Adaptogens in Bioregional Herbalism

“All plants contain adaptogenic/tonic compounds, because plants have to contend with a good deal of stress themselves.” -James Duke

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Homegrown Holy Basil

Adaptogens are a trendy topic nowadays, with herbs such as astragalus, ashwaganda and shatavari  being household names in some cases. This is partially due to adaptogens being highly publicized in health food store marketing, publications and products.  I think it also has to do with the fact that so many of us are struggling to be sane in an insane world. We live in a time where for most people, literally every aspect of our lives is lived contrary to our biology and adaptation. Sitting on a chair in an office cubicle for 8 hours a day at a desk while staring at an artificial light emitting box is something that many of us do for a large percentage of our life. If it’s not in an office cubicle, then it is in our homes. This is not an adaptative behavior that humans have evolved, and doing so creates physical strain and stress on the body, as well as mental and emotional stress and a whole host of other issues related to it (lack of sunlight and Vitamin D synthesis, breathing in recycled air, wearing professional/uncomfortable/restrictive clothing, etc.) These have impacts on our health over the course of our lifetimes. For folks who are awake, aware and conscious of the impact of our “business as usual” behaviors and lifestyle on our own sense of health and wellbeing, there is an enormous sense of stress that comes with the feeling of inability to change or subvert the culture in which we are a part of.

Point is, we are all stressed out. We all have busy lifestyles, live in a culture of stress, and that is the definition of an adaptogen! An adaptogen is an herb that helps the body respond to stress in a better way. In the book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes,

Adaptogens are remarkable natural substances that help the body adapt to stress, support normal metabolic functions, and help restore balance. They increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional, and environmental stressors and provide a defense response to acute or chronic stress. They are unique from other substances in their ability to restore the balance of endocrine hormones, modulate the immune system and allow the body to maintain optimal homeostasis.

That said, the functional definition, as defined in 1968, is:

  1. An adaptogen is nontoxic
  2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response (an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical or biological agents.)
  3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.

It is interesting to note that the term ‘adaptogenic’ is relatively  new to herbalism. It was first coined in 1964 by Russian scientists studying Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng). It is a new category of herbal action that was not used in Traditional Western Herbalism, although it can be thought of as analagous to the Chinese TCM ‘chi tonics’ or the Ayurvedic ‘rasayanas’

Some of the adaptogenic herbs I have worked with the most are:

  • -Eleutherococcus senticosus (eleuthero)
  • -Astragalus membranaceus (astragalus)
  • -Ganoderma lucidum (reishi)
  • -Panax ginseng  (Asian ginseng)
  • -Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng)
  • -Ocimum sanctum (Tulsi/Holy Basil)
  • -Schisandra chinensis (Schisandra)
  • -Asparagus racemosa (Shatavari)
  • -Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice)
american-ginseng-with-fruit

American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), a native medicinal that is now extremely rare in the wild.   photo: US Fish and Wildlife Services

Now, each of the herbs listed above are adaptogens. Each of those herbs has a set of energetics, an affinity for a particular (or set of) body system, organ or tissue, actions and constituents that are unique to that plant. That means that some herbs might not be the best choice for one particular person with a particular set of circumstances. Adaptogens are generally safe (hence number one of the functional definition above), but this is one of many reasons to work with a practicing herbalist!

Another piece for me is the bioregional piece. This idea of adaptogens or “tonic herbs” in the TCM sense isn’t as well developed in the western materia medica. This goes back to the term being coined in the 1960’s.   That isn’t to say that we don’t have analogous herbs, but this hasn’t been researched fully as far am I as aware.

As a bioregional herbalist, a gardener, and a person who is concerned about the consequences of our global economy, buying ANY herb from across the world is not my first choice. I believe in local herbs, and finding alternatives that work for us on a local scale. Holy Basil grows wonderfully in my bioregion, and I suspect some of the other herbs would too. I have heard it discussed in the permaculture world that my state, Louisiana, has much in common with certain regions in China in terms of climate and topography. It would make sense that many plants that grow well in those regions would do well here too. There is a native species of Schisandra, but like with many plants, it is now very rare. I don’t know much about it’s use as an adaptogen or a medicinal herb in general, as there is very little information and it would be impractical to find any AND also unethical to harvest any amount of such a rare plant. There is much to be said about the sustainable use of Panax spp., but that is not in the scope here.

Wise Woman Herbalist Susun Weed has discussed the invasive shiso or perilla mint as an adaptogenic herb with energetics similar to tulsi. I saw some of this growing in a yard on my walk to the post office this morning. I don’t personally find the flavor of it as compelling as that of tulsi, but I do like it and use it in practice quite a bit.

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Wild Shiso (Perilla frutescens)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the growing body of evidence that adaptogens are being used by many people unsustainably- to power through fatigue without changing key lifestyle components contributing to stress. In some studies, even though taking an adaptogens results in an initial reduction of cortisol levels, long term use of the adaptogen actually showed increased cortisol levels, which can result in adrenal burnout- one of the main conditions that adaptogens are used for.

One of my teachers, Paul Bergner, has discussed this in a lecture entitled  “The Dark Side of Adaptogens: Appropriate and Inappropriate Use”

To end, I would say that adaptogenic herbs can be an incredibly helpful allies for many folks during times of acute stress. My personal approach is to use them daily, as foods,   for specific and limited periods of time.

Sometimes I like to rotate tulsi into my daily nourishing herbal infusion. I like to add astragalus root, reishi, and even eleuthero into my bone broth when I make it. Shatavari and tulsi both work very well added into a nice chai tea blend.

I haven’t gone in depth on any particular adaptogen, but I hope to have discussed various aspects of the larger idea of adaptogens. I wrote about Reishi in a previous post Reishi Mushroom: Ancient Forest Being as Medicinal Ally for Trying Times and will be writing monograph style entries on a few more soon.

If you’d like to try one of our products that contain adaptogenic herbs, we have available here on Etsy:

  • Tulsi tincture, made with fresh homegrown holy basil.
  • Reshi tincture, made with wildcrafted reishi mushrooms
  • Open to Joy tincture, with tulsi, mimosa, lion’s mane mushroom, and milky oat tops.
  • Nourish and Balance tea, a calming and nutritive blend of tulsi, nettles, red clover and lemon balm.
  • Magic Broth Maker, our herbal broth blend, contains reishi, astragalus, and/or eleuthero.
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