Adaptogens – Healing Herbs

There are certain herbs that are highly efficient in combatting exhaustion and stress, such as adaptogens. Used wisely these herbal medicines can restore energy and reduce stress.

Dr Israel Brekhman, a Russian scientist, coined the term ‘adaptogen’ which refers to natural, mainly herbal, substances that have the ability to increase the body’s resistance to stress.


Adaptogens are defined as plants that are: (i) safe; (ii) increase the non-specific resistance of the organism; and (iii) normalise the function of the bodily systems. Compared with herbal substances, drugs are simple molecules that have a very narrow window of action. Herbs, in contrast, are exceedingly complex, with a large family of active and inactive ingredients. It is not surprising, therefore, that some of these herbs should have a very wide spectrum of actions that it is difficult to define clearly any specific action. Rather there is a generalised spread of activity that seems to support and enhance the natural capacity of the organism towards greater efficiency.


Under conditions of acute or chronic stress the system’s ability to deal with this stress may be insufficient, leading to symptoms and signs. Under these circumstances, adaptogens are non-specific agents, which, by their wide-ranging action, are able to support the whole organism to return more quickly to its normal physiological responses.

Adaptogens nourish the adrenal glands, help the cells eliminate toxins, improve utilisation of oxygen and enhance the body’s access to energy.

CHOICE ADAPTOGENS Certain adaptogens are more rejuvenating than others. Naturopath Dr Ameet Aggarwal, in his book Feel Good – Easy Steps to Health and Happiness, lists the following 11 adaptogens in order of strength relative to one another:¹

Certain mushrooms are also considered to have adaptogenic properties. Reishi mushroom protects the immune and nervous systems. It assists with hypertension, boosts mood and mental alertness as well as aiding detoxification.

The shiitake mushroom supports the liver, increases the body’s resistance against external stressors and restores balance to the body.


Herbs can be potent and therefore dangerous if misused or overused, combined with other medications and herbs and used during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It is always wise to consult your health practitioner before trying any herb or herb combination.

David Winston, a registered herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild, cautions that adaptogens cannot replace a responsible and healthy lifestyle: ‘Adaptogens can be very useful for helping people (or animals) to deal with acute or chronic stress, but they are not a replacement for the foundations of health – adequate, good quality sleep, a healthy diet, regular exercise, good lifestyle choices and social relationships . . . Adaptogens […] like anything else have benefits and limitations.’²

  • Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) strengthens, revitalises and works well for anxiety. Overuse can make anxiety worse, however.
  • Rhodiola rosea is a particularly useful adaptogen for the nourishment of the adrenal glands. Rhodiola is excellent for depression and anxiety that stems from stress and exhaustion.
  • Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) boosts immunity. It may, however, increase blood pressure and those with high blood pressure should avoid it.
  • Ashwaganda root (Withania somnifera) is not over stimulating and is grounding and nourishing. It helps the body recover from stress by supporting the adrenal glands.
  • Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus) also supports the adrenal glands and is a great tonic for stress and the immune system.
  • Schizandra berry (Schizandra chinensis) is a sedative and a tonic. It helps with depression, irritability, insomnia and heart palpitations.
  • Bacopa monniera is a gentle, non-stimulating adaptogen – excellent for anxiety and stress. It also improves memory and brain fog.
  • Borage (Borago officinalis) is a gentle panacea for stress, and eases depression and anxiety. Do not use borage during pregnancy.
  • Holy basil (Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum) calms and lifts the mood, easing depression and anxiety when they occur at the same time.
  • Amla (Indian gooseberry, Emblica officinalis) is full of vitamin C which supports adrenal health.
  • Oats (Avena sativa) aid with nervousness caused by exhaustion.


Adaptogens are classic complementary medicines with a very broad range of actions. Complementary medicines are understood to be medicines that complement the system’s own natural innate healing capacity. They do not interfere with biochemical processes but help the body to normalise its own functions and either stimulate recovery from ill health or help to maintain good health. Adaptogens are best used during the recovery phase of illness and as maintenance during times of physical, mental or emotional stress


  1. Aggarwal A. Feel good – easy steps to health and happiness. 2013.
  2. Schultz H. Claims on adaptogens may overreach, but the herbs really are powerhouses, experts say. Nutra. 29 March 2017. Available from:


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Adaptogens – Healing Herbs

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