Managing Stress with Adaptogens

Most people hear the word “adaptogen” and write it off as a fad. Far from a fad, the term adaptogen was coined over 100 years ago. Furthermore, knowledge of their physical benefits and the history of their usage dates back over 5,000 years. Adaptogens have been a pillar in Chinese medicine as qi tonics and in the Indian medicine system of Ayurveda as Rasayana herbs. Used correctly, they can have a powerful effect on longevity and well-being.

Stress is one of the concerns they can help to relieve. Evidence proves that adaptogenic herbs’ hormone modulating actions can enhance the body’s ability to cope and adapt under physical, chemical, emotional, and environmental stress.

Although we are no strangers to chronic stress, our bodies are not meant to sustain the stress response over the long term. Staying in an elevated state of stress can cause wear and tear on multiple body systems.

Adverse effects of long-term stress can be:

  • cognition and memory issues,
  • insomnia,
  • depression,
  • anxiety,
  • low metabolism, elevated cortisol, and blood sugar levels, which can lead to diabetes and abdominal weight gain,
  • reduced cardiovascular health, including the risk of stroke, high blood pressure and, high cholesterol levels,
  • slow digestion, gas, bloating, and I.B.S, and
  • decreased immune function.

Adaptogens have been proven to modulate these adverse effects of stress. A similar but more beneficial stress eustress is defined as “good stress” or necessary stress. Some examples are a challenging work assignment or safely increasing weight for strength training. Repeated mild exposure to these “beneficial stressors” increases cells and organisms’ resistance to the stress resulting in an adaptation favoring survival and growth. With this process, there is a tipping point much like the hormesis response. While eustress is essential to life, severe stress can generate active oxygen-containing molecules, including nitric oxide, which can inhibit ATP formation. When an adaptogen is introduced, the body responds by giving rise to a small amount of adaptive stress. Ultimately, when adverse stressors are presented, the systems are toned and less influenced by the stimulus.

Benefits include:

  • improved immune function,
  • improved thyroid function,
  • enhanced liver detoxification,
  • improved brain function,
  • a decrease in inflammation and pain, and
  • increased reproductive health and libido.

The qualities and effect of each adaptogen vary upon each one.  These effects include calming, balancing, stimulating, and sedative. To keep it simple, I have created a shortened list of four daily herbs for you to try at home.

It is essential to keep in mind that not all adaptogens are the same, and their actions differ. Some of these differences should be considered when taking them during certain times of the day.


Consider for: chronic pain, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Benefits: enhances well-being, strengthens nervous, adrenal, thyroid, and immune function, boosts libido

Cautions: rare herb-drug interactions, don’t use if pregnant without a professional’s supervision, ashwagandha is a relative of the nightshade family, so if plants such as potatoes and tomatoes do not agree with you, approach with caution

Action: balancing

The ideal time to take:  any time of day

Holy Basil (also known as Tulsi)

Consider for: stress, feelings of hopelessness, and inflammation

Benefits: calming, energizing, relieve anxiety and grief, balance cortisol and blood sugar levels, improves immune health, strengthens digestion, decreases inflammation, can protect against radiation to some degree

Cautions: do not use during pregnancy without professional supervision

Action: calming, balancing

The ideal time to take: any time of day


Consider for: insomnia, anxiety, hyperactivity, agitation, and sensory overload

Benefits: more restful sleep, sense of ease, and calm

Cautions:  may interact with psych and pain meds, adulteration in commerce (grow your own or buy organic skullcap from reputable sources   

Action: nervine, sedative, calming

The ideal time to take: any time of day 


Consider taking if: experiencing sluggishness, fertility or libido issues, lack of vitality

Benefits: increased vitality, endurance, may aid in depression, may balance blood sugar in diabetes 

Cautions: Not recommended if already experiencing anxiety or feeling “wired.”

Action: stimulating

The ideal time to take: morning

Tincture or capsule?

The ways vary in which you can take these herbs. You will find them in liquid extracts/tinctures, tablets, capsules, and teas.

All are effective, so your choice will vary based on preference. Herbs in tincture form quickly make it to the bloodstream, therefore provide the quickest way to receive their benefits. That is great, but some may not like the taste. It is always a best practice to use whatever form you see yourself committing to. Considering that some require at least 7 days to take effect, commitment is essential. This may mean you have a skullcap tincture on your kitchen counter as a daily reminder, have your ginseng capsules at your desk to sustain your energy. Another idea is to incorporate herbs into your afternoon tea ritual by mixing holy basil and ashwagandha plus rose for its aromatics.

You may find that the herbs outlined here do not align with your needs or would like to combine multiple herbs. In that case, I encourage you to speak with an herbalist or contact us for further guidance.

About the Author

Emily Hunt

Coastal Pharmacy & Wellness Staff

Growing up in a small town in Vermont, Emily was influenced by agriculture and the abundant environment. She is studying to complete her degree in Herbal Science. In addition to her passion for herbs and wellness, Emily has completed 300 hours of training with The Kripalu School of Yoga and Ayurveda in the Berkshires. In the winter you will find Emily polar plunging in the sea and sailing in the summer.


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