Adaptogenic Herbs of Ayurveda
Adaptation. Without this remarkable quality, life as we know it would not exist. It is only through the ability to adapt that humans, plants, and animals have evolved to their modern-day capacity. There is a fascinating concept at play here, and that is the fact that plants have actually helped us to adapt to our changing environments and circumstances. Plants have helped us cope—and adjust—with the stressors in our lives. These types of plants have come to be known as adaptogens.
What Are Adaptogenic Herbs?
What are adaptogens? While these plants have been around and in use for thousands, if not millions of years, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Russian scientists coined the term adaptogens. Today, an adaptogen can be defined as an agent that:
- Has a normalizing effect on a wide range of bodily functions
- Has a nonspecific action that helps the body overcome stress regardless of the direction of stress
- Is nontoxic when used in normal dosage1
In other words, adaptogens help to modify the body’s reaction to stress, both environmental and internal. One way they do this is by strengthening and supporting the immune, nervous, and glandular systems.2 There is a compelling fact about adaptogenic plants—they themselves often live in stressful conditions and have their own adaptation strengths and abilities which they impart to us. For example, ashwagandha, a popular adaptogen in Ayurveda, is highly drought resistant, thriving in arid conditions and soil of poor quality, conditions in which most plants would suffer from severe stress, while ashwagandha flourishes.3
It cannot be overstated that for millennia humans have depended upon plants as both food and medicine. Since their inception, both Chinese medicine and Ayurveda have relied on herbal remedies for healing and rejuvenation. However, in the West, much of plants’ wisdom and their efficacy has been limited or even relegated to folk lore, indigenous communities, and countries outside of the United States. In Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman notes that much of adaptogen research has been done in Asian countries. He says, “This does not mean that adaptogens are found only in Asia, but rather that only Asian scientists have gotten research grants to study them!” With that said, the science around adaptogenic mechanisms support their relationship to the “pituitary-adrenal gland axis.” Hoffman states that their ability to “smooth out” the body’s stress response may be related to “adaptogens’ effects on glucose metabolism…[however] the specific mechanism of adaptogenic activity has not yet been elucidated.”4 We may be able to surmise that by supporting the adrenal glands, we support the regulation of stress hormones, including cortisol.
Another important aspect of adaptogens, as their name connotes, is their ability to adjust to a body’s needs, bringing the body back into balance “no matter what the direction of imbalance.”1 Ashwagandha is another good example of this phenomenon as it has the ability to both increase energy and vitality while also helping to calm the mind and induce sleep.3
11 Ayurvedic Adaptogens
Here are some well-known Ayurvedic adaptogens and a few of their effects on the body:
Amalaki (Embelica officinalis) is known as “mother” or “nurse” in Sanskrit. It is known to be a super antioxidant and tonic for general debility and weakness. It pacifies sadhaka pitta, thus influencing clarity and calmness of mind. It is a rejuvenative as well as an adaptogen that is said to slow the aging process, increase virility, and promote immune function.5
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is also known as “Indian ginseng,” though it is not related to the ginseng family and most likely gets this name in reference to its energy promoting qualities.3 Somnifera is translated as “sleep-inducing,” reflecting its relaxing and calming properties that bring us energy by supporting deeper rest.
Bacopa (Bacopa monniera) is used to aid in recovery from exhaustion, stress, and debility with aggravation of vata. It is often paired with brahmi/gotu kola as a mighty duo in supporting cognitive function, including memory and concentration. It eases tension and helps induce restful sleep.6
In the mind, Brahmi (Centella asiatica) improves concentration, intelligence, memory, and alertness. In the body, brahmi nourishes majja dhatu, supporting the brain and helping the body cope with stress.7
Guduchi (Tinosporia cordifolia) is fondly called “the one who protects the body.” It benefits all conditions of aggravated ranjaka pitta and pitta in the blood. It helps to clear pitta toxins and uric acid, boosting the immune system. It is calming to vata and the nervous system in general.8
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) benefits all seven tissue layers, or dhatus. It is calming and cooling for pitta while also nourishing for vata and majja dhatu. Licorice has a special affinity for the lungs and mucous membranes. It acts as a strong adrenal tonic, thus supporting the body’s stress response, and its sattvic nature is calming to the mind.9
Moringa (Moringa oleifera), largely due to its nutrient content, is helpful for sleep, the heart, kidneys, liver, blood, and the pancreas. Moringa supports healthy energy levels and restoration of the body’s tissues. For more information on moringa’s nutrient content and health benefits, take a peek at Moringa Oleifera—A Superfood for All Ages.10
Mucuna or Kapikacchu
As a natural source of L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine, Mucuna (Mucuna pruriens) has a special affinity for the nervous system. Kapikacchu is both strengthening and calming, and it is considered one of the best tonics for the reproductive system, both male and female.11
Tulsi or Holy Basil
Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) has been so highly revered that it has been seen as “a goddess incarnated in plant form.”12 Tulsi is said to increase prana, or life force. It is stimulating for the digestion and good for vata in the digestive process. Tulsi is beneficial for all three doshas, with a special affinity for the lungs and rasa dhatu.13
Shatavari (Asparagus rasemosus) is affectionately referred to as “the one who has 100 husbands.” It is to the female reproductive system as ashwagandha is to the male reproductive system, considered a rejuvenative, or rasayana, as well as an adaptogen. It is especially effective for the tissues of the lungs, stomach, kidneys, and sexual organs.14
Technically not an herb, Shilajit (Asphaltum punjabianum) does lend its hardy adaptogenic signature as a mineral pitch found in the arduous conditions of the Himalayas. Its high mineral content makes it beneficial for many of the body’s tissues, especially the kidneys, urinary, and reproductive systems.15
Banyan Botanicals has listened to Ayurvedic wisdom and the science of adaptogens to create some truly supportive adaptogenic blends. Here are a few of our favorites:
Chyavanprash is a traditional Ayurvedic rejuvenative jam. Some of its herbal adaptogens include amalaki, ashwagandha, and guduchi. Along with other warming and nourishing herbs, this formula is known for its energizing and immune-boosting effects.
7-Herb Energy liquid extract is a natural and caffeine-free blend of adaptogens including ashwagandha, Asian ginseng, eleuthero, brahmi/gotu kola, and licorice. All of these offer stress relief and act as a pure, herbal pick-me-up.
Stress Ease, as its name imparts, is especially formulated to aid in times of elevated stress. Drawing from the strength of the core of adaptogens, this blend offers reinforcement to both the body and the mind.
How to Take Adaptogens
Traditionally, bulk herbs are taken as a tea, also called a churna. Most herbs have a synergistic effect when taken with other herbs and thus are usually taken in tandem. However, steeping herbs first thing in the morning does not fit into everyone’s routine. With this in mind, Banyan conveniently offers many of our single herbs in tablet form and also as liquid extracts. Some of the adaptogens offered as both a tablet and liquid extract include amalaki, ashwagandha, brahmi/gotu kola, Mucuna pruriens, shatavari, and tulsi.
Are Adaptogens Safe?
In One Earth Herbal Sourcebook, Dr. Tillotson classifies herbs that score high in terms of both safety and effectiveness for general daily use as “gold standard” herbs. He states that few herbs actually meet this “highest” standard.1 Some adaptogens that are given a gold standard include amalaki, ashwagandha, brahmi/gotu kola, and guduchi.
While most herbs are generally recognized as safe, they may also come with their own limitations. Diuretic herbs, for example, need to be taken with care. We always recommend working with a trained professional or at least doing some preliminary research before starting a new herbal routine. And although an herb may be considered safe, it does not necessarily mean that it may be the right herb for you. There are also health conditions, such as pregnancy, that need to be taken into consideration when choosing an herbal protocol.
Get to know these wonderful adaptogenic herbs of Ayurveda and start incorporating them into your life as it feels appropriate. Notice the help they provide and make adjustments along the way. For more information about choosing the right herbs for you and developing a relationship with these traditional plants, we suggest reading more about Taking Your Herbs.