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Picture this: the stable energy levels that once came naturally to you are now only coming from your cup (or two, or three) of morning coffee. You’re exhausted in the morning, yet somehow wired at night — and despite doing all the self care, you’re feeling a sense of depletion on a core level that no amount of face masks can fill. Like I always say… there’s an herb (and lifestyle changes) for that! Or perhaps better said, plants can’t fix everything, but they can sure help our foundation.

Instead of robbing Peter to pay Paul by “borrowing energy from tomorrow” (my favorite way to describe over-caffeinating and pushing your limits), let’s get to the root of energy dips and imbalances with one of my favorite classes of herbs: adaptogens.

FIRST THINGS FIRST, WHAT IS AN ADAPTOGEN?

There are two parts to this word: ADAPT (which means to change your behavior so that it is easier to live in a particular place or situation or to change something so that it functions better) and GEN (a substance that generates). Adaptogens help to generate a greater sense of resilience and help us to adapt to the stress in our lives by supporting both nervous system and hormone balance. 

In my teacher Richard’s words: “Adaptogens increase non-specific resilience to stressors and reestablish our intrinsic physical, mental, and emotional adaptive capacity.”

In the most basic sense, these herbs nourish the endocrine system. While digestive bitters are, well, bitter in flavor… and carminatives are “pungent” in flavor with their essential oil content… most adaptogens tend to have a sweet flavor somewhere in their mix. My teacher says that when someone comes to him with chronic cravings for sweets, it’s often because they’re exhausted or depleted. The body knows they need the sweet, nourishing, grounding earth energy found in adaptogenic herbs (even if we’re used to reaching for that sweet flavor in quick fix form with lattes and cookies that give us temporary highs but even worse lows!)

WHAT ARE THE QUALITIES THAT AN ADAPTOGENIC HERB MUST HAVE?

Adaptogens…

  • are generally non-toxic (they are dosed higher than some other classes of herbs where you’d need much less to find the dose that offers therapeutic effects without creating imbalance)
  • produce a non-specific response (meaning they give you general support in your resistance against a host of different stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents)

AND

• They have a modulating, normalizing, or regulating effect (in particular on the nervous, endocrine, and immune system aka the H-P-A axis where these all tend to interact).

NOW, WHAT THE HECK IS THE HPA AXIS?

If you’ve ever felt totally overworked, exhausted and burnt out… or if you’re familiar with the popular yet misunderstood term “adrenal fatigue,” it’s important to understand what your HPA axis is. I have a whole blog post explaining the concept of adrenal fatigue and how the symptoms may be very real, but are a result of an imbalanced HPA axis rather than your adrenals truly being “fatigued” or “shut down.”

HPA stands for Hypothalamus – Pituitary – Adrenals but is also referred to as the HPAOT axis which further encompasses the Ovaries and Thyroid. (The inclusion of these last two explains why stress can affect everything from our metabolism and weight to our sex hormone balance). This HPAOT axis is quite literally our built-in “stress response system” and functions on a negative feedback loop meaning all glands and organs involved are constantly speaking to each other in order to control and adjust their hormonal output.

When you’re under stress for a while, your cortisol levels are often chronically elevated which puts a huge burden on the body. Your body wants to protect you from the harmful effects of prolonged exposure to high cortisol, so your brain (the HP part) down-regulates the entire HPA axis and stops giving your adrenals the proper signals they need to produce it. The problem is, we do need some cortisol to feel awake and energized, so we don’t want it going too low (or rather going too low at the wrong times).

This is where circadian rhythm comes in, because being in tune with the nature’s light/dark, day/night, sleep/wake rhythm works with the HPA axis to guide your output of things like cortisol to ensure you’re having a moderate spike when you wake up to get you going for the day, and that this spike comes back down slowly until it’s time to go back to sleep. When your circadian rhythm and HPA axis are not optimally regulated, you may feel exhausted at all times, you may find that even the tiniest stressors feel like the world is on your shoulders, and you also may experience bursts of energy at inconvenient times (such as a “second wind” after 10pm). Something I also notice is that people who are depleted and have HPA axis issues tend to get startled very easily, such as jumping at loud or unexpected sounds.

Adaptogens are the main tools that herbalists use to support someone’s circadian rhythm, reduce flight-or-flight mode, and support healthy regulation of the HPA axis. 

Now, in order to really understand the issues related to the HPA axis that are supported by adaptogens (and why dysregulation or burnout is so common), we must also understand the environment that we’re currently living in.

In general, we are not connected to the rhythms of nature, especially when it comes to our exposure to light. We don’t get much sunlight during the day due to indoor work, and we’re chronically exposed to blue light from our technology, especially at night. Nature follows a schedule (if you watch the birds, they chirp at the same time every morning, then congregate at the same time every evening) — but we are not on a daily set schedule because we often have irregular work and life commitments that are always changing the hours at which we eat, work, rest and play. We are not walking as much or getting the same amount of exercise (which is very protective against stress), we are eating processed food rather than traditional foods (at ever-changing mealtimes), and we are living in constructed environments made of synthetic materials with little physical connection to nature. All of these things combined can feel like stress to the body, not to mention the stress we already have to deal with in actual daily life. 

Notice how much better you feel when you vacation, where you’re naturally waking up with the sun every morning, outside in the natural light with your feet touching the sand all day, swimming and running around, and eating regular meals in a relaxed setting. For me personally, I find that my circadian rhythm resets almost instantly, I feel far less stressed, and I’m actually dead tired around 8:30/9pm every night rather than wanting to stay up like I often do then I’m living the city life.

Why do we feel so much better in this setting? Because our HPA axis is getting balanced and regulated by the environment. Ideally, changing your behavior, sleep schedule and environment always comes first when you’re treating the HPA axis, but utilizing adaptogenic herbs is part of the process as well.

As a practitioner I would always want you to try your best to mimic those “vacation” lifestyle changes to the best of your ability, taking steps like waking up close to sunrise, exposing your eyes to early morning light outside or through an open window for 10 minutes while you drink your coffee, touching your feet to the ground at some point of the day, and moving your body outside in the daylight whenever possible. It’s obviously not reasonable to live like we’re on vacation every day, but we for deep and lasting change to occur, we need to bring a little vacation back to reality and take time to soak in nature’s signals. In this sense, rest, play, laughter and sleep are way more important than the herbs so make sure those are prioritized first.

Now that we understand what adaptogens are and why they would be used, let’s talk about my top 3 favorite adaptogenic herbs and what makes each one unique.

MY TOP 3 FAVORITE ADAPTOGENIC HERBS & WHAT MAKES EACH ONE UNIQUE

  1. ASHWAGANDHA

I am usually a fan of taking adaptogens in formulation (where several are combined in order to balance and compliment each other), but Ashwagandha is one that I have taken both alone and in a balanced blend with great results either way.

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic Ayurvedic herb that is considered a “normalizer,” aka a nutritive, regulating herb that supplies the necessary raw materials to support the optimal health of our hormones and our tissues. These herbs are slow-acting and often taken for months or years in order to gently help the body adapt to stress and get stronger despite it.

Ashwagandha quite literally translates to “smells like a horse,” although many practitioners explain that it gives you the stamina or energy of a horse. It is one of Ayurveda’s most praised longevity tonics and aphrodisiacs, and specifically helps us build muscle tissue so I love employing this herb when I’m upping my workouts and need support for deep sleep and muscle repair.

In Western terms, this herb is quite helpful for supporting the normal conversion of T4 to the more biologically active thyroid hormone T3. I would specifically think of this adaptogen when someone is presenting with thyroid or thyroid/adrenal issues together. Interestingly enough, this herb is rich in iron, and I’ve seen it support those with low iron when other forms of traditional supplements didn’t quite do the trick. This herb is often suitable for someone who runs cold as it is slightly warming.

Ashwagandha doesn’t tincture well and is traditionally taken in powder form warmed with a fat for optimal absorption such as milk or ghee. It tastes pretty terrible, so I prefer to mimic this tradition by taking the powder in capsules with a meal so that I’m consuming it with a fat source. While ashwagandha is excellent for stress support, you need to be consistent for at least 2 weeks before it really starts to kick in. Ashwagandha is one of the main herbs in my Adrenal Recovery formula, but you can also buy it alone in capsules from a reputable brand.

Note: Ashwagandha is not recommended for use if you are pregnant. Make sure to consult with your practitioner before using while nursing. Since it may improve thyroid conversion, some herbalists consider Ashwagandha to be contraindicated in hyperthyroid conditions. Lastly, use caution and ask your practitioner before combining with barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and other sedatives.

2. HOLY BASIL (TULSI)

Holy Basil is probably my second favorite adaptogen or rather, “almost adaptogen” according to Winston, because it’s actually a brain-specific adaptogen that supports our resilience in terms of the way that stress specifically affects our mental state, mood, and ability to focus. Holy Basil is also indicated for melancholy, foggy thinking, and lack of motivation when spirits are low.

Holy Basil helps to support mental clarity and alertness, aids cognitive function, cloudy thinking, and focus. It is often used by herbalists in protocols for withdrawal support from recreational habits, and I have a highlight saved on my Instagram where I talk about utilizing this herb to combat the lack of motivation that can result from long term cannabis use that is no longer serving an individual.

Holy Basil also seems to act on the gut-brain axis as it helps with digestion, occasional bloating, gas, and even helps to support gut dysbiosis with its microbial-balancing qualities. This gut modulation may be one of the ways Holy Basil gets to the “root” of mood difficulties.

While Holy Basil is often traditionally used as a tea, dried powder, or mixed with ghee like Ashwagandha, studies also demonstrate the efficacy of modern tincture extracts. I personally use Holy Basil in tincture form as part of my Mood Juice formula, but it’s also really nice as a tea. 

Now for the contraindications to make sure we cover all the bases: Holy Basil is not recommended for use if you are pregnant or nursing. It has blood sugar modulating properties so you want to use this with supervision if you are on any blood sugar medications. Finally, Holy Basil also has mild blood thinning properties so get practitioner approval if you’re on any blood thinning medications.

3. PANAX GINSENG 

This herb doesn’t get a lot of love, I think because it’s written off as a gimmick due to being over-marketed at one point with those “energy shots” you see at checkout counters. But let me tell you, this herb is powerful and one of my all time favorites to formulate with. Even less than 10% ginseng (like I used in my Brain Juice formula) is enough to warm and energize the body and mind.

I say “warm” because this herb is heating. In fact, it’s indicated for Yang Qi deficiency in Chinese medicine where one feels depleted and cold not only in their hands and feet but at their core. If you know someone who feels the cold in their bones and wears a jacket when everyone else is sweating, this is an herb I would think of right away. In Chinese Medicine, this cold, fatigued state can often be indicative of blood sugar disharmony patterns as well, and Ginseng happens to be a wonderful herb for supporting healthy blood sugar levels (especially when someone feels like they’re exhausted 24/7 – this is referred to as Qi deficiency in TCM).

Because Ginseng is a stimulating herb, this is not an adaptogen for someone who is sensitive to caffeine or stimulants in general. If you’re the type to get wired or jittery, this is probably not the one for you, but it is suitable for a very specific “ginseng person.”

My favorite way to remember the actions of Panax ginseng is the phrase, “Ginseng in the AM makes you tired in the PM.” Someone who is really struggling with consistent energetic dips can handle some stimulation from Ginseng in the morning to get them going, and the seasaw effect of that spike in energy will result in them actually being tired enough to get deep, restorative rest to heal that HPA axis at night.

Again, you don’t need much of it so I only use 10% in my Brain Juice formula and 20mg in my Adrenal Recovery Formula, both of which are meant to be taken in the morning or early afternoon. This is one of those herbs like licorice root that you add in to enhance, round out, and direct the formula rather than packing it in there for its overt effects, unless you are well trained and know how to use it properly. If you want to explore Ginseng alone or in higher doses, I’d highly recommend doing so only under the supervision of an herbal practitioner.

For the contraindications: Note that too much can cause jitters or insomnia in sensitive individuals. Avoid with use of stimulants (including high caffeine intake) and use caution if taking blood thinning, psychotropic, or steroidal medications. Ginseng is contraindicated in cases of excess heat and more suited for someone who is always cold. You also don’t want to use this while pregnant or nursing because of the stimulating properties.

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