Adaptogens: Herbs to Navigate a Challenging Year

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For most of us, 2020 has been a year of near-constant shifts and changes, requiring us to alter our daily lives in unprecedented ways to handle the challenges. We have felt these shifts at an emotional and mental level, but our bodies are moving through these challenges with us as well. When working with my clients and asking how they’re doing, the two words that come up most frequently right now are: stressed and tired. The long-term effects of stress can be extremely depleting for our bodies and our energy levels.

This information is for educational purposes only, please do your own research before incorporating new herbs into your life. Consult with your healthcare practitioner first, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, or taking any medications.

Fortunately, there is a whole class of herbs that are able to assist us in times like this! These herbs are called adaptogens. To be considered an adaptogen, an herb has to meet three criteria: it must be relatively non-harmful (meaning minimal potential side effects), it must help the body to resist stress, and it must have a normalizing effect on the body’s regulatory systems. Many adaptogens also have other associated potential benefits, but meeting those three criteria is the main benchmark.

A few examples of adaptogens, some of which you may have come across before, are ashwagandha, ginseng, rhodiola, holy basil, eleuthero, cordyceps mushroom, and schisandra. One note about ginseng is that it has been overharvested to the point where United Plant Savers lists it as an at-risk plant. Fortunately, there are so many others to choose from! Today I’ll focus on two of my current favorite adaptogens to work with: holy basil and schisandra.

Holy basil, also often called tulsi, makes a lovely cup of tea and can also be worked with as a tincture or even in your cooking. It has a spicier, peppery flavor compared to the sweet basils we are used to in pestos, and I love to add it to stir fries or soups. It’s easy to grow and has beautiful purple flowers that the pollinators in your garden will thank you for. Besides being an adaptogen, I have also found holy basil to be a great plant ally to turn to when I’m feeling a bit blue and need a boost. It always has a light, uplifting effect on my mood. It’s also helpful for digestive troubles, and pairs well with other herbs such as lemon balm and ginger to settle one’s stomach.

Schisandra berries adaptogens
Schisandra berries

Schisandra has berries that are referred to as the Five Flavor Fruit because they are thought to taste sweet, bitter, salty, pungent, and sour – all at the same time. These berries are most commonly found for sale in a dried form, but the plant is a hardy perennial if you are interested in experimenting with growing your own. I like schisandra as a little boost when I am feeling low-energy and need some help to make it through the week.

Schisandra’s berries can be chewed and eaten as is (herbalist Katja Swift talks about eating ten berries per day for one hundred days as she feels schisandra helps her cope with her sugar cravings) or they make a yummy addition to your herbal tea blend. Another fun way to bring schisandra into your life is by infusing a few ounces of the dried berries into a bottle of wine for a week or two, then strain out and enjoy. This is best done with a sweeter wine to complement the sourness of the berries.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into this topic, David Winston’s book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief is an excellent resource. And perhaps you can enjoy a delicious cup of holy basil tea as you read!

Sara Schuster is a community herbalist and medicinal herb farmer. You can find her classes, podcasts, and herbal products at FoxandElder.com.