Tieraona’s Favorite Adaptogens

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog

The hustle-and-bustle of our modern lives can definitely leave us feeling stressed out, but there is no question that our current situation is unique. Many people have asked me what “herbs” should they be taking during this time. Adaptogens are botanicals that have a particular affinity for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the chief regulator of our stress response. Here are some of my favorites.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

The hustle-and-bustle of our modern lives can definitely leave us feeling stressed out, but there is no question that our current situation is unique. So many of us are experiencing feelings of anxiety in new ways; some of us are adjusting to working from home, often while caring for our children (who are also stressed out). Still, others are on the front lines, in health care and other essential jobs, making sure the rest of us have what we need. We miss our loved ones, and we miss “normal.”

Many people have asked me what “herbs” should they be taking during this time. There are numerous immune-supporting herbs and mushrooms such as garlic, astragalus, reishi, turkey tail, ligustrum, or schisandra that one could take, as well as vitamins C and D, as well as zinc. There are many things you can do to give yourself an edge, but stress itself weakens this powerful and complex system.

While there’s no substitute for companionship, rest, sleep, a good diet, and physical activity, which can all be challenging right now, there is a group of herbs that might be particularly useful for enhancing one’s overall resiliency. Adaptogens are botanicals that have a particular affinity for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is the chief regulator of our body’s response to stress. While all adaptogens interact with this system, they have unique attributes. Many of these plants are central to healing modalities like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), as well as Western herbalism.

No matter which way we’re swinging, adaptogens can help bring us back to center, helping us cope with and adapt to whatever comes at us. These powerful plants can help us support and replenish us—something we could all use a little more of right now.


Which Adaptogen Is Right for You?

While all adaptogens interact with the HPA system, each possesses its own unique gifts. Some are more stimulating, while others are more sedating. Many people, hearing about these beneficial botanicals, will take several adaptogens at once, or randomly choose one. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, you’re much more likely to feel the effects if you find the adaptogen that’s best suited to meet your individual needs. 

So which adaptogen is right for you? Let’s take a look at some of my favorites.


Tieraona’s Top 6 Adaptogens

Throughout my career, I’ve seen adaptogens make a real difference in people’s lives. Here’s a breakdown of my top eight. Herbal extracts vary in strength and therefore dosing – purchase from reputable companies and follow manufacturer’s recommendations. And be sensible. If you are taking powerful prescription drugs, make sure you talk to a knowledgeable practitioner before introducing herbal therapies into your daily regimen. 


1. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Treasured in India and central to Ayurvedic medicine for increasing vitality, ashwagandha can boost immunity, ease anxiety, lift the mood, ease minor aches and pains, and promote sleep. Research supports its ability to lower stress and cortisol (a biological marker for stress), ease anxiety, and improve sleep quality when taken over time. Ashwagandha is excellent for relieving nervous tension, and I often recommend it for people who are exhausted during the day but struggle to turn off their brains at night. 


2. Ginseng (Panax ginseng, Panax quinquefolius)

Asian ginseng is prized in TCM for its ability to revitalize and replenish one’s qi, or vital energy. Its many uses include restoring health after a long illness, boosting the immune system, easing fatigue, and lifting mood. I love ginseng and find it particularly useful for older individuals with fatigue and mild depression. Red Asian ginseng (steamed) is considered to be more stimulating than white (unprocessed). I also love American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), which has considerable research demonstrating beneficial effects on mood, fatigue, and immune support. Quality always matters, but particularly so with ginseng. If you are interested in trying American ginseng, check out the Wisconsin Herb Co-op


3. Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)

This adaptogen is known to promote healthy cognitive function, helping with memory and concentration. Its other common name is Brahmi, the energy of universal consciousness; high praise for an herb that has been time-tested for more than 3000 years. In children, bacopa has been shown to help with focus to those who struggle with hyperactivity and difficulty paying attention. With so many kids adapting to the challenges of learning at home, bacopa may be an ideal adaptogen to support this new sense of norm. Research also shows that bacopa can be beneficial for brain health as we age. Bacopa is definitely an adaptogen for the mind. 


4. Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuifolium)

Also known as Tulsi, holy basil is considered sacred in India, where you’ll find it planted around Hindu temples as well as many homes. Holy basil has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It can be particularly beneficial for improving patience and clearing the mind. It’s the perfect adaptogen for multi-tasking parents and anyone else who’s struggling to find calm amidst the chaos of daily life. In addition, a 2017 review of the data concluded that “the reviewed studies reinforce traditional uses and suggest tulsi is an effective treatment for lifestyle-related chronic diseases including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and psychological stress.” And the tea is absolutely delicious! 


5. Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

Reishi is sometimes called “the mushroom of immortality” because it has so many health benefits. Long used in TCM and other systems of medicine around the world, this adaptogen is considered tonifying to the entire body. Modern research confirms the antioxidant and immune-modulating activity of reishi. A 12-week randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical study was performed using 350 mg of beta-glucans from reishi delivered in yogurt to healthy children, aged 3 to 5 years old. The study found that the β-glucans in yogurt increased the frequency of both innate and adaptive immune system cells in the peripheral blood cells, critical in the defense against infectious threats, compared to placebo yogurt. Reishi is a wonderful adaptogen with a special affinity for the immune system.  


6. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) 

This hearty plant has traditionally been used in Russia, Scandinavian, and other northern latitude areas for centuries—the Vikings reportedly relied on it for enhancing endurance. The research for rhodiola is steadily growing, demonstrating a beneficial effect on fatigue, mood, and the immune system. Over the years, I’ve found that it can dramatically improve the quality of life for those living with fibromyalgia, fatigue, and/or burn out. Because of its stimulating nature, I generally recommend taking it in the morning for a few days to see how you feel and then an early afternoon dose if needed. Try this adaptogen if you’re having a hard time finding your strength.


Claim Your Resiliency

I hope this short list has given you a brief look at how adaptogens might be of benefit. I take ashwagandha daily, drink holy basil several times a week and use bacopa when I am working on big projects and need to focus. But remember, no herb can undo poor lifestyle habits. It is essential, particularly during times of stress, to look inward and tap into our inner warrior. To remember that you may feel stressed and overwhelmed, but you are strong and resilient. Feelings are not your essence. Feelings come and go. Know how to find your way back to your center. Claim your resiliency.