There is a whole category of plants that can increase the human body’s ability to adapt and respond positively to stress. These botanicals are called adaptogens, and deserve a place in herbal preparedness plans and gardens for their ability to promote healthy immunity and help your body excel during times of mental and physical challenges.
Benefits of Adaptogens
Although the reality of these plants often falls far short of their fad status and the overblown advertising campaigns of companies that tout them as wonder pills and panaceas, they definitely have much to offer. Studies featuring adaptogen herbs point to an increase in endurance (such as through increased oxygen uptake or utilization); better memory and mental acuity; and shorter duration of or incidences of illnesses such as colds.
In Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman FNIMH, AHG, states that adaptogens “increase general capacity to withstand stressful situations, and hence guard against disease caused by overstress”. He explains that by moderating the stress response in terms of how the body regulates glucose, adaptogens help the body respond more quickly but less drastically; allow blood glucose to stay elevated longer to allow a more sustained peak; and allow the body to back off from the peak more gradually. This has the effect of smoothing out how our bodies respond to stress. Adaptogens also seem to act on key endocrine and immune functions within the body, which relate to stress hormones and our ability to ward off illness.
Four Herbal Adaptogens
Many herbs fall into the category of adaptogens, but rhodiola, eleuthero, ginseng, and ashwaghanda are four of the most readily available and well known.
This Russian herb is considered by many to be excellent for stamina, stress, and mental acuity. A favorite of athletes, it can also be used to better adapt to altitude changes and when recovering from head injuries. Several studies have been done on this herb and how it can benefit mood disorders.
Eleuthero may improve overall energy, stamina, and immunity, and is well tolerated by most people. Sometimes called Siberian ginseng, it’s not related to the true ginsengs but has many of the same benefits.
Panax quinquefolius and Panax ginseng
Probably the best well known of the adaptogens, Ginseng is excellent for stress, immunity, blood sugar stability, and healthy blood pressure. It’s important to note that the common name “ginseng” can refer to two herbs. In traditional herbalism, asian ginseng (panax ginseng) has a reputation of being the most stimulating of all the adaptogens, and was typically reserved for use by older men. American ginseng (panax quinquefolius) is less stimulating and tolerated well by a wider age range of both sexes. However, American ginseng is in danger of over-harvesting in the wild, so be sure to purchase this herb from a reputable, sustainable company such as Gaia Herbs, Herbpharm, or Mountain Rose.
A calming herb, ashwaghanda is the best choice of the bunch for anyone concerned about the stimulating effects of some adaptogens. Among many other benefits this herb is suited for anxiety, hyper or hypo immunity issues, increasing stamina, encouraging healthy blood sugar and blood pressure, and boosting immunity.
How to Use Adaptogens
Unlike most herbs, adaptogens are usually taken every day, or almost every day, for longer periods of time. Some herbalists favor using them daily for a minimum of three months and then taking a break for a week or two; other herbalists might suggest using them indefinitely for as long as desired while allowing one or two days off per week.
These herbs can be purchased as capsules or alcohol extracts. For these, be sure to follow the suggested directions on the package. For preparedness purposes, though, it’s important to know how to make a tea (technically a decoction) with the roots. Not only is purchasing the roots from a reputable source far cheaper than using prepackaged supplements, but it puts confidently using plants grown in one’s own garden within the realm of possibility for the prepper.
In general, one teaspoon of the dried roots can be prepared in 8 oz of water and taken up to three times a day. Some people may find that these herbs make it difficult to sleep if taken too close to bedtime- in that case, take them in the morning only. They are best taken on an empty stomach, an hour or so before breakfast and in between meals.
To prepare a decoction, bring 1-2 cups of water to boil in a small covered saucepan. Add the dried roots, and allow them to simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to steep, covered, for a minimum of thirty minutes and then strain out the roots before drinking the tea. A small amount of honey can be added as a sweetener (raw, local honey is beneficial for allergies, so why not?).
Consulting with your doctor before beginning to take a new herb is always a good idea. Adaptogens may occasionally raise blood pressure in some individuals, or cause feelings of jitteriness; they may not be tolerated well by individuals with anxiety disorders or people who are manic or bipolar. However, adaptogens are usually very safe and have positive benefits for most people.
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