Adaptogenic Tonic Recipes
This category of herb is a relative newcomer to western herbalism and comes to us via the old Soviet Union. In the 40’s and 50’s the Soviets became increasingly interested in the properties of herbs that had been used for centuries by traditional peoples. They started to test these plants and do research that quantified the effects on different subject groups. What they found is that certain herbs did indeed boost stamina, resiliency, lowered stress levels and improved cognitive function, memory and alertness in a number of studies. They named these herbs adaptogens with the definition that these plants had a non-specific and non-toxic effect tonic effect that helped people to develop resiliency and adapt to stress more easily.
The term has stuck and is now used fairly liberally by herbalists these days. The term is generally associated with a number of Chinese and ayurvedic herbs that have long been used as tonics, but also include a few herbs that grow in Europe and the Americas as well. Here is a short list of some main common adaptogens.
Amla, Aralia, asparagus root, astragalus, american ginseng, ashwaghanda, asian ginseng, codonopsis, cordyceps, devil’s club, eleuthero, goji, guduchi, he shou wu, holy basil, licorice, maitake, rehmannia, reishi, rhodiola, schisandra, shatavari, shilajit, shitake.
There is quite a bit of confusion about the use of this term however, as each of these plants have a really unique effect and grouping them together blends them so that differences are not as readily apparent. Some commercial herbalists will simply throw a bunch of these adaptogens into a formula without thought of specific differences and unique considerations about each plant.
Traditionally in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, these tonic herbs were offered depending on their temperature (warming, cooling) and effect (moistening, drying) as well as their supplementary features (calming, stimulating, etc). Within these considerations it would not be smart to offer a very heating adaptogen such as Asian ginseng to someone who was already hot and dry. And moistening herbs such as shatavari generally would not be offered to someone who already had a lot of “dampness” (edema, mucous, moisture) in their system. These subtle distinctions are key and often lost in our rush to just offer an adaptogen for someone who is stressed.
There is a further issue in that adaptogens may work to build resiliency and lower stress levels but may not help an individual address the concerns that caused a person to be so stressed out in the first place. When one thinks of the Soviet Union, one can only imagine the government working individuals at a maximum pace with little break, causing rapid depletion and deterioration in many. Being intensely overworked and stressed to the point of depletion and exhaustion is a common feature to modern corporate systems as well.
While an adaptogen may prop people up, it misses the point that overwork, stress, trauma and oppression are the real culprits that should be addressed instead of just trying to push an individual to work harder with the help of an herb. So please remember, when working with this category of herb, each plant is unique, has different properties and like most health considerations, the underlying issues need to be examined and resolved instead of just covering up underlying distress. Just like coffee doesn’t replace good sleep, adaptogens don’t replace taking care of underlying poor health.
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