All About Adaptogenic Herbs

Dec 4, 2015 11:57:07 AM | herbs All About Adaptogenic Herbs

Adaptogens are tonic herbs, working to repair and strengthen the adrenal, endocrine, and nervous systems, helping the body to deal with stress.

All About Adaptogenic Herbs Stress, it seems, is our constant, contemporaneous companion. We’ve become so accustomed to it that (many times) it no longer keeps us from sleeping, from eating, from getting on with our days. A good thing, right? Adaptability!

I’m not so sure about that… Maybe our lifestyles have allowed us to adapt to stress, but at what price? A vicious cycle of sleeplessness from stress at night and loading up with caffeine to keep awake during the day…we can’t quite function with all pistons firing, can we?

Caffeine (in large quantities) ravages our nervous systems, frazzling us and leaving us more susceptible to anxiety, stress, and insomnia, not to mention those sugar and salt cravings that emerge in our body’s attempt to renew caffeine-depleted mineral stores.

And when are we supposed to heal from these abuses? Usually, it’s during sleep. But without deep sleep, without falling asleep early and easily, we don’t get the restorative rest we so desperately need.

So, yes. Maybe we can function under our 21st century stress-load, but as any ill, anxious, or tired person will testify—functioning is not the same as living.

How do we repair the damage? Where do we even begin? Most of us, after all, can’t drop our lives for two weeks for a tropical getaway.

Never fear.

There’s an herb for that.

As an herbalist and yoga instructor, I strive to find ways to combine both disciplines. Many, many of my students come to yoga for its stress-relieving properties, and that’s great. But, increasingly, it’s just not enough. We can’t simply stop at flexibility in the body; we need to cultivate flexibility and adaptability in the mind.

The herbs to assist us with this massive mission are called, rather creatively, adaptogens. Adaptogens are tonic herbs, working to repair and strengthen the adrenal, endocrine, and nervous systems, helping the body to deal with stress.

Adaptogens and Your Body

Time for a little essential adaptogen/anatomy background. The adrenals are the often-overworked glands located right above the kidneys that pump out adrenaline, the hormone responsible for our (often over-used) fight-or-flight response.

The adrenal system becomes excited when we experience excess stress––external self-created or external. Adaptogens balance our systems, promoting calm and overall health. When the body doesn't have to worry about combating stress, it can focus on restoring and repairing other systems––like the immune system. If you’re a practicing yogi, coupling your practice with some adaptogens would be a good marriage of yoga and herb health.


Let’s begin with schisandra Schisandra chinensis (Turcz.) Baill., an herb (we use the berry) that aids energy and strengthens bodily tissue, improves normal sleep patterns, supports blood sugar levels already in the normal range, supports normal liver detox, aids mental focus and memory, and enhances both mental and physical endurance.

This kind of boost helps us to become more aware, more decisive, and that leads to less perceived stress and better time management, while the sharper focus aids us in our decision-making power (indecisiveness and decision fatigue are at the top of the list of stress-related triggers). Schisandra S. chinensis also boasts the ability to support healthy restoration of cells throughout the body.


Astragalus Astragalus membranaceus (Bunge), too, is a good choice as an adaptogen. This herb, borrowed from Traditional Chinese Medicinal (TCM) practice, is an energy tonic, supportive to the immune, digestive, and respiratory systems.

Constant stress can invite chronic fatigue—one of the toughest (and, frighteningly, one of the fastest-growing) issues I’ve seen in my practice. Exhaustion has so many causes and so many possible remedies—some which work amazingly well for one client, then not at all for another—that helping a client can quickly become fatiguing in and of itself.

Regarding this condition, one herb has become essential in my practice—astragalus A. membranaceus. Combine this with herbs for…

blood sugar management for levels already in the normal range

  • cinnamon Cinnamomum zeylanicum (Blume)
  • garlic Allium sativum (L.)
  • sage Salvia officinalis (L.)

better sleep quality

  • valerian Valeriana officinalis (L.)
  • passionflower Passiflora incarnate (L.)
  • motherwort Leonurus cardiaca (L.)

and cortisol management for levels already in the normal range.

  • ashwagandha Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal
  • licorice Glycyrrhiza glabra (L.)

Combine these with a steady, whole-foods diet, and you have a pretty good plan for healing.

Holy Basil

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I am a huge fan of holy basil Ocimum tenuiflorum (L.), aka Tulsi. As an adaptogen, it helps the body adjust its stress response by, well, not responding quite so much.

A big perk of this herb: it can soothe your nerves without causing drowsiness during the day, but will allow you to relax at night to promote restful sleep. Stress, too, can quickly age the body by breaking down healthy cells and stressing organ systems. Holy basil O. tenuiflorum muscles in there (like a really good, deep-tissue massage) and eases that junk out and away by supporting normal hormone levels and nourishing healthy cellular development and repair.

Expand your mind. Cultivate its flexibility. Sprinkle a little adaptogenic herbal love into your daily routine (yes, you can even take them with your first, sweet cup of java...), and see how well you begin to breathe. To sleep. To adapt.

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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. This article has not been reviewed by the FDA. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I am a graduate of American College of Healthcare Sciences, the Institution that publishes this blog. However, all opinions are my own. This blog may contain affiliate links. 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.” 

Amy Jirsa

Written By: Amy Jirsa

A​my Jirsa, a 2002 graduate of ACHS, is the author of Herbal Goddess as well as an herbalist, yoga instructor, blogger, and crafty herbanista. She writes regularly for a variety of natural living publications, including the online journals elephant journal and MindBodyGreen. Her blog,, is well read and often shared. She lives in midcoast Maine.