Rhodiola rosea  and a combination of cordyceps and reishi mushrooms are an example of adaptogenic medicines.
Rhodiola rosea and a combination of cordyceps and reishi mushrooms are an example of adaptogenic medicines.

W ouldn't it be nice if there were a pill that could fix what ails you?

Well, there isn't.

In fact, that western-medicine, take-a-pill mentality is one that herbalists work against when clients report fatigue, anxiety, depression, stress and other ills of the modern lifestyle.

"We need to understand where the fatigue and stress is coming from, not stick an herbal Band-Aid on it," says Lisa Ganora, director of the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism.

Cat Pantaleo, lead practitioner and a certified nutritionist and herbalist at Pharmaca, also uses the Band-Aid analogy.

"Herbs and natural remedies are about supporting not suppressing. They're deeply nourishing (the body) and not just putting on a Band-Aid."

Those caveats out of the way, there are herbs that have a broad spectrum effect on the body, herbs and also medicinal mushrooms that help the body adapt to challenges. These herbs are called adaptogens.

"The classic definition is an herb that helps you adapt to stress," Ganora says. "That can be physical stress, work stress, emotional stress. They enhance your body's ability to adapt to any kind of stressful situation."

The best known adaptogen in ginseng, but several others can also be helpful. Understanding their purpose and how they work can be a little bit difficult for those accustomed to the western model of medicine in which conditions are fixed in a piecemeal fashion, remedy by remedy.


Adaptogens can help with fatigue for example, but they are not the ancient equivalent of an energy drink.

"Adaptogens aren't really an adrenal stimulant like caffeine," Ganaora says, adding that some people think ginseng is like coffee, only safer.

In traditional medicine, she says, Asian ginseng is reserved for pale, frail people convalescing, people who would always feel cold.

"It's almost like people in the United States use it for the opposite of what's it's traditionally used for," she says. "People don't understand the subtleties of how to use it correctly."

Ganora adds that there are several adaptogens that are more gentle in action than Asian ginseng, of which she says: "If you take enough, you can get side effects. If someone is already a boisterous person and they tend to run hot, they can have problems."

American ginseng, which is milder in its effect, or Siberian ginseng, also called Eleuthero might be a better fit for some people.

The adaptogens that are most appropriate depend on the person's needs, Ganora says. For example, an older woman might find she does well with ashwaganda, which Ganora describes as "a slower acting, cooler kind of adaptogen." In addition, bacopa might help with mental clarity, she says.

"It's a popular combination in ayurveda," Ganora says.

One adaptogen that's garnered attention recently is Rhodiola rosea, an extract from a Siberian plant, which was shown in a University of California-Irvine study to extend the life of fruit flies by 24 percent. It also received attention in a 2007 Armenian study that showed that it could help with mild depression.

Although adaptogens were studied extensively in the former Soviet Union, many western researchers say the studies weren't rigorous.

Both Ganora and Pantaleo suggest that people work with an herbalist or herbal practitioner to find adaptogens that suit their needs. Ganora says that people who choose to try adaptogens without consulting an expert should try them one at a time to gauge their effect and give them four to six weeks to work.

Pantaleo of Pharmaca says she recommends adaptogens and other herbs based on the symptoms customers report and her own observations of symptoms such as dark circles under the eyes.

"(They might say they) need help with sleep, for example. After asking several questions, we might turn from sleep and go to anxiety, stress, fatigue or low energy," she says. "Fatigue is one of the big ones."

Pantaleo says she often recommends a combination of primary and secondary adaptogens that are contained in formulas only manufactured for stores such as Pharmaca with herbal practitioners.

"Eleuthero might be the primary, but there are other herbs to support and synergize," she says. One of her favorite adaptogens is reishi, a medicinal mushroom.

"It's especially nourishing. It really supports the immune system, liver, cardiovascular and endocrine systems," she says.

She adds that the idea of using an adaptogen is to bring the body back into balance. That means reducing stress where possible, getting plenty of rest and eating nourishing food.

"Stress has an important physiological function. It tonifies the body," she says. "If you take it to the extreme with lifestyle and diet, the body is really, truly not designed for that. Adaptogens really work in conjunction with dietary and lifestyle changes. They're not a cure-all."