Adaptogenic herbs, such as American ginseng, Asian ginseng, eleuthero, astragalus and rhodiola, buffer the body from stress.
During these exciting years, many people become involved in such energy-intensive activities as procreating, parenting and working. Stress creeps in. Sleep time shrinks. Kids bring home viruses and bacteria. Adaptogens to the rescue.
An adaptogen is a substance that acts in a nonspecific, nontoxic way to help the body resist stress. Most adaptogens are tonic for many bodily systems, including the immune system. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Asian ginseng (P. ginseng), eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus, also called Siberian ginseng) and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) fit the bill. All of these herbs can be taken as a tea, or in tincture or capsule form.
Castleman adds to that list rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), an arctic survivor of hostile conditions that lends its hardiness to us. He notes that, after Russian research in the 1950s revealed the herb’s adaptogenic power, the Russian army classified the research to keep it secret. After downing capsules of the ground rhizome, soldiers reported better stamina and sharper cognitive function. Later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a Russian émigré shared the news with Columbia University researchers. Word spread and scientific investigations have since yielded promising results: the herb is antioxidant and adaptogenic. A Swedish study of men and women between the ages of 20 and 55 suffering from stress-related fatigue reported lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, reductions in symptoms of burnout and depression, and improvements in attention and concentration. Plus, new research shows that, at least in the test tube, extracts have anti-influenza activity.
During this hectic period of life, insomnia can thwart much-needed sleep. Calming herbs, such as chamomile (Matricaria recutita), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), hops (Humulus lupulus), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) and valerian (Valeriana officinalis), can help grease those sleep wheels. While chamomile can be enjoyed as a tea, the other less-palatable herbs often are consumed as tinctures or in capsules. Herbalist Jane Bothwell, director of the Dandelion Herbal Center in Arcata, California, says her favorite is skullcap, “an herb that will either lift you up or calm you down, whatever you need.” Because skullcap is bitter, she combines it with tasty mints when making tea. For a stronger effect, she recommends fresh skullcap tincture (30 to 60 drops, two to three times a day).
Medical herbalist, consultant and international lecturer Amanda McQuade Crawford adds that the Indian adaptogen ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) can address all those thriving-30s issues; it strengthens immune response, improves sleep patterns and mitigates stress. She recommends taking 3 grams twice a day.
For women trying to conceive, Bothwell recommends drinking tea made from the leaves of red raspberry (Rubus idaeus), “a supreme tonic for the uterus.” This herb, she says, can help alleviate menstrual cramps, encourage regular cycles (along with chaste tree berry extract), and prepare the womb for pregnancy and birth. Red raspberry appears to be safe to consume during pregnancy. While one study revealed reductions in the first stage of labor, another did not find statistically significant differences in labor, though women consumed the herb in tablet form rather than the traditional tea. Bothwell recommends drinking a daily cup of raspberry tea alone or combined with other nutritive herbs, such as nettle, oats (Avena sativa) and alfalfa (Medicago sativa).
Linda B. White, M.D., teaches classes in herbal medicine at Metropolitan State College in Denver. She also co-authored The Herbal Drugstore (Rodale, 2000).
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Herbs for Life: Essential Herbs for Every Age
• Herbs for Teens and Young Adults
• Herbs for the Mid-40s to Early 50s
• Herbs for the Mid-50s and Up