If your daily to-do list seems to lengthen while your energy levels diminish, this may be the time to try adaptogenic herbs. Derived from plants and plant parts, these herbs reduce stress and correct imbalances in your system. With the right regimen, you'll sail through winter in good health. "Adaptogenic herbs increase your body's resistance to physical, biological, emotional, and environmental stressors," says David Winston, a founding member of the American Herbalists Guild and coauthor of Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief (Healing Arts Press, 2007). All adaptogens help regulate the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitaryadrenal) axis, meaning they can adjust imbalances related to immunity, hormones, and stress. Each one also offers unique benefits. One herb might calm your mind, while another gives you energy or increases your endurance. "Adaptogens may fight inflammation and prevent oxidation caused by free radicals," says Winston. "They may also build stamina, ease anxiety, or enhance cognitive function."
Taken appropriately, adaptogens are safe for healthy adults. Follow label instructions or refer to Winston's dosage recommendations included with each herb. "If you're a 100-pound woman, use a third less than the 'normal' dose," says Winston. Talk to your doctor before taking herbs if you're nursing, pregnant, or planning to become pregnant. If you have a medical condition or take medication, consult with someone knowledgeable about herbs who can identify potential interactions. Asian ginseng, for example, may increase the effects of blood-thinning drugs and may worsen symptoms in people with high blood pressure, anxiety, or insomnia. Because of its thyroid-stimulating properties, ashwagandha is not advised if you have an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).
Start taking adaptogens two weeks before holiday stress is likely to kick in, Winston suggests.
Ashwagandha (fatigue & insomnia)
The roots of this nightshade plant, also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, have been used in parts of Asia and Africa to treat various ailments, including lower back pain, arthritis, sexual dysfunction, and stomach upset. A 2000 review of scientific studies published in Alternative Medicine Review concluded that the herb fights stress and has a positive effect on the central nervous system. Ashwagandha fights anxiety, fatigue, stress-induced insomnia, and exhaustion, says Winston.
How to take: Tincture (1:5): 30 to 40 drops three times a day. Capsules: one 400 to 500 mg capsule twice a day.
Reishi (emotional balance)
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners use this herb to calm the mind and restore emotional balance. A study in the Journal of Medicinal Food in 2005 found eight weeks of treatment with reishi reduced fatigue and improved wellbeing in 123 Chinese patients diagnosed with fatigue. The mushroom has polysaccharides, carbohydrates that boost disease-fighting cells.
How to take: Tincture (1:5): 80 to 100 drops four to six times a day. Capsules (mycelial extracts): three 500 to 1,000 mg capsules three times a day.
Schisandra (mental & physical ability)
These berries can be both calming and stimulating. TCM practitioners use the fruit to remedy diarrhea and boost lung and liver health. Schisandra also stimulates the central nervous system, enhancing physical and mental abilities. A 1999 study in Phytomedicine showed that athletes who took schisandra before training had improved exercise performance and enhanced recovery when compared with athletes not given the herb.
How to take: Tincture (1:5): 40 to 80 drops three to four times a day. Capsules: one to two 400 to 500 mg capsules two to three times a day.
Panax Ginseng (vitality)
One of the more stimulating adaptogens, Panax (or Asian) ginseng root improves cognitive function and strengthens the body. In TCM, it's used to restore energy, boost a depleted immune system, and improve vitality. Winston recommends Panax ginseng for people who have chronic fatigue or who are frequently cold or sick. A 2007 Journal of Nutrition review says ginseng's anti-inflammatory properties may thwart damage to DNA.
How to take: Tincture (1:5): 20 to 40 drops up to three times a day. Capsules: two 400 to 500 mg capsules of the powdered herb two to three times a day; one 400 to 500 mg capsule of the powdered extract twice a day.
Occasionally called Siberian ginseng (though it doesn't belong to the same plant species), eleuthero was traditionally used in Chinese medicine to treat swelling and spasms. Evidence shows eleuthero improves endurance and strengthens the immune system, reducing the incidence of colds and other common infections. In a 2004 Italian study of 20 elderly adults reported in Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, those treated with eleuthero experienced improved mental health and social functioning after four weeks, without negative side effects. A study reported in Psychological Medicine the same year showed eleuthero reduced the severity and duration of chronic fatigue in 76 individuals with the condition. Winston recommends eleuthero to people who are stressed and too busy to eat well or get enough sleep.
How to take: Tincture (1:4): 60 to 100 drops three to four times a day. Fluid extract (1:1): 20 to 40 drops three times a day.
To locate a registered herbalist in your area or to find books that provide instructions on using herbs, visit the website of the American Herbalists Guild at americanherbalistsguild.com.