Herbalism Homesteading Wild Foods

Herbal Actions: Adaptogens

This is probably the most popular herbal action heralded right now.  Every new herb lately is touted as an adaptogen. So, what is it and why are they being recommended for everything lately? An adaptogen is an herb that doesn’t have a SPECIFIC action. Overall, they increase the body’s resistance to stressors. How many ads have you seen touting to fix adrenal fatigue? What they really do is have a balancing effect on the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). They are the primary remedy for treating the endocrine system. However, each adaptogen herb is used in different ways and, usually for a short time period.  You can’t take 1 herb and apply it to everything.  In “Evolutionary Herbalism”, Sajah Popham uses a perfect analogy for adaptogens.  He compares fatigue to a water hose that has no water coming out. There are 3 possible scenarios. First, the valve could not be turned all the way on. Second, it could be on but the hose is kinked somewhere. Third, there could be something in the hose that is blocking the waters path. All 3 scenarios would appear the same, but the resolution would be different in each scenario.

It is extremely important to research each herb thoroughly to make sure that the adaptogen matches the underlying constitution and energetics of the individual.  Each plant has its own effects, side effects, contraindications and ways of working on the body.  The most important thing about adaptogens is that they are used “when someone is truly deficient in vital force because of long term periods of stress, lack of sleep and less than good nutrition.” People cannot be adaptogen-deficient. It is a decision of how they choose to live every day. Self-care is more efficient than an adaptogen. Adaptogens are warming, cooling, moistening or blood tonics.

Let’s go over some examples that refer back to the energetics of herbs. Remember that western herbalism refers to energetics of both herbs and people in relative degrees of heat and moisture, helping with more warming herbs if the person is cool, or moisturizing herbs if there is systemic dryness. During both acute and chronic stress, the symptoms of adrenal hormone dysfunction seem to manifest in the physiologic system that is weakest, you can see this in the person’s history of illnesses. Fortunately, adaptogens are also well-known to possess an affinity to certain organs and tissues.

Warming adaptogens example:

Korean  Ginseng  (Panax ginseng)

This is one of the best warming tonics.  It can be used as a tincture, capsule, or whole root.

Energy: warm, yang

Specifics: Improves progressive fatigue, sexual deficiency, low libido, depression, digestive disturbances, not for use w/ high blood pressure

Hawthorn (Crategus species) The “May Queen” is a premier cardiovascular adaptogen. The flower, leaf, and berry are used. If on cardiac medication, please check with your doctor but Hawthorn is considered safe and balancing to heart conditions. Spiritually speaking, it is even associated with the stress and grief of be “heartbroken”.  This herbs action as a nervine helps improve feeling grounded and solid.

Energy: warming, well-balanced.

Specifics: cardiovascular disease, depression, lack of focus and anxiety with palpitations, poor circulation

Cooling Adaptogens examples:

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)  This herb is a common flavor.  It is tasty, moisturizing and powerfully anti-inflammatory.  It is available in many different forms as long as it is the actual medicinal plant ( No, candy doesn’t count!)

Energy:  Cooling, yin

Specifics: Inflammation and pain, viral co-infection, irritated throat or GI tract, dryness, constipation. Use caution w/ high blood pressure and kidney disease.

Tulsi, Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) Tulsi is one of the most delicious as a teas I have had (some herbs truly taste like medicine!) or  tinctures are also beneficial.

Energy: cool, well-balanced in moisture

Specifics: Inflammation in joints or muscles, autoimmune disease, rheumatism, mood imbalance, gastrointestinal spasm

Moistening Adaptogens examples:

Milky Oat (Avena sativa) I am certain most have heard of oats.  It is very safe and food like.  The medicinal parts are the unripe seed heads harvested at the ‘milky’ stage.   Milky oat is used in teas or tincture. The tincture is often used for acute nervous system symptoms. I myself make a homemade tincture that includes milky oat to help with insomnia.

Energy: moisturizing and somewhat warming

Specifics: drained, depleted, dry constitutions, depression, anxiety, shock, tremor, pain, menopause.

Astralagus (Astralagus membranaceous)   With this herb, the root is used. It often comes in dried slices and is one of the top herbs recommended by both western herbalists and TCM practitioners.  It

has a sweet and earthy flavor and I add it to stews and soups, as well as teas and tinctures.

Energy: Warming and moist.

Specifics: builds and restore general health to the body, adrenal fatigue (which may manifest as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome), frequent colds and flus, seasonal allergies, tones the immune system, as well as benefits the heart, liver, blood and kidneys.

Drying Adaptogen examples:

Schizandra (Schizandra chinensis) With this herb, also known as Five Flavor Fruit, the berry is used and made into a tincture. It is a potent general tonic, decreasing fatigue, enhancing physical performance, and promoting endurance. The berry counters stress by reducing the levels of stress hormones in the blood.

Energy: almost perfectly balanced

Specifics: detoxifies the liver, boosts cognition and concentration, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer effects, boost the metabolism.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) A great all around adaptogen, this herb offers brain and cognitive support. It supports healthy cardiac function, as well as immune response, lowers stress hormones and gives you energy. The root is used and can be powdered in capsules or tincture.

Energy: neutral to warm, drying,

Specifics: exhaustion, depression, reduced performance, anxiety, nonspecific pain, lack of focus and poor concentration

Schizandra Berry Syrup Recipe


This information is intended only as a general reference for further exploration, and is not a replacement for professional health advice. This content does not provide dosage information, format recommendations, toxicity levels, or possible interactions with prescription drugs. Accordingly, this information should be used only under the direct supervision of a qualified health practitioner such as a naturopathic physician.

By Danielle Savage

I am a lifelong learner. I have lived experience in many, many forms but what I hold dear is my connection with the land, my spirituality, my ancestors and teaching others that there is another way to live besides the current offering!

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