Your ‘hero’ adaptogens
Adaptogens enhance the body’s ability to cope with external stresses such as toxins in the environment and internal stresses such as anxiety and insomnia
1Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Ashwagandha is one of the most widely used herbs in Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional herbal medicine of India. ‘Part of the nightshade family, ashwagandha is a plump shrub with oval leaves and yellow flowers that grows mostly in pre-monsoon conditions,’ explains Anastasia. ‘The plant, roots, seeds, and leaves and fruit contain alkaloids, flavaloids and steroidal lactones, as well as witharin, which gives ashwagandha the stress-relieving properties that classify it as an adaptogen.’ Known as a ‘tonic’ herb, it’s said to have an overall rejuvenating effect – helping to protect and support the nervous system and immune system as well as improving energy. But what makes ashwagandha stand out is its antianxiety, calming effects. Whereas some other herbs – such as ginsengs and rhodiola – can be stimulating, ashwagandha can support energy without making us feel more wired.
The anti-stress benefits of ashwagandha have been widely researched in human and animal studies. One 2012 study published in theindian Journalofpsychologicalmedicine was carried out on 64 adults who were suffering chronic stress. Half the participants took two capsules of ashwagandha for 60 days, and the other half took a placebo. After 60 days, those who took the ashwagandha had much lower scores for perceived stress, anxiety and depression than the placebo group. What’s more, their average cortisol level (a stress hormone) fell by 28 per cent, but dropped by only 8 per cent in the placebo group. Try it: Pukka Herbs’ Wholistic Ashwagandha, £23.95 for 60 capsules, pukkaherbs.com
2 Holy basil / Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum)
Holy basil also has a long tradition of use in Ayurvedic medicine. In fact, it too is one of the most highly valued herbs in Ayurveda, and is known by various names including ‘The Incomparable One’ and ‘The Queen of Herbs’. ‘Holy basil is part of the mint family and is recognised as a powerful antioxidant with demonstrated antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antifungal properties,’ explains Anastasia. When it comes to the most immediate effects of stress, holy basil has shown similar benefits to ashwagandha, with studies proving similar results (a placebo-controlled study on 150 people by researcher Ram Chandra Saxena in 2012 found holy basil to significantly improve energy levels, memory and sleep).
Holy basil may also have many other benefits for our health, too. These include supporting the immune system, boosting mood, improving memory, protecting against chemical toxicity and radiation, and even protecting the heart and liver. ‘It promotes purity and lightness in the body, too, cleansing the respiratory tract of toxins, and relieving digestive gas and bloating,’ adds Anastasia. A true all-rounder!
So, for stress support, when should you choose holy basil over ashwagandha? Although they can have similar benefits – and neither are stimulating like other adaptogens can be – herbal tradition suggests that holy basil may be a better choice if you need help for mood or emotional wellbeing (‘the blues’) or for memory support, as well as for overall stress protection. Try it: Pukka Herbs’ Wholistic Holy Basil, £16.96 for 30 capsules, pukkaherbs.com
3 Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus)
Also much revered in Ayurveda, shatavari is a favourite herb for women’s health. It’s considered the main rejuvenative tonic for female health and may have specific benefits for female hormone balance and the reproductive system. ‘It contains phyto-estrogens, the precursors of estrogen, so it helps to support women at all stages of life,’ explains Anastasia. Its traditional uses include supporting fertility and libido, but also helping to balance hormones throughout childbearing age, and during and after menopause. Shatavari is considered to have general adaptogenic activity too, although it may have less wide-ranging effects compared to ashwagandha and holy basil.
Try it: Pukka Herbs’ Wholistic Shatavari, £16.96 for 30 capsules, pukkaherbs.com