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Dr. Aimée Derbes, LAC

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13 W 28th St, Suite 5R
New York, NY, 10001
United States

Heal your stress response with adaptogenic herbs

Not a totally boring blog about acupuncture, breathwork, energy medicine, and self-healing

At my office in Manhattan (Flatiron / Union Square / Chelsea), I see patients who are dealing with chronic pain (back pain, neck and shoulder pain, knee pain, hip pain, and ankle pain), headaches + migraines, digestive issues (IBS, colitis), infertility, stress, insomnia, PMS, women's health, and autoimmune conditions (Lyme, Hashimoto's, thyroid conditions, and many more).

Heal your stress response with adaptogenic herbs

Aimée Derbes

(^^ Pictured : some of my favorite adaptogens -- astragalus, reishi, cordyceps, ashwaganda -- about to be mixed with hemp milk, coconut oil, and raw cacao powder! Yum.)

I'm going to just come out with it : adaptogens are a missing puzzle piece for any fatigued / brain fogged / overworked professional / parent / superhero / athlete / New Yorker / human. Also, doulas, midwives, nurses, students, parents, and shift workers. Instead of adding more temporary fuel to the fire and quickly burning through it again (coffee and sugar, anyone?), why not try regaining your physical and mental energy by healing your body's stress response with adaptogenic herbs?

In the herbal tradition I practice within, herbs are used in groups, and herbal formulas are tailored to support the current needs and constitution of the patient. Don’t get me wrong -- I *love* a Chinese herbal formula, with its group of perfectly balanced, complementary, brilliantly designed synergy, individualized to each unique patient’s needs at this exact moment in their's like a symphony! But, also : less can be more, and sometimes a single herb is called for instead.

More and more, I’ve been turning to simple solutions using a category of herbs called adaptogens, which are herbs that improve our body’s ability to “adapt” to and handle stress. Given that stress, and a dysfunctional or overactive stress response, is implicated in pretty much all chronic health conditions, adaptogens have a lot to offer, especially if you’re in between appointments with your herbalist (just kidding, I know you probably don't have an herbalist; no bigs, because I'm going to show you how to help your self!), regularly adding stress to your system by, say, working incredibly long hours for years on end, or simply want to start supporting yourself and cultivating your best possible health. 

Adaptogens are defined and united through their wide-spectrum effects on our whole bodies, and they are generally safe for most people. These herbs share similar properties of 1) nontoxicity, or causing minimal side effects on physical or mental health; 2) producing a nonspecific response in resisting multiple stressors; and 3) normalizing our physiology in response to any disruption caused by physical, biological, emotional, or environmental stressors, through enhancing our bidirectional homeostatic balancing capacity. Put more simply, they enhance normal physiological functions instead of pushing the body toward a specific outcome. In traditional medicines, such as Chinese medicine or Ayurveda, the herbs we now classify as adaptogens have typically long been in use to revitalize, restore, and slow aging -- which makes perfect sense when you consider that dealing with stress uses up our reserves and ages us.

While all of these herbs are deeply nourishing and balancing, some are a bit more stimulating and some more relaxing. They can all have a place in your healing process, especially if you are recovering from adrenal exhaustion, burnout, and the fatigue caused by the health conditions you may be living with. Or, just, you're a New Yorker.

Also : if you are doing shift work (calling all midwives, nurses, doulas, shift workers, parents, and students) adaptogens can be taken over the long-term as preparation for your sporadic work, by improving your overall cognitive functions and stress response.

Here's the deal....

Goal: Boost physical and mental energy

Eleuthero (the herb formerly known as Siberian Ginseng) improves mental alertness and performance, concentration, energy and stamina, immune system response, and detoxification processes. It reduces stress, fatigue, and inflammatory pain.
Use for : fatigue or chronic fatigue syndrome; students, night shift workers, anyone with brain fog / poor memory or concentration; exercise performance and recovery; inflammatory pain
Dosage : .5-1g 3x/day in capsule / 1-3mL 3x/day of tincture
Note : not for insomniacs or hypertensive patients

Rhodiola improves mental alertness and performance, concentration, energy and stamina, and immune system response. It reduces anxiety, stress, and colds / infections. It is also known as a hormone balancer.
Use for : anxiety; fatigue or chronic fatigue syndrome; students, night shift workers, anyone with brain fog / poor memory or concentration; exercise performance and recovery; sexual dysfunction; stress headaches
Dosage : for products standardized to 2-3% rosavin, 1-3g 3x/day in capsule / 1-3mL 3x/day in tincture
Note : not for bipolar diagnosis

Other options : astragalus, ginseng (Asian, red), brahmi (bacopa monnieri), shilajit

Goal: Calm and nourish

Ashwaganda improves energy, memory, learning, libido, sleep, and immunity. It reduces anxiety, oxidative stress, brain aging, and pain.
Use for : stress-related insomnia and sleep issues; anxiety; poor memory; female hormonal issues, including perimenopausal symptoms and infertility; arthritic pain
Dosage : 1-2g 3x/day in capsule or powder / 2-4mL 3x/day of tincture
Note : it’s in the nightshade family, so avoid for known sensitivity to nightshades

Reishi increases immunity, detoxification from environmental toxins, and deep sleep. It reduces infections and colds, calms the nervous system, and fights tumors.
Use for : weak immune system, or strengthening preventative immunity; fatigue; anxiety; depression
Dosage : 1-2g 2-3x/day in capsule or powder / 80-100 drops 4-6xday of tincture

Shatavari is known as the queen of herbs, and balances female hormones.
Use for : all female hormonal imbalance symptoms, from PMS to infertility to menopausal symptoms; irritability; sleep problems; low libido
Dosage : 40-80 drops 2-3x/day in tincture
Note : because of its mild estrogenic effects, avoid if history of estrogen receptor positive cancer

Other options : ginseng (American), cordyceps, licorice, tulsi (holy basil), schizandra

General info + cautions

Start by trying one herb at a time (or one from each category, like rhodiola for more energy and ashwaganda for more stress relief). A lot of people pick up blends, thinking that more is better, and throwing the kitchen sink in; the drawback of this is that you don’t end up knowing which herbs are best for *you*, and, if it doesn’t work, you have no idea why (inadequate dose overall? Too stimulating when you need calming, or vice versa? The brand didn’t have high quality, potent, organic / wildcrafted ingredients?).

If you are burnt out and depleted, don’t start with any of the stimulating adaptogens; stick to the more calming ones like ashwaganda and reishi until your internal resources are shored up a bit and you can handle more stimulation again.

Always consult a trained and certified herbalist if you are pregnant or nursing, or taking steroid, immunosuppressant, blood pressure, or blood sugar medications. If you have any of the conditions listed as a caution for an individual herb, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t take it, just that you should consult with an herbalist first for personally tailored info.

Known adaptogens (aka your new best friends)

  • Ashwaganda
  • Astragalus
  • Brahmi
  • Cordyceps
  • Dang Shen
  • Eleuthero
  • Ginseng (American)
  • Ginseng (Asian)
  • Guduchi
  • Holy Basil (Tulsi)
  • Jiaogulan
  • Licorice
  • Reishi
  • Rhaponticum
  • Rhodiola
  • Schizandra
  • Shatavari
  • Shilajit

Not sure what to get or how to proceed? Send me a message or leave a comment, and I'll be happy to direct you to some of my favorite brands, books, and websites.