Everything You Need to Know About Adaptogens

  • Written By:Elyse Moody
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Adaptogens are one of the best places for people to start with herbalism, because they’re everyday herbs you can incorporate into your routine.

There’s a new kind of herbs popping up in supplements and health foods: adaptogens. One of three introductory classes of the plants, they help us adapt to our environment by supporting our immune system, energy and focus levels, and stress response. (The other two are nervines, which support the nervous system, and nutritives, which can be eaten as food.) You may have heard the words ashwaganda, cordyceps mushrooms, he shou wu, maca, rhodiola, and schisandra flying around recently, with the growth of companies like Moon Juice—they’re all adaptogens. Now-familiar superfoods like goji berries are too. So are herbal standbys like ginseng, holy basil (tulsi), licorice, and nettle. But there are plenty you may not have heard of…yet.

Agatha Noveille knows adaptogens from from first-hand experience. The Georgia-based herbalist and founder of the Common Branch herb school started using the herbs to help ease her Lyme disease symptoms. Her new book, The Complete Guide to Adaptogens (Adams Media), is a fresh, modern handbook to 24 of these super-relevant-to-our-lives herbs, with recipes to show you how to make your own tinctures to take daily on their own or put to use in delicious yogurts, drinks, and more. We called her at her farm to get her take on why adaptogens are so in demand now, and ask her to share her sources for herbal therapies that really work.

Why do you think we’re hearing the word “adaptogen” everywhere all of a sudden?

It’s definitely a really timely topic. There has been a big shift in the health community over the past decade. I started out working in health-food stores about 12 years ago, and back then there was a lot of trying to substitute herbs for western, allopathic health care. People have become more interested in self-care. And adaptogens are such a useful class of herbs, because they support your overall wellness, and because they do best if you use them on a daily basis. More and more herbalists I follow are working more with them and talking about them, too. For instance, Deb File of Avena Botanicals has some really wonderful YouTube videos where she teaches how to grow and use adaptogens. Herbal Academy, which I have written for and helped develop courses for, did a whole YouTube video series this spring.

I had no idea there was a community of herbalists on YouTube!

People say herbalist and you picture a folksy, older, wise-woman type, but all of the sudden a lot of millennials are interested in it. There’s this whole young, really hip vibe coming into herbalism that I absolutely love.

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If someone is new to herbalism, where do you suggest they start out?

Adaptogens are one of the best places for people to start with herbalism, because they’re everyday herbs you can incorporate into your routine. That really makes the whole thing more approachable. I find a lot of people get really excited about the idea of learning how to make a basic herbal tea. It can be really interesting—there are different ways of preparing what we call in herbalism infusions and concoctions. If you have a leafy material or a flower, you steep those the way you would a tea bag. But if you have a woodier material, like a bark or a root or even a dried berry, you actually boil those for a brief period of time before you let it sit. That’s really exciting—it’s this little bit of alchemy that you get to play with.

Rhodiola is one that most people will find at least reasonably appetizing. It tastes a little bit like roses smell, which is how it gets its other name: rose root. It’s not overpowering. Eleuthero has a very buoyant, kind of sweet taste. Personally I don’t like the taste of astragalus that much. It has kind of a woody flavor to it that I don’t care for.

Is that the one you wrote smells like pencil shavings?

Yes! That one. [Laughs] And alma is a really good one, because it’s a berry. It has a kind of fruity taste. Schisandra is also a berry, but its other name is five-flavor berry; it has this really complex flavor that I personally really like. It’s a fun experience the first time you bite into a schisandra berry, but I know it can be a little overpowering for some people.

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Did that make it challenging to develop recipes?

Yes, absolutely. That was something that I struggled with, because I didn’t want the herbs to be only a flavor; I wanted there to be enough to qualify as a serving size. With some of herbs, you have to disguise the taste more. With others, you really want to bring the flavor out.

I wanted to ask about stress specifically. If someone came to you and told you they felt really stressed, what herbs would you suggest they try?

Well, first I would find out what stress looks like for them. To two different people, “I’m stressed” can mean two entirely different things. You need to find out how that person is dealing with their stress. Are they feeling more challenged emotionally or physically? That’s the main division there. If you’re feeling really challenged emotionally with stress, you want to go with things like schisandra and rhodiola; tulsi is another really good one. For someone who’s feeling more physical tiredness and fatigue, just kind of dragging from all the stress, rhodiola can also be really good, but then you look at herbs like maca and eleuthero and some of the other adaptogens herbs that help boost energy. Because all adaptogens help your body balance different stresses, it’s really just a matter of figuring out how stress is affecting you and which herbs help you the most—which ones resonate with you, is what I like to say.

What’s your go-to combination?

I started out working with rhodiola and tulsi, and then eleuthero. I still use tulsi a lot. I have actually been trialing five different varieties of tulsi out in my garden this year, so that has been really exciting. And schisandra has been a huge help with all my different writing projects, because it helps with focus. It has this really wonderful way of helping you feel calm and focused and yet at the same time you feel more mentally alert, as opposed to something that dulls your senses and helps you feel calm.

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