If adaptogenic herbs are botanical substances that help the body adapt to physiological and psychological stress, then Ayurveda is truly a system of adaptogenic medicine.
Translated, Ayurveda means the “science of life.”
The science of Ayurveda studies in depth how to live stress-free, which goes hand in hand with living in harmony with the natural cycles. The cycles of nature flow effortlessly from one season to the next. Life according to Ayurveda should also flow effortlessly, finding us gaining more creativity, energy and productivity with less, not more effort.
Life was not intended to be a struggle!
Beyond the theory of living with the natural cycles, let’s talk about some handy tools to help us balance stress and live downstream with life’s current. In this article, read about Ayurveda’s super herbs for stress, how they work, and which ones you want to put to work for you!
The Problem with Coping
Ayurveda identifies the cause of any health concerns as the separation of mind, body and consciousness due to the degenerative effects of mental, emotional and physical stress.
This ancient premise for Ayurveda has been recently validated, as researchers have identified stress as the cause of eighty percent of all health issues.
Stress triggers the release of stress-fighting hormones, which provide us with instant coping abilities. The problem starts when stress becomes constant. The stress fighting hormones are actually degenerative to the body over time and produce waste products called free radicals, which are currently believed to be the chemicals of aging and degeneration.
Ayurveda, as an adaptogenic system of healthcare, combines lifestyle, diet, exercise and behavior along with an exhaustive list of Ayurvedic medicines that when used in concert to decrease mental, emotional, and physical stress, can enhance immunity, build energy and improve one’s quality of life.
When we prime the system to decrease stress in this way, we can avoid the “coping hormones”—we become better able to deal with stressful situations from a calm and centered place.
“Adaptogens” themselves are a special class of herbs. They help the body cope with stress without stimulating or sedating the body.
The classic descriptor of a true adaptogen is that it can offer energy in the morning and allow the body a better night’s sleep when night falls. How can adaptogenic herbs accomplish this? By neither stimulating nor sedating. Instead, an adaptogen offers rejuvenation.
Ayurveda has many adaptogenic herbs in its pharmacopoeia that help bring balance to numerous physiological functions, improve vitality, and enhance the body’s ability to adapt to stress and heal itself. These herbs can be used to help cope with stressful situations, compromised immunity and for prevention against the physiological woes of stress itself.
Although adaptogenic herbs are similar in concept, each herb is unique and which one you take should be selected with care. The following descriptions will help identify the right adaptogen for you and are currently available in capsule form in most health food stores.
English Name: Winter Cherry
Botanical Name: Withania somnifera
Common Name: Ashwagandha (also spelled Ashwaganda), Indian Ginseng
Botany: Ashwagandha is a small evergreen shrub that grows to 1.5 meters tall. It is found in dry areas of India and as far west as Israel.
History: The word Ashwagandha literally means “the sweat of a horse,” indicating that one who takes it will have the strength and sexual vitality of a horse. It is a well-known adaptogen that tones and normalizes bodily functions and renders the body more resistant to stress.
Chemistry: The established active constituent is a number of steroidal lactones that together are called withanolides. Many studies have demonstrated the adaptogenic properties of Ashwagandha. In one study, Ashwagandha showed increased physical endurance, prevented the depletion of vitamin C and cortisol while under stress and out-performed ginseng, a proven adaptogen—in improving mental acuity, reaction time and physical performance in healthy individuals.
Ayurveda: Balances Vata and Kapha, can aggravate Pitta and increase Ama. It is bitter and astringent and increases Ojas.
Actions: Tonic, Nervine, Nerve Restorative, Adaptogen, Aphrodisiac.
Indications: General Debility, Mood, Fatigue, Immunity, Memory, Breathing, Hormonal Concerns.
Note: Because Ashwagandha is a heavy herb and somewhat hard to digest, it is best taken with ginger.
Botanical Name: Asphaltum, Bitumen
Common Name: Mineral Pitch
Botany: Shilajit is a sticky, tar-like substance that exudes from rocks and can be found in the Altai and Caucasus mountain ranges, the mountains of Tibet and Pakistan.
History: The word Shilajit means “something that has won over rocks.” In Charaka Samhita, the most respected of Ayurvedic texts, it is called a “panacea.”
Ayurveda: It is hot, bitter and reduces Kapha mostly, but is beneficial for Vata and Pitta as well.
Actions: Shilajit strengthens and enhances all other herbs and processes in the body. It is used for immunity, fatigue, urinary tract health, memory, nerves and sexual health. It is a known free radical scavenger, anti-stress agent and adaptogen.
Chemistry: Although the process is not fully understood, it is believed that the porous fulvic and humic acids in Shilajit act as bio-availability enhancers, carrying herbal compounds deeply into the tissues of the body. These porous carrying cavities also hook toxins and escort them out of the body. This process is rare and is known as Yogavahi.
Studies have shown Shilajit to have positive adaptogenic properties in supporting memory, energy, stamina, immunity and physical strength
Chyawanprash is a complex rasayana—an elaborate combination of herbs and minerals that are specifically designed for rejuvenation, immunity and physiological balance along with a host of other adaptogenic properties*. Chyawanprash is one of the most respected of Ayurvedic rasayanas.
Legend: Chyawan (see link to the story below) was given this rasayana by the Ashwini Kumars, twin Vedic dieties who are believed to be the originators of Ayurveda, to support him in his ill health and aging. This combination of over forty herbs was said to restore health and youthfulness to Chyawan. Prash means “eating,” thus the formula was coined as “Chyawanprash.”
Indications: It is a powerful free radical scavenger and adaptogen. If taken regularly, it builds immunity, good digestive power, and keeps the mind and lungs clear. It is also beneficial in balancing stress, mood, skin, and energy levels.
Main Ingredient: Amalaki or Amla Berry (Emblica officinalis). The common name is Indian Gooseberry. Amla is a fruit of a citrus tree and one of the most powerful rejuvenative herbs in Ayurveda.
Secondary Ingredients: Organic Evaporated Cane juice, Organic Honey, Ghee, Cinnamon, Indian Bay leaf, Nagkesar, Pippali (Long Pepper), Cardamom, Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus), Brahmi, Punarnava, Haritaki, Black Cardamom, Gokshura, Licorice, Jivanti, Bhumiamlaki, Adulsa, Grapes, Ginger, Vidarikand, Ringani, Bala, Kantakari, Shalparni, Arani, Shyonaka, Prishniparni, Padal, Bael, Gambhari, Vanshlochan, Kakadsingi, Chandanchilka, Anantmool, Haranvel, Lotus
Note: The honey and evaporated cane juice act as carriers of the herbs deeply into the tissues. The sweet tastes are assimilated quickly into the bloodstream and penetrate cell walls carrying active constituents of the chyawanprash.
Brahmi (Centella asiatica)
English Name: Winter Cherry Botanical Name: Centella asiatica Common Name: Centella, Gotu kola
Botany: Brahmi is a small annual plant that grows throughout Asia. Along with its prominence in Ayurveda, Brahmi is also used in the traditional African and traditional Chinese systems of medicine.
History: Brahmi is named after one of the highest states of consciousness (Brahmi or God consciousness) and has been considered one of the most powerful brain tonics in the Ayurvedic apothecary.
Chemistry: It is rich in flavonoids such as queer citrin, astragalus which support healthy skin. The main active constituents are called Brahmoside and brahminoside which support nervous system function and cognitive and mental clarity (8).
Ayurveda: It balances Vata, Pitta (primarily) and Kapha. It is cooling with a bitter sweet taste. It is an excellent herb for Vata as it moves prana, or energy, into the mind for healthy cognitive function. By supporting the natural flow of energy it supports healthy sleep cycles. New research has found that Brahmi supports healthy function of the skin. It is commonly found in skincare products based on these new findings. It has also been shown to support the health of the inner skin lining the stomach and intestines as well as the respiratory tract. Clinically, Brahmi is exceptional for the skin of the digestive tract as well as supporting memory, focus and sleep. Perhaps this herb is so effective because it is so easily digested and absorbed into the bloodstream and tissues of the body (8).
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Narayana, DBA, Dabur Research Foundation on Chyawanprash. Sahibabad, India
1. 8. Pole. S. Ayurvedic Medicine. Gotu kola. Churchill Livingston. 2006.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman