There’s a family of medicinal herbs called adaptogens, a name that gives you a clue to what they do. Extracts from these plants support your body’s resilience and ability to adapt to physical and mental stress. They act on multiple parts of the body at the same time, raising what is low – eg energy – and lowering what’s high – eg stress.
For millennia, adaptogens have been part of the natural pharmacopeia in traditional medical systems such as Ayurveda – where they are still much used in the present day. Apparently, these herbal pharmaceuticals were first studied in the West during World War II when scientists were looking for a superhero supplement to help pilots fly better, faster, longer. The term ‘adaptogen’ was first used in scientific literature in 1957 by Russian toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev.
According to Master Herbsmith Sebastian Pole of Pukka Herbs, adaptogens are more than ever relevant to help us cope with the pressures bearing down on us at the moment. He explains that ‘adaptogenic herbs are said to have a normalising effect on the body and mind, reducing the negative changes that can happen in your body in response to stress.’
For years when I was working flat out, I relied on Siberian ginseng (Sibergin, £15.99 for 30 capsules). On days when I need a brain and body energy perk up I still take this stimulating adaptogen – we used to call it ’rocket fuel’ for good reason, as Gill reminded me recently.
But having suffered insomnia for years (the waking up in the small hours sort…), I took heed of Sebastian Pole’s advice about sleep and for the last few months I have taken two capsules of Pukka Wholistic Ashwagandha daily before breakfast. I still wake up sometimes but I go back to sleep and very seldom have that ragged, jagged, sleep-deprived feeling in the morning. According to Sebastian, ‘Ashwagandha is such a clever adaptogen because it both nourishes and relaxes at the same time. It’s very helpful at helping us endure more challenges with a better frame of mind.’
Its Latin name is Withania somnifera and Ashwagandha root is renowned for helping sleep and being both calming and strengthening – ‘imparting the strength of a stallion’. (Very apt for me as someone who loves horses beyond almost anything else – not my husband obvs, although he says he knows his ranking in the pecking order….)
An eight week study of 58 stressed adults (women and men), published in December 2019, found that perceived stress levels were reduced in the group taking Ashwagandha and there was significant improvement in sleep quality. The researchers concluded that Ashwagandha is ‘a medically important herb and has a proven impact on human health’. They added that ‘eight weeks supplementation of aqueous Ashwagandha root extract was associated with a significant reduction of stress levels in individuals and improved the overall quality of life’.
Usefully, you can combine adaptogens, according to Sebastian. (I sometimes take Sibergin as well as my daily dose of Ashwagandha, or substitute Sibergin occasionally for a day or two.) Women may benefit from Shatavari, which is renowned as the supreme women’s tonic. It contains plant oestrogen precursors and may be particularly beneficial for balancing female reproductive hormones. It’s said to help balance and clear common side effects of menopause, including hot flushes, night sweats, memory loss, anxiety and dryness. In younger women, Shatavari may help fertility and also production of breast milk. (NB Pregnant women should take medical advice before supplementing with Shatavari or other herbs.)
And lastly, turmeric, the golden ‘superspice’ that’s another of Sebastian’s favourites for improving physical health with over 6,000 clinical studies attesting to its ability to protect and nourish the body. As well as helping to diminish the signs of ageing, turmeric reduces inflammation, improves circulation, heals wounds and protects the liver and bowels. There is increasing research in the West on the wide potential uses of turmeric. Recently, a 70+ friend with painful knees told me gleefully that she’d ‘discovered’ turmeric. She rubs in a few drops of Pukka Active 35 Oil twice daily, which banishes the pain. Plus, to make doubly sure, she takes a turmeric supplement (BetterYou Turmeric Oral Spray).