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Today is a big day for power. There's a flood of strong energy heading to DC today that includes several of my friends and family members, and an energetic feeling of connectedness and camaraderie. It's power, it's moving, and it's uniting. For the past several months (for a myriad of reasons), there's been a thousand reasons to feel stressed. Often times, our body doesn't differentiate between types of stress - whether i's financial, physical, emotional, psychological, environmental, political or even made up, all in your head stress. The physiological reaction is usually the same, and we could all use some support, regardless of where your stress is coming from. I suppose we could say that health could be defined as the ability to adapt quickly and efficiently. That's where herbal adaptogens really shine.

Physiology 101:

The endocrine system is the first line of defense against the physiological effects of stress, and therefore takes the hardest hit with periods of prolonged stress. Endocrine glands, including the pituitary, thyroid, thymus, parathyroid, and adrenal glands, continually work together releasing hormones into the blood stream, and the body's response to these hormones occur after either a matter of seconds or even days, however once the response has been initiated, the effects last for a much longer time than the actual stressor is present. There's a negative feedback loop happening with exposure to stress: The hypothalamus releases CRH (Corticotropin releasing hormone) which signals the pituitary to release ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) which signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol. We can release too much cortisol though - it's very contextual. When we release corticoids, we set up a negative feedback loop from the adrenals back to the hypothalamus which then take a blood sample, so to speak, and determine what needs to be added or detracted. Corticoids are like the original adaptogen - they enhance your ability to respond to your environment. However, prolonged exposure to corticoids can be neurotoxic, and this feedback loop is extremely dependent on lifestyle. This sets off a cascade reaction that involves the whole body, and our tendencies to try and adapt turn out to be self destructive, especially when we overwork ourselves. We're trying to adapt to the increased stress load but we end up hurting ourselves in the long run. (Enter the Self Care movement!)

Not surprisingly, herbal adaptogens work primarily on the endocrine system to lessen the long term effects of stress to buffer, tonify, strengthen and modulate the effects of these hormones on our other organ systems. I love herbal adaptogens because they're such BUILDING tonics. They don't just take the edge off and chill you out momentarily - they work best long term to strengthen your response to stress, and therefore have a better response over time (rather than just an acute reaction). It's commonly thrown around that herbal adaptogens are "great for stress"! and that's true - but in a super general way. Ideally, when you're choosing an herbal adaptogen, you need to know what type of person you are personally, and especially what part of the endocrine system you're working with. Most likely it's the adrenal glands which are divided into 2 parts: the adrenal medulla and the adrenal cortex, and they both produce different hormones (yet both serve important roles in the overall response to stress).The immediate stress response (like, running from a tiger) is controlled by the adrenal medulla by the secretion of adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine) which cause immediate increase in nervous system activity, increases cardiac output and facilitates blood flow to the heart, brain, muscles and increase your blood pressure short term. The adrenal cortex deals with the more long term stress response, responsible for the production of cortisol and hydrocortisone (called glucocorticoids) which have a profound effect on the immune system, certain behavioral responses and even metabolism regulation.  When we're under acute stress, our immune system is upregulated. When we're under long term stress, the immune system is down regulated - hence why so many folks suffer from illness as a result of prolonged exposure to stress. 

Adaptogens - which to choose?

Ashwagandha - I've spoken about Ashwagnahda in a previous post, but as it relates to the endocrine system - it's one my my favorites to use! It really excels as a building tonic for those who are in a weakened state, chronically tired, overworked, over stressed or take on too much with no end in sight. Think new parents, caretakers, shift workers, high performance athletes, elderly folks etc. It particularly works well in the relationship between the endocrine system and the immune system because it's cytokine balancing, immune-modulating and very building (promotes pitta activity over time). This is the ideal adaptogen to take long term, and I think powder form is one of the best ways to take it!

--Where to find it: Powder / Cut & Sift / Capsules / Tincture

Holy Basil - I consider holy basil akin to the kitchen gadget that does 100 different things and it's essential to have around all the time. Holy basil is not just an adaptogen, it's a liver protective herb, an anti-inflammatory, a carminative in the gut (helps with gas and bloating) and, my personal favorite - a spiritually uplifting herb for the "blah" feeling that comes in winter. It has this uplifting, warming and moving quality that is so needed when you're fatigued from low cortisol and overwork and over stressed. It helps to give you that push to keep going when you have to without putting strain on the already taxed adrenal glands. Best taken as tea, I think, combine with some licorice and skullcap. 

--Where to find it: Cut & Sift / Tincture / Capsules / Powder

Siberian Ginseng - High in a saponins called eleutherosides, these compounds directly impact the adrenal medulla. Traditionally, Siberian ginseng (also called Eleuthero) was used to tonify the spleen and kidneys (capacity to generate energy) and invigorate the blood as a circulatory stimulant. All helpful actions that directly impact the endocrine system as well in times of stress. This is best for the person with a sense of overwhelm, fatigue, exhaustion and sluggish mind, not for the agitated, hypervigilent stressed out person due to it's stimulating qualities. With any of the ginsengs, start with a low dose and work your way up gradually, and always take early in the day or afternoon to re-informece your normal cortisol pattern.

--Where to find it: Cut & Sift / Tincture / Capsules

Panax Ginseng - one of the more stimulating adaptogens, this has a broad response to both the adrenal cortex and medulla, and is best used for weakened conditions (elderly, recovering from prolonged illness etc) and makes you more adaptable short term. Panax ginseng tends to make you burn fuel more efficiently, allowing skeletal muscles to more effective use free fatty acids as fuel rather than relying on glucose. I use this generally for a stress pattern associated with deficiency, sleep / insomnia issues and inappropriate cortisol patterns early in the day. It helps to reinforce what your circadian rhythm should be doing when you wake up in the morning (cortisol should rise!). Not great for long term use - 3 months us usually the max I would recommend using this one.  *Always look for responsibly sourced ginseng*

--Where to find it: Whole Root / Tincture / Capsules

Licorice - Specifically supports the adrenal cortex response to ACTH. Licorice is sweet, building and nourishing to the endocrine system in every way - and most especially for the adrenal glands. The triterpene constituents in licorice are broken down in the body into molecules similar to the structure of adrenal hormones, and this likely explains licorice's amazing adaptogenic (and anti-inflammatory) properties. Licorice, along with ashwagandha, is one of the best herbal adaptogens to be used long term for the best building and nourishing effect on the whole body. Because of it's demulcent qualities, it's especially helpful to sooth inflammation in the gut, which can be irritated by the prolonged presence of cortisol. Win win. 

--Where to find it: Powder / Cut & Sift / Tincture / Capsules

Ashwagandha, licorice, and the ginsengs are all roots, therefore when prepared as a tea (which is my personal fave way to take most herbs), you can take 1 tsp of dried root in 2 cups of hot water and simmer together on low heat with a tight fitting lid for 15 minutes, making a strong decoction that you can sip on in times of need. Ashwagandha does best when decocted in a fatty milk, like whole milk or coconut milk. Same ratio and cooking techniques apply. 

Additional tip - it makes for a particularly effective herbal tonic when you combine an adaptogen with a nervine for a balancing effect. Some of my favorites to partner with adaptogens include skullcap, milky oats and lemon balm to help lessen the impact of accompanying anxiety or fatigue. 

There are LOTS more herbal adaptogens, like maca and rhodiola and reishi (oh gosh, allllll the amazing mushrooms) the list goes on, but for the sake of brevity, these are my favorite top 5 adaptogens. Which ones are go-to's for you??

Some days - I hardly make it outside for more than 10 minutes. It's atrocious, I know. When some days are spent entirely in the office, or at conferences, or in front of the computer screen, or prepping orders, or basically subject to a cerebrally confined space, my brain feels it. We can all relate to the feeling of taking a deep breath of fresh, crisp mountain air, or feeling the expansive awakening of the ocean breeze, or the calm still of a forest meditation. Our brain is wired for bliss, and it's those moments of pure, magical connection when our brain gets a complete rejuvenation, an awakening like none other. When we go long periods without this awakening and stillness, it's noticeable and kind of numbingly painful. Creative thinking fades to the recesses of our brain. Motivation becomes dampened and fleeting. The soft eyes through which we should view the world become a little harder and more judgmental. All, in part, because the brain is just foggy, stuck, and confined. 

Short of quitting the day job for more adventurous time spent outside (although, definitely encouraged if you can), there is an herbal ally that I depend on for days like these to support my brain, nourish my nerves and provide that precious cerebral creativity that recedes when it goes unused. Milky Oat Tops (Avena sativa) provide just that. This simple plant offers so much both medicinally and nutritionally. The spikelets are the flowering bodies in the process of growing the mature seed. Just before they get to the mature seed, they grow through a "milky stage", often in the spring (and if you want to tincture oats, this is the stage you want to do it). Just after this stage, the oat straw remains and is a fantastic source of minerals for making tea. The rolled starchy endosperm (oatmeal) is the mature seed and what can be eaten as food. Rich in beta glucans (soluble fiber), Avena also contains calcium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, manganese, zinc, Vitamins A, C, E & K, as well as amino acids and B-complex vitamins. The milky oat tops have a sweet flavor, with a moistening and neutral energetic suitable for almost every constitution. It really shines as a nervine tonic that's moderately stimulating and as a neurotrophorestorative (brain tonic) and meant to be used long term - at least 4-6 weeks to replenish energy and effect the body. 


I find milky oats to be ideal for the deeply exhausted individual. One who's been disconnected from their creative source for too long a time, stuck indoors or pushed beyond their mental capabilities for too long. I often see this pattern with young entrepreneurs, new parents, or generally the vata individual who take on more pitta roles that they are not physically or emotionally equipped to handle. This may also show up as weakened, debilitated nervous exhaustion with low libido, slow recall, forgetfulness, tiredness that gets worse as the day progresses, weepiness at the end of the day, dull headaches, and that "blah" mental malaise feeling. All of these patterns need time and intention to build back up - these are not quick fix issues. That's why milky oat tops need to be taken tonically for several weeks - to build up your system and nourish the body from a deeply core level. 



Here is my formula for Magical Milky Oat Brain Tonic Tea, designed to support and enhance brain activity, nourish your nervous system, fill the body with nutrients and increase peripheral blood flow. This can be taken daily, multiple times per day and can be consumed indefinitely! There are two methods of prep depending on the season: a hot infusion or an overnight steep and sipped chilled or room temperature the next day (for those hotter summer days). 

Magical Milky Oat Brain Tonic Tea (hot infusion)

2 grams Milky oat tops (well ground)

 1 gram Nettle leaf

 0.5 gram Red Clover tops

 0.5 gram Rosemary

Combine all ingredients in a tea strainer and cover with 2 cups hot water. Let steep, covered, for 12 minutes. Strain and sip consciously. 

 

Magical Milky Oat Brain Tonic Tea (overnight infusion)

4 gram Milky oat tops (well ground)

 2 gram Nettle leaf

 1 gram Red Clover tops

 1 gram Rosemary

Place all ingredients in the bottom of a quart mason jar and cover with 4 cups room temperature, filtered water. Place a loose lid on top, and let sit overnight (at least 6 hours). Strain in the morning, and sip consciously throughout the day

 

Gentian (Genitana lueta) is a european plant, usually harvested from higher elevations for it's roots and rhizome with a long history of use as a digestive aid. Why? Because gentian is one super bitter herbal ally. It's a unique one, because at first taste it's initially sweet, but then POW it's bitter - making it what's known as a "pure bitter" which is pretty much it's soul flavor.  This is due mainly to Gentiopicrin and Amarogentin which are both seco-iridoids (bitter compounds). Both of these compounds are broken down somewhat by fermentation. Classically, these large roots are slowly dried to allow time for some fermentation to occur for the breakdown of those compounds, resulting in a darker colored root or rhizome. 

In our SAD (Standard American Diet), we unfortunately don't get a lot of bitter things on our plate at all. It's become a somewhat avoided flavor for most, with the exception of coffee, beer and chocolate. We abandoned the traditional bitter greens salad long ago, alas. A little bit of bitter goes a long way. When we utilize pure bitter herbs, we use a teeny tiny bit at a time. Gentian in particular delivers a pretty big bitter punch, and physiologically we don't need a lot of bitter to have a maximum effect on our digestion. Gentian enhances digestion before meals. This is done by a neural reflex, enhancing the cephalic stage of digestion (the brain state, where digestion should start!). Bitters do a great job of enhancing this anticipation for the stomach and pancreas to prepare for food. 

Even the smallest, drop dose amount of bitter taste on the tongue sends a direct message to the stomach and pancreas to start producing digestive enzymes to prepare for the food we're about to break down. This is an adaptive response, because bitter is a "warning" flavor for the body for toxicity, the body will kick in a response to secrete extra enzymes to break down whatever we might have just consumed. There will be increased motility throughout the digestive tract now. This is ideal for atonic conditions - where there's not much movement going on in the digestive tract. Food just sits there, or has a long transit time (for sluggish, kapha digestion, or lack of appetite altogether). 

Dosing - I always start low with bitters, like 5 drops and work your way up. If you're using a pure gentian tincture, mix it in a bit of water, and sip before each meal to enhance digestion. Capsules of gentian are a little weird to me. Bitters are ideal as a digestive aid due to the flavor and bitter taste which we don't (consciously) get in a capsule. However, gentian is such a pure bitter that even though we do not consciously taste it once ingested in a capsule, the body will still respond to the bitter compounds throughout the digestive process helping with digestive motility. Awesome, I know. Typically with a gentian bitter (tincture), shoot for taking your tiny dose 15-30 minutes before a meal for best results. 

Contraindications: If you have a nervous nature, gentian can make you feel a little spacey and headaches are common with these folks. If you take too much bitter (gentian), loss of appetite is possible. 

I've got a delicious Gentian recipe coming next week, perfect for the Thanksgiving gathering crowd. Stay tuned!

HELLO, I’M LINDSAY.
Herbal medicine and nutrition is my expertise. Understanding plants, their properties, and their powers is my passion.

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