DOCTORS GET SICK, TOO. Thirteen years ago, Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D., a psychiatrist in Kingston, N.Y., developed Lyme disease. By the time it was diagnosed, she was suffering from severe fatigue, painful joints, muscle weakness, and memory loss. Antibiotics helped, she says, "but I was still in a bad way--low in energy, weak, and mentally fuzzy."
Luckily, there was another doctor in the house: Richard Brown, M.D., a psychopharmacologist at Columbia University and Gerbarg's husband, recommended the herb Rhodiola rosea. "Within 10 days, I felt better," Gerbarg recalls. "After three months, my memory and mental function were restored, and my energy was much improved. Rhodiola gave me back my life."
Rhodiola, ginseng, and a handful of other herbs are known as adaptogens. The term was coined in 1947 by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarev, who, with his student Israel Brekhman, theorized that adaptogens counteract the adverse results of physical and emotional stress, increase energy, and boost immune resistance--improving many conditions while aggravating none.
"Adaptogens give the body a tuneup," says Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D., author of Herbal Tonic Therapies. "They help the cells produce energy and use it more efficiently. But adaptogens don't overpower the cells as drugs often do--their effects are subtle. Over time, adaptogenic herbs are very beneficial to health."
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, some adaptogens are known as qi tonics, says Efrem Korngold, O.M.D., L.Ac., co-author of Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine: "Qi tonics, similar to mind-body disciplines like yoga, have the power to improve the strength and function of structural components, physiological processes, and cognitive capacities."
Adaptogens offer a chance for greater resilience in the face of stress. "Our culture has focused on 'taming' nature, adapting the environment to our needs," says Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., A.H.G., a clinical herbalist in Davis, Calif., "but we still need to be adaptable, to strengthen ourselves and cultivate flexibility of body and mind. Adaptogenic herbs can help."
Ginseng, eleuthero, and rhodiola are known as "true" adaptogens: They "increase cellular energy production, and have antioxidant and other actions," says Gerbarg. Ashwagandha, schisandra, and reishi are considered "quasi" adaptogens and provide similar benefits, though they may not work as well to manage stress. Read on to find which one is right for you.
Tincture image via Shutterstock