Adaptogenic herbs, or adaptogens, have long been used in medical systems like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, usually to mitigate the effects of stress. Also known as tonic herbs, they’re believed to help tone the stress-response system.
I think of them as helping us adapt to changing or challenging conditions. They can soften the effects of the stress hormones, balance the fight-or-flight response, improve sleep and energy, and stabilize mood.
There’s still no large-scale research that shows exactly how they work, but evidence suggests that adaptogens interact with the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, which helps the brain manage the production of stress hormones by the adrenal glands. There seem to be few side effects to adaptogenic herbs, and minimal long-term risks, so I often prescribe them in my natural mental-health practice. I find these three especially useful.
Rhodiola for Energy and Focus
This adaptogen supports the adrenals and autonomic nervous system, making it an excellent overall tonic when your stress response is in overdrive. It helps down-regulate stress hormones and can give a gentle energy boost without overstimulating your system.
Traditionally, rhodiola is used for mental focus, though research suggests that it may also ease anxiety and depression. Other studies suggest rhodiola may improve serotonin and dopamine levels and counter the effects of cortisol. This plant can be especially useful in the winter months for anyone with a tendency toward seasonal affective disorder.
Dosage and Use: The typical dose for rhodiola is 200 to 250 mg twice daily. Children need less — around 100 mg twice a day. Look for a standardized extract containing at least 3 percent of the active compound rosavin.
Rhodiola is best taken with meals, but aim for breakfast or lunch rather than dinner — it is energizing and may interfere with sleep. On that note, if you notice trouble with sleep or feel too hyper, discontinue use.
Eleuthero for Stress Management
Eleuthero (also known as Siberian ginseng) is a flowering shrub. Its root, bark, leaves, and berries all contain beneficial bioactive compounds called eleutherosides. This plant is a staple of traditional medicine in China, Korea, and eastern Russia, where it has been used to treat a range of conditions, including memory loss, high blood pressure, and elevated stress.
The studies are few, but some researchers speculate that it can help increase catecholamines, such as norepinephrine and dopamine, in the stress-managing parts of the brain. Eleuthero may also affect levels of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps support the growth of nerve tissue and protect the brain. Studies suggest that low BDNF levels may contribute to anxiety and depression.
Dosage and Use: Standardized extracts of eleuthero are commonly dosed at 200 to 400 mg, to be taken once or twice daily. Most eleuthero compounds are made from eleutherococcus root, which is considered safe for short-term consumption for most people.
Holy Basil for Calm
Holy basil is known as a tonic for a host of health concerns, including eczema and GI problems. A systematic review showed benefits in three areas: cooling inflammation, stabilizing blood sugar, and improving overall stress tolerance. In fact, in Ayurvedic medicine the tincture is sometimes called liquid yoga.
The goal of stress management is to reduce reactivity and help the body clean up after an overactive stress response; holy basil assists with both. It may help slow the release of cortisol, calming the stress response, and help block cortisol receptors, limiting its damage.
Dosage and Use: The typical dose of holy basil for adults is around 300 mg, taken two or three times daily. (For children, 100 mg twice daily, at most.) Look for a standardized freeze-dried form or liquid extract or enjoy it as a tea — one cup at bedtime to relax. (In tea form, holy basil is typically called tulsi.)
I like using supplements that combine holy basil with other herbal adaptogens; they often work better together. Like other tonic herbs, holy basil is considered safe, even for long-term use.
This article, written by integrative psychiatrist and author Henry Emmons, MD, originally appeared as “Stress Adaptation” in the September 2022 issue of Experience Life.