How to Use Adaptogens: Herbs That Strengthen, Energize, and Beat Stress


IstockphotoAdaptogens are herbs whose gentle effects on your body are tricky to measure scientifically. But adaptogens are infinitely useful nonetheless, because they perform in a way that no pharmaceutical drug does: They're nontoxic, mostly side effect–free, and—get this—they help your body counter physical, chemical, or biological stress, says David Winston, the eminent herbal educator, in his book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief (cowritten with Steven Maimes, Healing Arts Press, 2007).

It's impossible to fully cover the fascinating spectrum (wonk alert: fascinating to me, anyway) of adaptogens in this blog entry, so if you share even an iota of my interest, I urge you to get a copy of Winston's book and give it a read. It's really cool to learn, for example, that Soviet scientists amassed a team of more than 1,200 scientists to study adaptogens back in the 1940s because of the state's desire to dominate everything from the military to chess to ballet.

But the Russians weren't the first to discover adaptogenic herbs. Chinese physicians have used Asian ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), arguably our most famous adaptogen, for thousands of years. And ginseng is great. But this season, I've taken a particular interest in three lesser known adaptogens. If you have thoughts about these remedies or any others, please share them here.

Next Page:Â Meet three adaptogens [ pagebreak ]Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
Known as an immune-enhancing herb, astragalus has a long history of use in China for strengthening the kind of "qi energy" that can weaken people and leave them susceptible to illness. Western herbalists often recommend it as a tonic to take regularly during the winter to prevent colds and flus, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

Astragalus contains an enzyme called telomerase, whose anti-aging potential was mentioned in the November 2008 issue of NewScientist. The story quoted researcher Maria Blasco of the Spanish National Cancer Center in Madrid as saying that telomerase can turn "a normal, mortal cell into an immortal cell."

That's the kind of "magic bullet" research I mentioned earlier: Astragalus contains a powerhouse of immune-enhancing and antioxidant compounds in addition to telomerase. Plus, it always gets my attention when research zeros in on an herb that's long been validated by traditional herbalists.

To strengthen your immunity for the rest of the winter, take 40 to 80 drops of astragalus tincture three times a day. Good brands to try include Vital Botanicals, Herb Pharm, and Herbalist & Alchemist, all widely available at health-food stores.

Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
I call this the Energizer Bunny supplement because it's given me a mild energy boost when work and childcare have left me feeling sapped. But this one's not technically an herb: In the wild, cordyceps is a fungus that grows off caterpillars native to the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Herbalists use it for impotence, kidney problems, allergic asthma, and hay fever—and they discourage the use of wild-gathered cordyceps because it's rare, expensive, and because gathering it damages fragile ecosystems. Find high-quality cultivated cordyceps capsules at Follow label directions.

Fresh milky oat (Avena sativa)
For a few days during its growing cycle, immature oat seeds are filled with a whitish, milky liquid. Harvested immediately and preserved with either alcohol (a tincture) or glycerine (a glycerite), milky oats become a "superb food for the nervous system," says Winston. In his practice, he uses it to calm shattered nerves and restore a sense of peace and tranquility to people who are overstressed. In fact, milky oats have been used in this country for more than 150 years, he notes. Take 80 to 100 drops of tincture or glycerite, three or four times a day. Try Herb Pharm and Herbalist & Alchemist, widely available at health-food stores.