The Best Adaptogenic Herbs
Jane Reside, ND
for Stress and Anxiety
November 2, 2020
With high levels of stress, particularly over the long-term, our bodies and brains are often negatively impacted. In the first part of our Stress & Anxiety discussion (you can read it here, if you missed it) we looked primarily at the prowess of Ashwagandha as an adaptogenic plant to help us through times of chronic stress, and reduce many of its impacts on us – particularly anxiety. Now we will look at a multitude of other adaptogens that are equally beneficial, particularly for our nervous system and our immune system.
WHAT IS AN ADAPTOGEN?
Coming mainly from the herbal medicine world, an adaptogen is defined as a substance that increases resilience and resistance to stress, and improves vitality. This could be to any type of stress – environmental, illness-related, psychological or emotional, trauma, circumstantial, occupational, financial, or just plain burn-out. It’s important to know that not all stress is bad – we have plenty of evidence that a certain amount of stress is necessary to build resilience, to survive, and to understand the full spectrum of things we need to have in our lives in order to cope with stress.
It’s the ongoing, relentless stress (so often part of life these days) that can do us harm, and this is when our bodies need a little extra support. Of course, we can prioritize healthy food, fresh air, and good sleep; we can top up things like Vitamin D and C, and take our bug-killing herbs, like oregano. But sometimes, something deeper-acting is required.
Adaptogens give us a wide spectrum of resistance to illness, help to normalize function at the cellular level, regardless of the actual illness or pathology, and are innocuous – meaning they have no negative effect on normal physiological function 1. We all know – intuitively or otherwise – that we get sick more often when we’re stressed. Decreasing the effects of stress on the immune system allows us to fight off infectious organisms, like viruses and bacteria, and decrease immune breaches much more effectively.
Let’s dig a little deeper into our favourite adaptogenic herbs.
I’ll start with this amazing therapeutic mushroom, Ganoderma lucidum and sinense. We know Reishi primarily as an immunomodulator, but it also has adaptogenic properties, making it a valuable addition to the medicine cabinet when stress is ramping up just as infectious organisms are making the rounds. The main active components in Ganoderma are the polysaccharides and triterpenes. The polysaccharides, as in many medicinal mushrooms – including maitake and shiitake, in addition to Reishi – have strong immunostimulating properties, and aid in combating viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Evidence shows stimulation and maturation of antibodies, macrophages, and natural killer cells, as well as enhancement of both adaptive and innate immunity by ramping up production of cytokines in response to stress 2. Polysaccharides are also the bioactive compound used in anticancer therapies, mainly by activating T-cells. But it’s the triterpenes unique to Reishi, called ganoderic acids, that are mainly responsible for the adaptogenic activity – these triterpenes have a molecular structure similar to steroid hormones (like, for example, cortisol that we naturally secrete from the adrenal glands). Ganoderic acid has been found to be protective of tissue that is susceptible to oxidative and hormonal damage, like we see in breast or prostate cancer, and of tissue that can be damaged by viruses, like the liver 3, with no observed side effects.
The tastiest way to enjoy Reishi (who couldn’t use a little comfort in these stressful times) is Botanica’s Reishi Hot Chocolate – mix with your favourite hot milk (I’m partial to oat milk, myself) for an adaptogenic boost. Or go straight to Botanica’s Seven Medicinal Mushrooms Liquid Herb for your daily dose to keep all parts of your immune system ready for whatever comes along, and to help your nervous system withstand stress at the same time.
Known as Ocimum sanctum, and in India as ‘tulsi’, holy basil is a wonderful herb for high, acute stress & anxiety, particularly when there is a picture of depression starting to emerge. I tend to think of this herb for someone who is in a state of heightened stress – ramped up, heart racing, edgy and irritable, and not thinking clearly. In fact, early studies on Ocimum sanctum showed its ability to treat acute disorders of the central nervous system, like epilepsy 4.
Holy basil is gentle and calming, while at the same time can improve and elevate mood, and even help with mental clarity, possibly by its ability to reduce anxiety. In Ayurvedic medicine, lifestyle-related chronic disease is seen as a main cause of global morbidity, and the use of adaptogenic herbs has a prominent place in the treatment of many illnesses. Studies show that Holy Basil protects organs and tissues against many kinds of stressors – including pollutants and heavy metals, physical stress from prolonged exertion, chemical stress on the liver from medications, and physiological damage from high blood pressure, high blood glucose, and elevated cholesterol 5. It has also shown direct antimicrobial activity against many pathogens, making this particular adaptogen ideal for that stress-induced, ‘run-down’ picture of lowered immunity. If this is you – you can’t go wrong with Botanica’s Holy Basil Liquid Capsule – just 2 capsules daily gives you the equivalent of 5000mg of the dried herb. And, of course, always check with your naturopath or herbalist first.
This is one of my favourite herbs for stress. Not only does Rhodiola rosea act on the adrenal system in an adaptogenic capacity – i.e. helping the body stay resilient to stress – it also has an affinity for nor-epinephrine receptors in the brain, and at the heart 6. Nor-epinephrine used to be called nor-adrenalin, a chemical most of us are familiar with. This is the hormone that is first out of the gate when the fight-or-flight response is activated by a stress trigger. If we can modulate that, especially when stress is constantly high and we have way too much adrenalin in the system, the stress cascade is stopped or slowed down right at the start, giving us a better shot at controlling anxiety.
Rhodiola is an unusual herb – it’s relatively rare, compared to many of the medicinal herbs we now use, and it only grows in high, cold, mountainous regions mainly throughout Europe and Asia. But it has a long history of traditional use in those regions, enhancing vitality and fighting stress, as well as depression. In Western cultures, Rhodiola first made a name for itself in the world of athletics, used to offset the stress of intense training and competition, prevent fatigue, and increase endurance. Even Russian astronauts were given Rhodiola to prevent fatigue! 6. Many clinical trials have been conducted on Rhodiola rosea, the most widely studied species of rhodiola, and have shown improved mental performance and attention in cognitive function after prolonged periods of stress 7,9, as well as benefit in the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression 8. Preliminary animal studies also show many areas of activity in immune modulation, particularly in the area of cancer research.
Botanica provides Rhodiola Liquid Herb for control over dosages when you don’t need much, as well as in a capsule, Rhodiola Liquid Capsule for a stronger punch for those experiencing high daily stress and are quite run-down. You can also find it in combination with other adrenal supporting herbs in the Daily Adrenal Support Liquid Capsule, when you’re looking for a full-spectrum adaptogenic support.
SO MUCH MORE….
Understanding that the connection between prolonged stress and lowered immunity is real is one thing. Knowing what to do about it is quite another thing altogether. Lowering stress is not always realistic or easy, depending on circumstances. We don’t all have access to the same resources – like yoga classes and counselling. But we can stop and breathe. We can make decisions about what we take on. And we can make use of what nature provides – herbs that function as adaptogens are the protection that we need from the negative consequences of too much stress. Now more than ever – it’s time to go deeper, and make use of these amazing plants.
- Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Healing Arts Press, 2003. p. 483.
- Wachtel-Galor, S., Yuen, J., Buswell, J.A., and Benzie, I.F.F. “Ganoderma lucidum (Lingzhi or Reishi)”. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, 2nd Ed. 2011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92757/
- Saljoughian, M. 2009. Adaptogenic or medicinal mushrooms. Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/adaptogenic-or-medicinal-mushrooms
- Agarwal, C., Sharma, N.L., and Gaurav, S.S. 2013. Anti-epileptic activity of Ocimum species: A brief Review. International Journal of Applied Sciences and Biotechnology. 1(4). https://www.nepjol.info/index.php/IJASBT/article/view/9168
- Cohen, M.M. 2014. Tulsi – Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. 5(4). 251-259. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296439/
- Li, Y., Pham, V., Bui, M.,………… and Zi, X. 2017. Rhodiola rosea L.: An herb with anti-stress, anti-aging, and immunostimulating properties for cancer chemoprevention. Current Pharmacology Reports. 3(6). 384-395 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6208354/#R43
- Olsson EM, von Schéele B, Panossian AG. 2009. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardized extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola. Planta Medica Journal, 75(2). 105-12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19016404/
- Darbinyan, V., Aslanyan, G., Amroyan, E., Gabrielyan, E., Malmstrom, C., and Pannossian, A. 2007. Clinical trial of Rhodiola rosea L. extract SHR-5 in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry. 61(5). 343-8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17990195/
- Ross, S.M. 2014. Rhodiola rosea (SHR-5), Part I: A proprietary root extract of Rhodiola rosea is found to be effective in the treatment of stress-related fatigue. Holistic Nursing Practice. 28(2), 149-54. https://journals.lww.com/hnpjournal/Citation/2014/03000/Rhodiola_rosea__SHR_5_,_Part_I__A_Proprietary_Root.9.aspx