The first herbs we will be looking at as part of our herbal actions series are herbal adaptogens. Some of these herbs include: Ginseng, Holy Basil, Schisandra, and Ashwaganda.

An adaptogen is an herb that helps your body to adapt to stressful situations. This is not limited to mental stress but also includes physical stress as the body reacts in a relatively similar fashion. Generally these herbs are non-specific, acting on many different systems of the body at once, normalize activity, both increasing and decreasing as needed, and do not alter normal body function. At this time, the exact mechanisms of action are unknown but adaptogens are thought to work through regulating pituitary and adrenal function, regulating our stress hormone levels.

Adaptogens do not block the stress response, but instead smooth out the associated highs and lows.
-David Hoffmann

GinsengGoryeo Insam

Is a root herb that comes from Korea. There are other species that are similar from the Americas and an unrelated species called Siberian ginseng, which still as adaptogenic effects. Ginseng is most often made into a tincture for use. Good quality ginseng can be quite expensive because of poaching (yes stealing of herbs) so it is best to stick with one of these other adaptogens unless you are using ginseng for another reason as well. Ginseng is known for stimulating the immune system, both stimulating and relaxing the nervous system as needed, and also may play a role in improving carbohydrate tolerance in diabetics.

Medicinal holy basil or tulsi leavesHoly Basil

This comes from the mint family and readily grows in most arid climates. A friend of mine always says holy basil is like ‘a hug in a cup‘ when it comes to it’s calming and centering effects. As an adaptogen, holy basil primarily acts to regulate blood sugar levels with one study showing a 17.6% reduction in blood glucose level with use of holy basil. Holy basil can also be used for cough and colds as well as stimulating appetite during illness.


This fruit comes out of India and is commonly known as five flavor berry as it is said to contain 5 of the flavors of Ayruvedic medicine. Its sweet and sour flavors come through most strongest. It is often made into a decoction or is powdered. At lower doses, schisandra is said to stimulate nervous system function, while higher doses will suppress the function. Schisandra also has actions on the respiratory system, bowels, urogenital system, and blood sugar regulation.


ashwaganda_rootThis root also comes to us from India. It’s scientific name Withania somnifera is often confused with the common name as they are both uncommon sounding. Generally, this herb is a restorative herb for the elderly and individuals with chronic illnesses as a decoction in milk. Ashwaganda encourages relaxation as a means to recuperate from overworking. It also shows anti-inflammatory activities and actions on the intestines.

For more information on herbal actions such as adaptogens, please consult the book “Medical Herbalism” by David Hoffmann. If you are interested in using these and other herbs on a daily basis, please consult with a professional herbalist.

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