and Peter. With the help of her fellow “herbies,” she’s continuing the family legacy of providing education about natural ways to get a handle on widespread health issues.
“Who doesn’t deal with stress?” wonders Brodhead, who counts ashwagandha as one of her favorite adaptogens for its calming, restorative qualities.
“Alleviating the symptoms of prolonged stress—fatigue, burnout, insomnia and suppressed immunity—is an area where herbal medicine can really shine.”