Drink up for a stress-free life
Adaptogens have long been used in traditional Eastern medicine to ease anxiety. Sarah Marinos finds out how adding them to a morning cuppa could help you find calm
From insomnia and inflammation to fatigue and frequent colds, the symptoms of everyday stressors take their toll on both our physical and emotional health. So could ‘adaptogens’, a compound found in various herbs, really help stop stress in its tracks?
While traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine have harnessed adaptogens for centuries, the rest of the world is finally starting to embrace their stress-busting powers.
“Modern lifestyle brings so many more stressors,” Professor Marc Cohen from the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences at RMIT University, Melbourne, says.
“A diet high in sugar or salt, pollutants, allergens, poor-quality sleep, increasing work hours – adaptogens help people cope with these kinds of stressors,” he says. “They don’t specifically treat disease but help us cope with mental and physical stress, hopefully before they cause disease.”
The compounds have a calming effect on the pituitary and adrenal systems, which are involved in the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and increase our body’s resilience to the effects of stress hormones, naturopath Mim Beim says.
“In an ideal world, you’d try to reduce or remove the source of stress, but that’s not always possible, so you have to deal with it,” Beim says. “Adaptogens help your body adapt as best it can to stressful circumstances.”
Here are some of the most recognised, which you can enjoy as a tea or add to your morning smoothie.
Herbal licorice has a potent root that contains glycyrrhizic acid, shown in studies to inhibit the body’s breakdown of the stress hormone cortisol. “It spares the adrenal glands, so it’s good for reducing effects of longterm stress,” Beim says. Make your own tea by adding 1 tsp licorice root to boiled water and leaving to steep for five minutes. Licorice root costs about $16 for 200g from health stores.
Ginseng is one of the most widely used healing herbs, and is known for its raft of stress-busting qualities, from lowering blood sugar levels to improving mood. “Ginseng helps ease stress by restoring vitality but it’s best not taken at night as it can be stimulating,” Beim says. Buy it as a tea or make one by steeping 1 tsp dried root in boiled water for 5 minutes (add honey to taste). The root costs about $42 for 60g from health stores.
Also known as tulsi, this is one of the most revered plants in India and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years to manage the physical effects of stress. “It’s considered the mother of all herbs in Ayurvedic medicine and most households have a plant they worship and eat a couple of leaves from every day,” Cohen says. “It relaxes and calms the mind and helps maintain energy levels.” Buy it as a tea or make your own by steeping 2-3 tsp dried leaves for a few minutes in boiled water (add honey for taste). It tastes stronger than regular basil, so dilute it by adding a few leaves to your green juice. The dried herb costs about $5 for 15g from online health stores.
The compound curcumin in turmeric makes it an effective anti-inflammatory, plus it’s also known to enhance gut health by increasing good bacteria and reducing the bad, which boosts the immune system, Cohen says. Make your own turmeric latte by whisking 1 tsp ground turmeric with 1 cup milk,
1/2 tsp honey and a few drops of vanilla extract over low heat. Ground turmeric costs about $1.60 for 30g at supermarkets.
The compound gingerol in this root is known for its antiinflammatory and antioxidant properties. Studies suggest it can help reduce the effects of stress on the body, including that caused by cardiovascular disease, cancers and diabetes. Add grated ginger or powder to juices, to tea with honey and lemon, or make ‘golden milk’: “This Indian remedy is made of ghee, milk or coconut oil, and turmeric, ginger, black pepper and cinnamon,” Cohen says. Fresh ginger costs about $3 per 100g at supermarkets.
It’s said the Vikings used this to increase their strength in battle, and studies show it helps the body adapt to stress and boosts mood. “It’s good for improving cognitive function, too,” Beim says. Buy it as a tea or add the powder to juices or smoothies. The powder costs about $18 for 50g from health stores.
The antioxidant selenium in this traditional Chinese herb stimulates the immune system, and it’s used in Chinese medicine to ease ailments such as colds and respiratory infections. “It’s also good for stress-caused fatigue,” Beim says. Buy it as a tea, or steep 1 tbs dried root in boiled water for a few minutes (add honey to taste). The root costs about $10 per 100g from health stores.
This stalwart of Chinese medicine has a high content of triterpene, a compound that has an antioxidant effect and helps to strengthen a body that’s under stress due to chronic infection and a weakened immune system, Beim says. Buy it as a tea, or add the powder to juices or smoothies. The powder costs about $45 per 100g from health stores.
...OR TAKE A CHILL PILL
Prefer your adaptogens in tablet form? Astragalus, ginseng, turmeric, reishi and rhodiola are widely available as supplements. In the case of ashwagandha, another powerful adaptogen, a pill may be a better option – its name means ‘smell of a horse’ due to the root’s strong scent, but Ayurvedic medicine claims it’s worth swallowing down. “It boosts your body’s ability to deal with a bout of stress,” Cohen says. Or you could make like a Hollywood celeb and brave the taste – Gwyneth Paltrow adds the powder to her morning smoothie. You can buy 60 pills for about $21 from health stores, or the powder costs about $12 for 100g.
BEFORE YOU SIP
Most adaptogens are safe to take, but some can interfere with antidepressants and other medication. They can also pose a risk to breastfeeding and pregnant women and people with high blood pressure or blood-clotting disorders, so check with your practitioner first.