Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera)
Ashwaganda is an herb from India, where it has been used since antiquity
as an important medicine. The plant is a member of the usually narcotic
nightshade family, whose other safe members include the potato, tomato and
eggplant (some people may be mildly allergic to these). The small shrub
is widely cultivated throughout India and is still immensely popular in
traditional ayurvedic and folk medicine. People in India use all parts of
the plant. For instance, the berries are used to coagulate milk while the
twigs are used to clean the teeth.
However, it is the roots of ashwaganda that are considered to be medicinally
tonic, adaptogenic, and strengthening. Traditionally, they are recommended
for indigestion, heart disease, arthritis, lumbar pain, to lower fevers,
and as a general strengthening medicine for children and for people recovering
from illness. Current work in the clinic and laboratory has shown that ashwaganda
roots have strong tumor-inhibiting activity in humans as well as a marked
anti-inflammatory effect which supports its traditional use for arthritis.
The extract proved to be without side-effects when compared to hydrocortisone,
a synthetic drug often prescribed for arthritis.
Ashwaganda can be used as a whole herb in tea or purchased in a variety
of commercial products. The tea is made by simmering one part of the root
(by weight) in ten parts water (by volume) for one-half hour. Take the tea
twice daily, about one-half to one ounce at a time.
Gotu-kola (Centella asiatica)
Although gotu-kola looks nothing like parsley or angelica, it is a member
of the parsley family. It is a common weedy plant throughout Asia, often
growing in drainage ditches. It likes a wet, rich soil, and is a common
orchard weed in Hawaii. I grow the plant in pots on my back porch, so I
always have a supply of the tasty, kidney-shaped leaves.
According to legend, if one eats a leaf of gotu kola a day, one's lifespan
will be extended to 1,000 years! I don't expect to be around in my present
form for quite that long, but if gotu kola adds a few healthy years to my
life, well, so much the better.
Ayurveda, the ancient East Indian system of medicine, recognizes gotu kola
as an important brain and nervous system restorative. Modern science has
shown it to have adaptogenic properties and strong wound-healing capabilities.
It is used in many cosmetic preparations as a kind of a skin adaptogen,
helping our sensitive hides to adapt to stresses such as sunburn and other
If you want to try gotu kola, make sure to purchase the fresh liquid
extract or grow the plant yourself and take it fresh. I have found that
gotu kola loses its properties rapidly when dried, and most of the commercial
dried gotu kola is worthless.
Wild Oats (Avena sativa)
This herb grows as a common grass throughout many parts of the world. Most
herbalists feel that a tincture or powdered extract of wild oats is effective
for helping to eliminate unwanted addictions. Several studies suggest that
it may reduce craving for nicotine in people who are trying to quit smoking.
Wild oats is also recommended as a nerve restorative where there is trauma
or nerve weakness. It should be taken for a long period of time to be effective,
at the dose of at least one dropperful of the liquid extract at a time,
or one tablet of the concentrated extract, two to three times daily.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous)
One of the gems of Traditional Chinese Medicine, this root from the pea
family is sometimes stir-fried in honey to make it sweeter and enhance its
tonic properties. Astragalus is considered a powerful deep immune strengthener.
Both a long history of use and many laboratory tests have proven that astragalus
has adaptogenic and normalizing effects on the nervous, hormonal, and immune
I learned of astragalus during my first visit to a Chinese acupuncturist
and herbalist. The doctor's name was Dr. Yau--which made me worry a bit
about his needling technique--but he turned out to have a very gentle hand.
Dr. Yau prescribed astragalus for me, as I was feeling stressed and fatigued
after two years of pre-medical classes, and I experienced splendid results.
Since then, I have designed many highly effective formulas using this remarkable
herb, and I have developed an especially healing relationship with astragalus
by growing it from seed in my herb garden.
Fo-ti or Ho Shou Wu (Polygonum multiflorum)
Chinese herbalists consider this member of the buckwheat family to be one
of the best adaptogenic and longevity herbs. The root of fo-ti is said to
take on magical powers when it is old and has several interesting names
applied to it, depending upon its age. According to the ancient herbalist
Li Shih-chen, at 50 years fo-ti is fist-size and is called "mountain
slave"; taken at this time, the herb "will preserve the black
color of the hair and moustache." A 100-year-old root is as large as
a bowl and is called "hill-brother"; taken at this time the herb
will preserve "a cheerful countenance." A 150-year-old root is
the size of a basin and if taken at this time, "the teeth will fall
out and come afresh." At 200 years fo-ti is called "hill father,"
and if taken at this time "the countenance will become like that of
a youth, and the gait will equal that of a running horse." And so forth.
I've started growing fo-ti in my garden, but so far it is only two years
old. My hair is showing a few grey hairs, but I have hopes....
Burdock (Arctium lappa)
Burdock is a close relative to such well-known herbs as echinacea, dandelion,
and feverfew, though it does not currently share the spotlight those other
herbs are enjoying. Burdock root, greens, and seeds were known to the ancient
Greeks as healing remedies, and in Western herbalism they were important
foods and medicines throughout the middle ages. Their nutritional content
of vitamins and minerals is high, yet even more interesting is their rich
complement of active medicinal compounds. Modern research has isolated chemical
constituents from burdock that have proven to be anti-bacterial, anti-fungal,
and, most importantly, tumor-protective and desmutagenic. Desmutagens
are substances that inactivate mutagens (cancer-causing agents) by reacting
with them and "taking them out of action." Mutagens include pesticides,
natural chemicals from plants, and compounds that are created from foods
(such as meats) by cooking. Such potentially cancer-causing compounds are
now abundant in our food, water, and air, and many of them are already stored
in our fat tissues.
Aveline Kushi extols the adaptogenic properties of burdock in her book Complete
Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking. Kushi mentions that gobo (burdock roots)
can be eaten all year round, but is especially warming for the winter months
because it has a "very strong energy." Kushi gives recipes for
preparing burdock roots with other vegetables such as carrots and green
beans. Tofu can be added to provide further nutrients. The tender gobo roots
are commonly found in supermarkets and natural foods markets in many parts
of the country and can be prepared by boiling, sauteing, or deep-frying.
I enjoy thinly-sliced gobo roots stir-fried in olive oil or sesame oil with
garlic, greens (such as kale), red peppers, and tofu. The crisp, firm roots
can also be added to soups of all kinds.
Suma (Pfaffia paniculata)
This herb, native to the Amazon has been used in South America for generations
as a heal-all. In Spanish it has been called "para todo," because
of its wide range of applications. Modern research suggests that suma may
be an effective adaptogen. It is prescribed in Brazilian hospitals for cancer
and diabetes, for which purpose it is taken in tea form, two or three cups
daily. The American herbalists Janet Zand and Michael Tierra recommend suma
for its strengthening properties, especially for women who suffer from fatigue
and hormonal imbalances. Tierra claims that."to obtain the maximum
benefits, one has to take it as a 'food tonic', for instance 2 to 4 capsules
of the powder which is equivalent to 1 tablet of the powdered extract
or up to a teaspoon of the powder (as a tea or in food) every hour for an
extended period of time--up to a month or more." After this period,
he has seen a smaller dose (one dose 3 or 4 times a week) have the same
effect. Tierra enthusiastically recounted people with chronic fatigue syndrome
that "were so tired they couldn't answer the telephone," that
after a week (of taking Suma) they could start functioning again. He cautions
that some people may experience nausea, in which case it is best to cut
the dose down (perhaps by a third) until the nausea disappears. He also
feels that it is contraindicated with inflammatory conditions manifesting
in acute sydromes like colds, and other infections.
Finally, note that adaptogens are promising herbal medicines for another
important reason. Not only do adaptogenic plants contain important nutrients
such as iron, magnesium, and germanium, which we already know are important
for maintaining optimum health, but their steroid-like compounds may also
prove to be essential dietary ingredients. Although scientists have yet
to set "daily minimum requirements" for these adaptogenic compounds,
we may yet find that the lack of them in our modern diets is a contributing
factor in the stress-related and immune-based chronic illness which are
increasingly common today.
It is certain tht nature herself is our most powerful ally in our quest
for health and longevity, and herbs are not the only of nature's adaptogens
available. Saunas and cold water treatments (when properly applied) are
adaptogenic in their normalizing and general strengthening effects, as are
all forms of exercise, if practiced wisely. Also, as Norman Cousins has
so eloquently put forth, laughing is a deeply healing activity and is, in
rather serious terms, one of the greatest adaptogens.
About The Author
Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products Research. Christopher writes and lectures internationally on herbal medicine. He is a consultant to the herb industry and is currently practicing and working on a......more