Adaptogenic Herbs: Ancient Balancing Tonics For Stress And Anxiety


by Deane Alban

on August 31, 2015

When you’re stressed and anxious, getting your life back in balance can be challenging. That sweet spot of calm focus and productive energy can be elusive. If you’re fed up with feeling “tired and wired,” there’s a special group of herbs known as adaptogens that can help.

What Are Adaptogens?

Adaptogens are plants that increase your resilience to stress of all kinds, both mental and physical. While you might think of stress as being mostly psychological, there are endless ways you also experience physical stress. It occurs when you eat poorly, sleep too little, drink too much, get sick or injured, are exposed to toxins, run a marathon, or expose yourself to extreme environmental conditions.

Adaptogenic herbs have been used extensively in ancient healing practices, but they weren’t called adaptogens until recently. They were traditionally referred to as tonics or rejuvenators. The term adaptogen was first coined by Dr. Nikolai Lazarev in 1947 to describe a plant that helps you adapt to stressful circumstances. Later, the widely accepted definition of an adaptogen came to be a plant that meets these three criteria:

  • It is safe and nontoxic.
  • It increases your resilience to stress.
  • It supports overall health, not by targeting one specific organ, but by helping the body achieve a state of balance, or homeostasis.
Photo: Chris Kilham. Via: Jeff Skeirik |

Photo: Chris Kilham. Via: Jeff Skeirik |

Chris Kilham is a world-renowned author, educator, and proponent of herbal remedies. On his website, he sums up the stress-busting power of adaptogens: “Adaptogens greatly improve your body’s ability to adapt to stress, whether it’s a hectic schedule, heat or cold, noise, high altitudes or any number of other stressors. This elite class of herbs impart strength, energy, stamina, endurance, and they improve mental clarity. In many parts of the non-Western world adaptogens are used extensively in high-risk, fast-reflex occupations, from athletes to miners to deep sea divers.”

How Adaptogens Work

Just as a thermostat works to bring the temperature of your home up or down to maintain a desired temperature, adaptogens work to normalize bodily systems to bring you back into balance. If it seems puzzling that one substance could give you energy and calm you down simultaneously, you’re not alone. The experts have puzzled over this as well. Some herbal experts view this bidirectional effect as a sort of “intelligence.”

Why would plants evolve to contain stress-reducing compounds? According to ethnobotanist James Duke, PhD, plants contain adaptogenic compounds because they have to contend with a good deal of stress themselves. Most of the best adaptogens grow in some of the harshest climates on earth.

While no on knows for sure exactly how adaptogens work, they are believed to bring balance by normalizing the following:

  • Stress hormone production.
  • Neurotransmitter production.
  • Adrenal function.
  • Inflammation response.
  • Nervous system.
  • Immune function.
  • Blood sugar metabolism.
  • Energy levels.

Top Adaptogens Around The World

Of the 20,000 medicinal plants on the planet, only a handful are considered true adaptogens. The vast majority of adaptogens have traditionally been used in either Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine. Let’s take a look at the best adaptogens for relieving stress and anxiety used in a variety of healing traditions.

Photo: Asian ginseng. Via: sunsetman | Shutterstock.

Photo: Asian ginseng. Via: sunsetman | Shutterstock.

Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Ginseng is one of the most popular herbal remedies with a 5,000 year history of use. It’s sometimes called Chinese or Korean ginseng depending on where it’s grown. Of all the herbal remedies, ginseng may be the most widely studied, in part because it’s a big cash crop. South Korea alone publishes more than one hundred research papers on it every year. Ginseng’s botanical name “Panax” means “panacea” or “cure-all.” And this is one plant that lives up to its name.

Ginseng is used to improve depression, exhaustion, cognitive performance, sleep, energy, sexual function, and immunity. Ginseng is the most stimulating of the adaptogens. According to David Winston, author of Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, this makes it good for depression, but those prone to overstimulation may find regular ginseng use makes their anxiety and insomnia worse. If that’s the case, you might want to try ginseng’s close relative American ginseng.

Photo: American Ginseng slices. Via: Pixeljoy | Shutterstock.

Photo: American ginseng slices. Via: Pixeljoy | Shutterstock.

American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

North America has its own species of ginseng — Panax quinquefolius. American ginseng was used by several Native American tribes including the Cherokee and Iroquois as a healing tonic. Ginseng may be the quintessential Chinese herb but American ginseng, especially ginseng from Wisconsin, is now considered to be the best in the world. Ironically, it is in great demand in China. What makes American ginseng superior is its rigorous purity standards and its proven ability to enhance cognitive functions. Since it’s considered less stimulating than Asian ginseng, American ginseng is a good choice for anxiety relief for anyone whose mind tends to race.

Photo: Dry roots of Rhodiola rosea pictured alongside the plant's yellow flowers. Via: kostrez | Shutterstock.

Photo: Dried Arctic root pictured alongside the plant’s yellow flowers. Via: kostrez | Shutterstock.

Arctic Root (Rhodiola rosea)

Arctic root hails from cold northern regions of the world and has played an important role in both traditional Scandinavian and Chinese medicine. It was also used by the Vikings to increase physical and mental stamina. It’s one of the most popular adaptogens being widely appreciated for its ability to increase physical vitality. It’s unparalleled for overcoming fatigue and exhaustion due to prolonged stressful situations. It can help with depression by transporting serotonin precursors into the brain. It may even help you live longer. It’s also a useful aid when you want to quit caffeine since it can minimize withdrawal side effects. Arctic root is also called rose root because of its rose-like fragrance.

Photo: Ashwagandha herb root and powder. Via: marilyn barbone | Shutterstock.

Photo: Ashwagandha root and powder. Via: marilyn barbone | Shutterstock.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha is one of the most important herbs in Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient healing system of India. Like rose root, its name is a reference to its fragrance. But unlike rose root, its smell is not pleasant! Ashwagandha literally means “smell of the horse.” It’s also said to bestow the strength and stamina of a horse on those who use it. All adaptogens reduce stress but ashwangandha excels in this area. It has been found to reduce stress and anxiety by 44 percent while decreasing the stress hormone cortisol by 28 percent. Studies show it can significantly improve anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and increase productivity. Ashwagandha is an excellent choice if you’re looking for an herb to enhance your overall quality of life.

Photo: Siberian ginseng. Via: matin | Shutterstock.

Photo: Siberian ginseng. Via: matin | Shutterstock.

Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

Siberian ginseng has been used as a general health tonic for vigor and stamina and to treat respiratory conditions for over 2,000 years in China. But it is a relative newcomer to Western natural medicine. Its benefits are similar to those of Asian ginseng even though it has different active components. It does not belong to the same genus as ginseng but is in the same Araliaceae (ivy) plant family.

This herb is a favorite in Russia where it’s used for physically demanding situations. Olympic athletes rely on it as a natural way to enhance performance and aid recovery after training. After the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, local citizens were given Siberian ginseng to offset radiation exposure. Miners, explorers, divers, and others in high stress occupations use it to keep up physical strength while working under physically and mentally grueling circumstances.

Photo: Maca root. Via: Ildi Papp | Shutterstock.

Photo: Maca root. Via: Ildi Papp | Shutterstock.

Maca (Lepidium meyenii)

Maca is sometimes called Peruvian ginseng but is unrelated to Asian ginseng. It’s grown in the Andes mountains of Peru where it has been used as both food and medicine for 2,000 years. Its root, the part of the plant that’s used, resembles a turnip. It’s a member of the broccoli family but has 100 times more antioxidants than broccoli. Its aphrodisiac powers may be maca’s most famous benefit but that’s not all it’s good for. It has helped people thrive in an inhospitable environment and now is used to help athletes increase stamina. Since maca regulates hormones, it’s especially good for women who are stressed out, worn out, depressed, or anxious due to PMS or menopause. It can be used as a natural alternative to hormone replacement therapy.

Getting Started With Adaptogens

Adaptogens have the unique ability to bring you into a state of balance — to calm you down and increase energy — without being overstimulating. They can neutralize the impact of stress and help you handle whatever life throws your way. But there are a few things you need to know before you go adaptogen shopping.

When looking for adaptogens or any herbal remedies, take notice of the Latin botanical name to be sure you’re getting a remedy from the right plant species. Don’t rely on common names which vary widely. Rhodiola rosea, for example, goes by many common names including golden root, rose root, Western roseroot, Aaron’s rod, and king’s crown. And there is much confusion among the ginsengs — only the American and Asian varieties are in the ginseng genus. Siberian ginseng is a ginseng “cousin” while Peruvian ginseng is not related to the other ginsengs at all. Also be aware that there is no official definition or regulated use of the term adaptogen, so supplement manufacturers may or may not be honoring the accepted use of the term.

While adaptogens are considered safe, there is no plant on the planet that is 100 percent safe for everyone all the time. You should not take adaptogens if you are pregnant or breast feeding since safety has not been established. If you take any prescription medications, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking any adaptogen or other herbal remedy to make sure there are no drug interactions you should know about.

Deane AlbanThis article was brought to you by Deane Alban, a health information researcher, writer and teacher for over 25 years. For more helpful articles about improving your cognitive and mental health, visit today.