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How to Smooth Out Stress with Herbal Medicine

Strengthen resilience with food and herbs.

[Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Source: [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

How I work hard, yet stay healthy

I stay healthy using foods and herbs. I became interested in adaptogens many years ago because I wanted to enhance my own ability to work hard and play hard and sustain those efforts without getting sick. I work with clients who are under a lot of stress and I wanted to share with them the herbs that I knew from first-hand experience didn’t have side effects, as many drugs do.

The women I work with have jobs, or are in school, they have families, lots of ambition and they want to produce a lot during the day and night. But over time, they wear out. Our bodies just don’t thrive on coffee and donuts.

I also work with women who experienced trauma in childhood and who were resilient and thrived in spite of it. But their bodies often experienced the toll; they felt tired or in pain or depressed, or they wanted to stop self-medicating with alcohol and drugs but they also wanted a natural high that comes from adaptogens; gentle, energizing, balanced support for the long term.

When I give talks to to groups of women executives and leaders who often turn to pharmaceuticals like Adderall for performance, I slowly help them get off those artificial nootropics and find natural alternatives like adaptogens for supporting their focus and attention.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens help us to adapt to stress by restoring the biological capacity to cope and respond. Adaptogens are also called “metabolic regulators, because they help is to adapt to environmental stressors The three criteria of an adaptogen are that it a) should be generally free of side effects, b) be nonspecific, that it should increase resistance to a wide array of physical, chemical, and biological stressors, and finally and 3) normalize function and restore homeostatic balance (Brekhman & Dardymov, 1969).

Adaptogens are well-studied both by indigenous cultures and by biomedical science. Taken together there is extensive research on efficacy and also when adaptogens should be avoided (contraindications) and by whom. By and large adaptogens are very safe and can be used to improve the ability to cope with chronic stress as well on special occasions of acute stress.

Most of our health symptoms including fatigue, irritability, menstrual cycle distress, depression, pain and fibromyalgia insomnia, anxiety, food addictions and digestive distress begins with stress. Stress sets off a cascade of physical responses that affect immune function our hormones our cognitive function system and importantly our internal clock, called circadian rhythms. If these stressors persist, this leads to chronic illness.

Adaptogenic plants and their active extracts support adrenal function, build endurance, and reduce fatigue. By supporting adrenal function, they also support immune function and resistance. Adaptogens help increase cellular respiration, helping our cells to “breathe.”

What Herbs are the Best Adaptogens?

Common adaptogens include Panax Ginseng, Eleuthero (also known as Siberian ginseng), and Ashwagandha, which has GABA-like anti-anxiety activity and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for more than 2,500 years to enhance vitality and endurance.

Polarity Tea

Polarity tea was developed by the Osteopathic-Ayurvedic healer, Dr. Randolph Stone. It is an adaptogenic Ayurvedic medicine comprised of 4 roots and seeds. It contains one part licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), one part fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare), one part fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum), and two parts flax seed (Linum usitatissimum). This tea is beneficial for stress, fatigue, liver or gall bladder problems, and allergies, and is soothing to respiratory and intestinal mucus membranes. It may be slightly laxative and is also a mild stimulant. Mix the dry ingredients together and store in a jar in the dark. To make the tea, use 1 heaping teaspoon to 1 cup of water and simmer for 20 minutes, strain and drink 1-2 cups a day hot or cold.

By Roger Culos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: By Roger Culos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.) is one of the most important botanicals of both Indian and Chinese medicine. Of the four ingredients, it provides most of the adaptogenic qualities. The glycyrrhizic acid in licorice inhibits the breakdown of cortisol and increases the amount of cortisol production, making it useful in adrenal fatigue and hypocortisolism. The root is rich in minerals including sodium, potassium, iron, and manganese. Licorice may often be used in place of steroids and it also prolongs the half-life of steroids. It is also soothing to the mucus membranes in the lungs, making it useful for people who smoke. Licorice has been shown in the lab to suppress herpes virus which often erupts during times of stress. However, for people with high blood pressure it should be moderated to a few times a week.

Traditionally used in desert regions for its ability to help cells retain fluids, it is contraindicated for people with hypertension or edema, and the Polarity tea should be limited to two cups a day. Glycyrrhiza at high doses can result in side effects such as hypertension, edema, headache, and shortness of breath in about 20 percent of the population. The dose generally needed to cause these side effects is 10-14 grams of crude plant, but can vary dramatically from as little as 1-2 grams in some individuals to as high as 30 grams in others.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum L) is from Asia and southern Europe. Fenugreek is a demulcent, from the Latin word demulcere, meaning "to caress". It soothes digestion, reduces gas due to poor digestion, and reduces allergic reaction as it loosens mucus. The seeds have small amounts of l-tryptophan. It also supports sugar handling, making it an effective tea for hypoglycemia.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is endemic to Southern Europe. It relieves anxiety-related digestive problems and the essential oil is useful in treating depressed mood. Fennel seed can also be incorporated into cooking or just chewed after eating. Flax is a natural anti-inflammatory and is soothing to digestion rich in essential fatty acids.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)

By Amazonia Exotics U.K (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0
Source: By Amazonia Exotics U.K (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is my go to plant to enhance dopamine and hence fox and attention and to replace or reduce caffeine intake. It increases resistance to a variety of chemical, biological, and physical stressors. Rhodiola is a mild anti-depressant (Darbinyan et al., 2007) and a stimulant useful for the treatment of anxiety (Bystritsky, Kerwin, & Feusner, 2008). Rhodiola is also an anti-inflammatory. In my experience Rhodiola is a very gentle yet potent botanical, making it especially useful for someone who can use only one botanical or who has multiple chemical sensitivities. All of these actions make it an ideal botanical for the treatment of traumatic stress.

Rhodiola increases serotonin in the hypothalamus and midbrain (Brekhman & Dardymov, 1969) and opioid peptide levels (Kelly, 2001), and supports serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine action at the receptor sites. Rhodiola rosea has been shown to reduce adrenaline-induced arrhythmias in animals.

For fatigue associated with stress, a starting dose of 10 drops 2-3 times a day is gradually increased up to 30-40 drops for 1-2 months. (Brown, Gerbarg, & Ramazanov, 2002). For memory, concentration, and enhanced cognition take 100-400 mg /day using a standardized extract containing at least 3% rosavin extract or tea from roots (Petkov et al., 1986).

No serious side-effects have been reported but rhodiola can be stimulating, so it should be used earlier in the day. People who develop mania in response to antidepressants could respond similarly to high doses. Some individuals, particularly those who tend to be anxious, may feel overly activated, jittery, or agitated. If this occurs, then a smaller dose with very gradual increases may be needed.

By Amazonia Exotics U.K (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0
Source: By Amazonia Exotics U.K (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0

Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been called Indian ginseng and is considered the pre-eminent adaptogen from the Ayurvedic medical system used to treat chronic stress and fatigue. Ashawaganda means, “the smell and strength of a horse,” suggestive of its power. It contains withanolides, which have steroidal activity in the body. Human studies show that Ashwagandha is superior to Panax ginseng in its ability to increase endurance and prevent adrenal exhaustion, ulcers, and vitamin C deficiency. Animal studies show that Ashwagandha may improve memory (Dhuley, 2001), stabilize mood (S. K. Bhattacharya, Bhattacharya, Sairam, & Ghosal, 2000), improve stress tolerance (Archana & Namasivayam, 1999), decreases anxiety, support the immune system, and prevent morphine dependence. Ashwagandha increases libido (Kuppurajan et al., 1980) and reduces inflammation (Rätsch, 1998) and helps to normalize sleep. Ashwanganda is traditionally harvested only in the autumn and dried in the shade. I prefer the liquid extract to capsules, allowing titration of dosages specific to the individual. There have been no side effects reported.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is particularly helpful to support HPA axis function. It provides a “bottom” where one has fallen, and thus builds foundation vitality Farnsworth, Kinghorn, Soejarto, and Waller (1985) reviewed the results of clinical trials of Eleuthero on more than 2,100 healthy human subjects, and the data confirmed adaptogenic effects including increased capacity to tolerate physical and mental stress. It is important to obtain high quality Eleuthero extract; dosage can range from ½ to 1 teaspoon a day. There are no serious adverse effects related to the use of eleuthero though too frequent use could induce euphoria and sleeplessness.

When should I take Adaptogens for the Best Effects?

They should generally be taken before 3 p.m. Adaptogens are designed to gently stimulate and support cortisol rhythm which is naturally high in the morning and low at night. Actually we use licorice for just this purpose of regulating this rhythm. This is also why we should not drink coffee at night because it upsets this rhythm. When we use adaptogens (or any natural medicine) to support our health we want to align the timing of its use with our own biological rhythms. We are designed to be “live wires” in the morning and to rest by early evening. Again in extraordinary circumstances for a few days we can push our bodies and minds to perform an exceptional physical or cognitive task and in this case we do use adaptogens to support this extraordinary feat but we must then allow for deep restorative rest. Then I use ginseng for recovery.

Try this!

Fruity Turmeric Adaptogen Smoothie

I incorporate turmeric in either powder or fresh root into my daily smoothie. Curcumin is adaptogenic and a good anti-inflammatory, making it valuable for pain, depression, and stress

I call this my Fruity Turmeric Smoothie from my new book The Good Mood Kitchen


½ c. frozen pineapple or mango

1 fresh banana

1 c. milk (hemp or coconut milk)

1 tbsp. coconut oil

½ tsp. turmeric, fresh

½ tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. ginger, fresh

¼ tsp. ground black pepper

1 tsp. chia seeds

1 tsp. green tea powder (optional)

¼ c. goat yogurt (optional)

1 tsp. raw honey or 10 drops of liquid stevia (optional)


1. Add ingredients to a blender in the following order: frozen fruit, banana, milk,

oil, spices, and remaining ingredients.

Rotate your adaptogens

It is wise to use herbal adaptogens for short term, for example for acute stress use an adaptogens for a few days or for chronic stress for six weeks and then rotate the type of adaptogen and use for another six weeks. This allows the body to benefit from subtle differences among the herbs. Experiment with the best effects for you. Adaptogens will smooth out your stress and support your innate resilience.


Archana, R., & Namasivayam A. (1999). Antistressor effect of Withania somnifera.Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 64 (1), 91–93.

Bhattacharya, S. K., Bhattacharya, A., Sairam, K., & Ghosal, S. (2000). Anxiolyticantidepressant activity of Withania somnifera glycowithanolides: An experimental study. Phytomedicine, 7 (6), 463–469.

Brekhman, I. I., & Dardymov, I. V. (1969). New substances of plant origin which increase non-specific resistance. Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, 9,419–430.

Brown, R. P., Gerbarg, P. L., & Ramazanov, Z. (2002). Rhodiola rosea: A phytomedicinal overview. HerbalGram, 56 , 40–52

Bystritsky, A., Kerwin, L., & Feusner, J. (2008). A pilot study of rhodiola rosea (rhodax)for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 14 (2), 175–180.

Darbinyan, V., Aslanyan, G., Amroyan, E., Gabrielyan, E., Malmström, C., & Panossian, A. (2007). Clinical trial of Rhodiola rosea L. extract SHR-5 in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 61 (5), 343–348.

Dhuley, J. N. (2001). Nootropic-like effect of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera L.) in mice. Phytotherapy Research, 15 (6), 524–528.

Farnsworth, N. R., Kinghorn, A. D., Soejarto, D. D., & Waller, D. P. (1985). Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus): Current status as an adaptogen. In H. Wagner, H. Z. Hikino, & N. R. Farnsworth (Eds.), Economic and medicinal plant research (Vol. 1, pp. 155–215). London: Academic Press.

Kelly, G. S. (2001). Rhodiola rosea: a possible plant adaptogen. Alternative Medicine Review, 6 (3), 293–302.

Kuppurajan, K., Rajagopalan, S. S., Sitaraman, R., Rajgopalan, V., Janaki, R., & Venkataraghavan, S. (1980). Effect of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera Dunal) on the process of aging in human volunteers. Journal of Research in Ayurveda & Siddha, 1 (2), 247–258.

Petkov, V. D., Yonkov, D., Mosharoff, A., Kambourova, T., Alova, L., Petkov, V. V., & Todorov, I. (1986). Effects of alcohol aqueous extract from rhodiola rosea L. roots on learning and memory. Acta Physiologica et Pharmacologica Bulgarica, 12 (1), 3–16.

Rätsch, C. (1998). The encyclopedia of psychoactive plants, enthnopharmacology and its applications . Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.