We’ve been talking a lot about healthy sleep lately, and today I want to focus on herbal supplements that not only help improve our sleep, but also give us more energy and stamina, as well as relief from stress and anxiety. Adaptogenic herbs are pretty amazing, and these are just a few of their health benefits!
This is a 2-part post. In this first part we’re talking about adaptogenic herbs in general: what they are, their history, their health benefits, etc. In part 2 we dig deeper into my favorite adaptogen, rhodiola rosea, and all of its specific benefits. We’ve also put together a great giveaway prize package for you as well, so please check it out!
I’ve been focusing more on my herbalism studies as of late (I’m taking an online herbalism course at the Herbal Academy <– that’s my affiliate link), and one class of herbs that has amazed me from the very start was adaptogenic herbs.
What are adaptogenic herbs?
Adaptogenic herbs are herbs that are classified as adaptogens, meaning they can “adapt” their function based on our body’s specific needs. When we adapt to our surroundings and environment, we’re able to better handle whatever life throws at us.
And that’s what adaptogenic herbs do – they help us deal with various stressors in our lives. Things like sleep quality, alertness, memory, fatigue, immune function…
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve dealt, or are currently dealing, with any or all of these stressors every single day. In today’s fast-paced, high-stress world, that’s not too surprising, is it?
Is all stress bad stress?
Don’t get me wrong; our bodies actually need stress in order to thrive. You see, the stress response system – our body’s natural survival instinct – is designed to be activated for shorter periods of time, followed by longer periods of rest and recovery to replenish the energy that was lost. This cycle of response and rest actually strengthens our bodies and increases our endurance, giving us the ability to cope with the unexpected.
But the key to the whole cycle is that crucial rest period.
Without this cycle, we set ourselves up for failure. And that’s exactly what we’re missing in this high-stress, fast-paced world.
Our bodies are constantly bombarded by physical, emotional, and environmental stressors. Our stress hormones are continuously pumping throughout our bodies at full speed. Our bodies are literally running on overdrive all the time, and we’re not allowing our cells to fully recover and replenish their energy reserves.
We’re not allowing our bodies to heal and repair themselves, to rest and recover, after the tough work of dealing with all of these stressors.
Sooner or later, we end up over-tired, over-stressed, and we experience epic burn out, commonly referred to as adrenal fatigue. And as we get older our stress response system only decreases in its ability to adapt to different situations because it’s become worn down by prolonged stress.
This is where adaptogenic herbs come in.
Historically, adaptogens have been used in traditional societies for thousands of years in places like China, Japan, Russia, and parts of Europe; but it wasn’t until 1948 that Russian researchers had officially studied adaptogenic herbs in a lab – and what they found was pretty darn amazing.
They found that adaptogenic herbs can support the healthy function of bodily systems and protect the body from biological, chemical, environmental, and psychological stressors.
A little fun fact for my fellow history geeks: The researchers were actually testing these herbs during the Cold War because they were looking for natural substances that could increase Soviet soldiers’ energy and endurance without the harmful side effects of amphetamines and other chemical stimulants.
According to Brown and Gerber (2004), these researchers identified three criteria for classifying an herb as an adaptogen:
- Non-specific resistance: it must increase the body’s resistance to a wide range of physical, chemical, and biological stimuli.
- Normalizing action: it should normalize changes or reactions that occur within the body, i.e. it will steer bodily systems toward normal function, regardless of whether they’ve been over- or under-stimulated.
- Innocuous effects: it must cause minimal, if any, side effects and have zero- to low-toxicity.
What are the health benefits of adaptogenic herbs?
In traditional Chinese medicine, adaptogenic herbs were used to increase endurance, reduce fatigue, enhance immunity, and increase life span. Today, more than 50 years of scientific research has confirmed these health benefits and much more:
- Central nervous system: They enhance intellectual performance, alertness, concentration, learning, and memory.
- Immune system: They increase production of T cells, which fight bacteria, viruses, and cancer.
- Stress response: They regulate the release of stress hormones and enhance the flexibility of the stress response system.
- Energy and Sleep: They boost energy on the cellular level and help regulate cortisol production, which directly affects sleep quality.
NOTE: Adaptogenic herbs do not provide a “quick-fix” like we see with other stimulants; that’s because adaptogens work slowly, gradually, and over a long period of time. The health benefits of these herbs take from 1-3 months to fully take effect, but unlike stimulants like caffeine, the effects of adaptogenic herbs continue to work even after they’re out of your system.
And, also unlike other stimulants, adaptogens have no adverse side effects (when used properly), so they don’t provide a quick fix only to leave you crashing a few hours later, looking for the next quick fix to achieve the same effect. The following graph gives a great visual for the difference between adaptogens and stimulants:
Another NOTE: If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s not recommended to take adaptogens as most of the research I’ve read either explicitly advises against it, or notes that there isn’t enough information to safely recommend using them. Although Dr. Aviva Romm, an MD specializing in integrative medicine for women and children, considers them safe while breastfeeding and can actually help new moms cope with stress and sleepless nights.
List of adaptogenic herbs
Once Soviet researchers identified the three criteria for classifying adaptogenic herbs, they then developed a test to determine which herbs actually do help the body adapt to different circumstances and conditions.
In 1968, they published the results of these studies; of all the herbs that they tested, only four met the criteria of an adaptogen:
- Panax ginseng (Asian or Korean ginseng) – enhances stress resistance and physical and mental performance; improves sexual function; most beneficial for people over 40. *Not for long-term use; do not use with steroids; not recommended for those with bipolar disorder. (more info)
- Eleutherococcus senticosus (Siberian ginseng) – similar properties to Panax ginseng. *Same precautions as Panax ginseng; not recommended for women with hormone-sensitive cancers or conditions. (more info)
- Rhaponticum carthamoides (rhaponticum or laze) – improves memory and learning; increases work capacity; improves liver health. (more info)
- Rhodiola rosea (golden root, roseroot, or Arctic root) – the super star adaptogen! It helps with stress, fatigue, energy, physical and mental performance, depression and anxiety, sexual function, menopausal symptoms, liver detox, and side effects of chemotherapy. It’s also recommended for those with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Considered extremely safe and nontoxic. (more info)
Make sure to read part 2 of this post for my experience with using rhodiola rosea and the brand that I recommend. I’m also giving away a great prize package!
Further research has added a few more herbs to the list:
- Schizandra chinesis (schizandra) – improves concentration, memory, and endurance; has anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, and anti-anxiety properties; good for liver detoxification. (more info)
- Withania somnifera (ashwagandha) – reduces stress; enhances memory and immune function; antioxidant; increases strength and endurance. (more info)
- Cordyceps sinensis (cordyceps) – antistress; improves immune defenses; enhances strength and endurance; useful for pneumonia and respiratory infections. May affect levels of certain medications like antibiotics and birth control pills. (more info)
- Several others with adaptogen-like qualities including astragalus root, licorice root, and holy basil.
Since then, scientists have done much more research into the properties of adaptogenic herbs, which led them to expand the original definition to include the following:
- they must help regulate the body’s stress response system so it doesn’t overreact and expend too much vital energy.
- they must demonstrate a balancing effect on the body’s regulatory systems, i.e. cardiovascular, immune, and neuroendocrine systems.
Where to buy adaptogens
Most natural health food stores and online shops will carry a whole array of herbal supplements, including adaptogens. The trick is finding a source you can trust, which is why I’ve always been hesitant in recommending specific brands of herbal supplements.
Until very recently, I’ve resorted to ordering different supplements from different places depending on the best source, price, etc. So places like my affiliates at Thrive Market (get 20% off your first order!), Amazon, and Vitacost (<– use that link to get $10 off your order!), as well as my local health food store, Healthy Planet (which ships worldwide). I’ve also heard good things about HerbPharm, though I haven’t ordered from them before.
And then I learned about an amazing company, called Perfect Supplements, which has basically done all the legwork for me. They are serious about sourcing only the best ingredients for their supplements, and they truly care about people’s health, animals, and the environment.
Perfect Supplements has created a wide line of whole-food supplements that are all-natural, organic, fairly-traded, vegan, and and/or gluten-free. They also carry other brands of trusted supplements that they’ve curated based on some pretty rigorous standards.
So looking at our original list of the best adaptogenic herbs, Perfect Supplements carries these:
- Panax ginseng – Dr. Mercola has a fermented ginseng which is great for energy, memory, adrenal health, and sexual health. Again, this is most beneficial for those over the age of 40.
- Rhodiola rosea – Perfect Supplements’ own brand of rhodiola rosea is sourced directly from the Siberian mountains, and it’s perfect for energy, sleep, stress, mood, and anxiety.
- Ashwagandha – Gaia Herbs makes an organic ashwagandha root supplement that normalizes mood, energy levels, and overall immune function.
- Cordyceps sinensis – Cordyceps is an “up and coming” adaptogen that hopefully will be studied more in depth. It’s great for increasing energy, endurance, and strength.
- Holy basil – Gaia Herbs makes a holy basil leaf supplement that alleviates stress, improves cognitive function, and promotes health inflammatory response.
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In part 2 of this post, I’ll show you exactly which supplements I’ve started ordering from Perfect Supplements, what my experience was with using their adaptogens, as well as some new supplements that I’m looking forward to trying.
(Pssst! There’s also a great giveaway package waiting for you!)
>>> Click Here to Read Part 2 <<<
Sources and Further Reading:
- Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2004). The Rhodiola Revolution: Transform Your Health with the Herbal Breakthrough of the 21st Century. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.
- Adaptogens: Nature’s Miracle Anti-stress and Fatigue Fighters (Dr. Frank Lipman)
- Adaptogens: Herbs for Beating Stress, Fighting Fatigue & Banishing Cravings (Dr. Aviva Romm)
This post was proudly sponsored by Perfect Supplements. A sponsored post means I was compensated via a cash payment, gift, or something else of value for writing this post. Regardless, I only recommend products and services that I use personally and believe will benefit my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Marc A Johnson
Good work my friend! Do you have more scietific articles or resources for articles so i can read on them as well?
Great post, Sarah! I’ve just recently started dabbling in adaptogenic herbs also, so it’s great to have your recommendations. I’ve been trying a little of everything — holy basil and oat straw tea, ashwagandha, rhodiola, and eleuthero. I’ve also noticed my mood’s a bit better and I have more energy, even if I don’t get a great night’s sleep. (Though getting outside more and not having my kids sick all the time has to be part of that also 😉
What I haven’t figured out is whether to mix things up (eleuthero one day, rhodiola the next) or take one thing consistently. Maybe you have some insight? I’m also not sure about timing if my main goal is sleeping better. Thoughts?
Looking forward to hearing more about your adventures in herbalism!
Thanks, Susannah! Wow, you’ve been quite adventurous in this area already!
In this book I’m reading, they do recommend mixing things up, but more so because different herbs work well together for specific ailments/issues. So for example, if your goal is sleeping better, you’ll want to drill deeper into the specific ways that these herbs can help (since most of them will have some benefit for sleep quality in one way or another). If we’re looking at insomnia and anxiety-related issues, then ashwagandha and schizandra are your best bets. Eleuthero, on the other hand, is great for preventing night-time waking. And rhodiola helps regulate overall sleep quality since it acts like a buffer to stress-related issues (and stress is a huge obstacle to better sleep).
And yes, if one of your goals is sleeping better, you don’t want to take adaptogens too close to bedtime because they are stimulants, after all. Most dosages are recommended in the morning and afternoon. And they also work better on an empty stomach (half hour before a meal) or about 2 hours after a meal.
Super-helpful — thanks!