The group of plants I'm writing about today are called adaptogens, a name that means these plants help the body stabilize its stress reactions, and lessen the impact of stress on our bodies. To be clear, a little stress is a good thing. The hormones that characterize a stress response, namely adrenaline and cortisol, help us conserve energy by slowing down "unnecessary" body processes, make us temporarily stronger and faster, and initiate the infamous "fight or flight" response. This was super helpful for our ancestors, who occasionally needed to flee saber-toothed tigers. Delegating digestion to the back burner for long enough to burn every available calorie on running away or throwing a spear was a good evolutionary choice. It is a LESS good choice today, when our saber-toothed tigers take the form of a 24-hour news cycle committed to presenting every moment as a catastrophe, or a boss who expects his or her workers to be just as available for work at 2am as they are at 2pm. We don't get to turn off the stress response. And you can only delegate vital processes to the background for so long. You can't fight or fly forever. At some point you have to rest and digest.
Enter adaptogens*. This is a group of herbs, as a whole, that are non-toxic, non-specific, and which modulate, normalize, and regulate the body in times of stress. So they won't help with a specific problem, ie a headache. But if you're getting headaches because you're clenching your jaw because you're stressed, they will work on your body's coping mechanisms, and you might find you clench your teeth less often, which results in fewer headaches. The system adaptogens work on most closely is the HPA axis, which stands for Hippothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis. AKA Stress Central. These are the brain and body centers where stress hormones are released, and the adrenal (or endocrine) system is how they are carried to the rest of the body. When this system is deregulated or out of whack, a body can experience adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion. This can look like anxiety, insomnia, suppressed immunity, bladder and kidney complaints, reproductive malfunctions, cognitive impairment, or other ailments. Let's meet some herbs that nurture the HPA Axis and the whole body, and then we'll close with a couple of recipes.
Ginseng, American or Asian. (Panax ginseng is Asian, Panax qinquefolius is American.) Both are sweet, bitter, warming, and moistening. Asian ginseng is best for athletic overexertion, or those who have used up all of their yang, or solar, outwardly-expressed energy. It is NOT good for anyone with hypertension or anxiety. American is better for those with slightly more agitation, though neither ginseng is really perfect for an anxious person.
Siberian Ginseng (Eleuthero Senticosus) is not a true ginseng, but works similarly. This adaptogen is especially good for the physical stress of exposure to drugs, chemicals, or radiation. This is a good choice for building resilience in the body.
Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera), also called Indian ginseng, though again not a true ginseng, is my current favorite adaptogen. It has a bitter, acrid taste and is a neutral temperature in the body, meaning suitable for several body types. It's a member of the nightshade family, so keep that in mind if you are sensitive to other nightshades like tomatoes or eggplants. This is the plant for you if you fall under the "wired and tired" category of person, experiencing a mix of anxiety, stress, fatigue, and/or insomnia. It's also useful as a post-partum tonic, and can bring balance during chemotherapy. Particularly good at restoring male virility after a bout of sexual debilitation. I personally use ashwagandha to clear foggy thinking and bolster me when I'm running on empty but can't slow down my brain enough to rejuvenate.
Reishi (Ganoderma Lucidum) is a medicinal mushroom beloved to all herbalists. It's bitter and warming in the system. Reishi's magic is tied especially to the liver, and any problems with elimination or screening of toxins. It is an ally when one is faced with nervous exhaustion, the feeling of being at or beyond your wits' end. Because of its affinity to the liver, reishi will also help with immune function, keeping us healthy and balanced when under attack from pathogens or even simple allergens. My personal herbal goal is to read ten books on mushrooms and be able to harvest my own reishi. #SquadGoals.
Many of our adaptogens are roots, which means they need to be decocted instead of infused. This process entails putting 3T of herbs into 1Q water, bringing water to boil, then covering and lowering to simmer for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, remove from heat, leave covered, and let steep for an additional 15 minutes. Then strain and drink. Alternately, because many of these are very bitter, try hiding them in nut butter balls and making them a healthy, medicinal snack instead. Here's an example of an immunity-boosting, adaptogen-packed recipe:
Immune Zoom Nut Butter Balls
2/3c tahini (if you like sweeter flavors, or don't prefer tahini, subtract however much of this amt as you want, and add it to the amt of nut butter)
2/3c almond/peanut/hazlenut/etc butter
1/2c raw liquid honey
1/2c hemp seeds (or whatever seeds you have. Chia also works really well)
1/2c astragalus powder
1/2c eleuthero powder
1/2c ashwagandha powder
1/4c licorice powder
raw cacao nibs
Heat the nut butter, tahini if using, and honey over very low heat or a double-boiler until smooth and well-blended. Mix all powders together while heating. Remove liquids from heat, slowly stir in powder blend and seeds. You want it to feel like play-dough. Scoop out in tablespoons, roll into balls. Roll first in cacao, then in coconut flakes. Eat 1-3 per day. The batch will stay good in the fridge, tightly covered, for 5-7 days.
NOTE: This recipe is hugely customizable. Use whatever nut butters you have, whatever seeds you have, and whatever powdered herbs you have. My most recent concoction had some cinnamon powder in it, lots of ashwagandha, a little licorice, and a bunch of the mushroom protein powder I have that don't like the taste of on its own. They were delicious! This is a great way to get your plant medicines by sneak attack, to picky kids, partners, or yourself.
*My teacher on adaptogens and their powers is the great Rich Mandelbaum. Please visit his site and read anything he's ever written, anywhere. I also consulted Guido Masé's excellent paper on "Adaptogenic Tonics: An approach unique to herbal medicine." My herbal nut butter ball recipe was inspired by Rosemary Gladstar and adapted by Ashley Elenbaas and Betsy Miller.
Legalese: In our society, only MDs get to say they are "treating" disease. As such, this blog post has not been analyzed by the FDA, and the advice within has not been scientifically proven to diagnose, treat, or cure disease. Please see a health practitioner for medical treatment.