| Abigail McShinsky | July 2018 |
Adapting to stress with herbal support
If you were to ask a handful of herbalists what their favorite classification of herbs is, I’d venture to guess you’d hear the phrase “adaptogens” come up more than once. The reason this class of herb is a common go-to can be boiled down to one word: stress.
When the body experiences stress (whether physical or mental), it diverts resources to the brain and skeletal muscles so we can flee whatever threat is being perceived. Depending on the severity, our heart-rate may increase, along with our blood pressure, our breathing speeds up, and digestion decreases. These can be life-saving measures in the face of a tiger, but do we really need to call in the cavalry because we missed a deadline at work?
What if instead you had a resource that, over time, could help your body better adapt to stress, and respond more appropriately? Reserve the cavalry for when the tiger is real, and rely on other responses when that deadline approaches?
This is where adaptogens come in. The term “adaptogen” defines herbs that help “protect the body against physical, mental, and emotional stress by strengthening the immune system” (Medicinal Herbs 61). Given the prevalence of stress in our modern society, you can see why adaptogenic herbs are so favored.
If the definition of “adaptogen” seemed a little vague to you, there’s good reason: this term doesn’t describe a single family of plants, but instead a collection of actions a plant may have that results in strengthening of the body, and a healthier stress response. Though it’s important to note: adaptogens can work in different ways. So it may be helpful to look at a few adaptogenic herbs to understand the unique attributes of each.
To me, ashwagandha is royalty in the world of adaptogens. Ashwagandha is a traditional ayurvedic herb that has been used for thousands of years to help us better adapt to the stressors of life. Ashwagandha is a multi-faceted herb, and rather than stimulate the body, it also has a calming effect, implied by the meaning of it’s Latin species name, somnifera, which means ‘to induce sleep,’.1 Ashwagandha is like a big hug when stress hits – strengthening and soothing!*
If Ashwagandha is known for strengthening and soothing, Rhodiola is its daytime counterpart – energizing and enhancing. As an adaptogen, it has been traditionally used to support strength and endurance, and modern herbalists typically suggest Rhodiola to “combat fatigue caused by stress and enhance work performance by increasing attention span and concentration,”.*1
You may have heard of Holy Basil before, perhaps by the name of Tulsi. Like Ashwagndha, Holy Basil is a traditional ayurvedic herb that has been revered for years for its gentle calming support.* While it’s often taken as a tea, you can find it in stress-support formulas as well, that combine the benefits of a number of adaptogenic herbs.
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Curious, but still on the fence? Or, you’re hungry to learn more? Wouldn’t it be nice to sit down with an expert on botanical medicine and go a bit deeper? Well, we did just that for you with the incredible Doctor Low Dog in our podcast That Supplement Show, which you can listen to here!
1 Low Dog, Tieraona. (2016) Fortify your Life, Washington DC: National Geographic Partners.