Adaptogenic plants

Adaptogen alchemy: Your guide to adaptogenic plants

Harness the healing powers of nature by becoming your own adaptogen alchemist. Here are some of the adaptogenic plants, medicinal mushrooms and tonic herbs that can nourish, enliven, protect, calm and rejuvenate your whole being to help you thrive and achieve equilibrium.

From ancient art and tradition to modern wellness offering, incorporating adaptogenic plants into your lifestyle is a time-proven method for cultivating a strong immune system, helping your body cope with stress, supporting healthy hormones, protecting your brain, increasing vitality, providing anti-ageing actions and returning your body to a state of balance. It is time to become the alchemist of your own wellbeing with a dive into the world of medicinal mushrooms and tonic herbs. Discover the health-enhancing potential of these incredible substances and how to invite them into your kitchen apothecary.

What is an adaptogen?

The word “adaptogen” is used to describe a collective of non-toxic plants that are believed to help the body resist and cope with all kinds of stressors, from physical and chemical to biological and emotional. These adaptogenic plants are usually herbs, roots or mushrooms which are steeped in age-old medicinal traditions. Adaptogens have been used for centuries by the Chinese and Ayurvedic healing modalities and have earned deep reverence from people all around the world over tens of thousands of years. They are commonly consumed in the form of supplements, such as powders or tinctures, brewed into teas or eaten as part of a meal.

One of the significant qualities of these special substances is that they are not only useful if you are experiencing symptoms or ill health, but can be taken by healthy people to support more vibrant wellbeing throughout life. As Mason Taylor, tonic herbalist and founder of Superfeast, explains, “Adaptogens potentiate your body’s functions and make you more robust as you endure the beautiful hardships of life. They help prevent premature degeneration and cultivate flow in our organs so you can live with more radiance, and possibly for many years more than if they weren’t present in your life.”

How do adaptogenic plants work?

The beauty of adaptogens is that they operate a little differently in each person’s body to gently restore homeostasis. You may even think of them as having their own innate intelligence and wisdom. Adaptogenic plants work in a non-specific way, meaning that they support all of the major operating systems in the body, such as the hormonal system, immune system, nervous system and digestive system. Imagine that these adaptogens enter into your body and assess where you have imbalances, then respond accordingly to restore balance. Adaptogens do this work in a gradual way, so these substances are generally something you should be taking consistently in order for them to initiate an accumulative beneficial effect in the body over a period of use.

The plants are able to do this through interacting with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, as well as the sympathoadrenal system, which are both integral to the body’s ability to respond to stress. The HPA essentially manages the communication between the brain and your hormones, which plays a role in everything from your metabolism and mood to your libido and energy levels. When out of balance, you may experience a whole range of health issues such as fatigue, anxiety, depression, menstrual cycle irregularities and lowered sex drive.

Adaptogens potentially regulate and strengthen hormone production and physiological responses to stress to ensure that your body functions optimally, from your immune system to your mind. It is only fitting that these ancient plant medicines are having a renaissance today, in a world that has become increasingly overloaded with stressors to which you need bolstered resilience.

Now it’s time to fill your adaptogen apothecary. With so many different herbs and mushrooms available, each with unique properties, it’s great to play around with various adaptogenic plants or experiment with combinations tailored to your own health, wellness and beauty goals.

Medicinal mushrooms

If you want to support inner peace and calm, the earthy and nurturing “tree of life” mushroom is for you. Traditionally celebrated as an icon of immortality, reishi is hailed for its ability to strength and regulate immune cells, support quality sleep, enhance physical and mental resilience, as well as balance the spirit.

Rich in beta glucans, antioxidants and adaptogenic compounds, this mushroom is known to protect and replenish the whole body. Treasured for its ability to support the ageing process by repairing oxidative damage to cells, as well as increasing vitality and immune function, chaga is a longevity powerhouse.

Strengthen and empower yourself with this blood-sugar-balancing, stamina-boosting and libido-enhancing mushroom. Cordyceps is revered for its mighty biological activities that include immunopotentiation, increased oxygenation, mind and body rejuvenation and elevated physical performance.

Lion’s mane
Looking for brain and nervous system support? Lion’s mane is prized for its neuroprotective capacity and enhances communication between brain cells to deliver benefits such as improved memory, mental agility and enhanced overall cognitive function.

Turkey tail
Named after its likeness in appearance to a turkey’s plumage, this mushroom brings super immune-boosting qualities to you through its ability to combat oxidative stress and inflammation with over 35 different antioxidants, assist your body to increase white blood cell count and help to rebalance your gut bacteria.

The beautifying tremella mushroom facilitates a surge in hydration and antioxidants to help you slow the ageing process, harness vitality and achieve a luminous complexion from the inside out. It has a mild, vanilla-like flavour, making it easy to incorporate into just about any recipe.

Tonic herbs

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), known as the “mood booster”, is traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine as a rejuvenating tonic for its ability to reduce stress and support emotional wellbeing. It does so by regulating cortisol levels, supporting thyroid function, promoting restorative sleep and calming the mind. If you experience chronic stress or mood swings, this adaptogen may be for you.

This herb (Astragalus membranaceus) is a protective herb that is especially supportive if you are experiencing compromised immunity or exhaustion. Astragalus root is a rich source of medicinal polysaccharides, which work to fortify and strengthen the immune system and rebuild life force in the body.

Siberian ginseng
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) has been traditionally used for centuries in Eastern countries, including China and Russia, to prevent colds and flus, plus increase energy, longevity and vitality.

Lovingly known as the “magic velvet bean”, mucuna (Mucuna pruriens) is an ancient Ayurvedic medicine used to elevate the mood, enhance cognition and provide hormonal support in periods of stress, thanks to its active compounds that promote systemic nourishment and restoration.

The Andean peoples used maca (Lepidium meyenii) as far back as 2000 years ago. Folktales describe how Incan warriors consumed large quantities of this medicinal root prior to going into battle to enhance energy and strength. It is known to nurture and balance hormones, support fertility, elevate mood and increase physical and mental stamina.

Looking for a natural energy boost? The properties in this arctic root make it an ideal addition to your morning routine. Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) works to temper cortisol emission and wards off fatigue, bringing benefits such as heightened mental clarity, increased alertness and concentration, plus enhanced stamina and physical performance.

The medicinal properties of the schisandra plant (Schisandra chinensis) are attributed to the high levels of protective compounds known as lignans found in the bright red berries. Hailed as an ancient oriental beauty tonic, this herb was used by Chinese emperors and empresses to preserve youthfulness, to increase libido and to nourish the reproductive system. It also offers potent liver protection properties.

Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus), which translates as “having 100 roots — or partners”, is sometimes referred to as the “goddess herb” or “queen of herbs”, and is a beautifully rejuvenating tonic for the female reproductive system. It is known to help balance feminine energy, support healthy hormones, improve libido and provide a calm yet elevated energy. It is ideal for women across all ages and stages of life.

Also called “holy basil”, this adaptogenic plant (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is honoured in the Ayurvedic tradition for its ability to increase cognition, downregulate the stress response in the body and support level mood. It is commonly available as dried leaves to be steeped in hot water and consumed as a tea.

Becoming an alchemist

As complex as the inner workings of adaptogens may be, welcoming them into your daily wellness routine is not. In fact, becoming an adaptogen alchemist is rather simple, enjoyable and deeply rewarding. Once you have selected your chosen adaptogens — usually a powder of tincture form is easiest to work with — honour them by give them a dedicated space in your kitchen, whether it be their own shelf, drawer or a front-of-mind benchtop position. Next, be prepared to play around with adding them to your favourite recipes, as well as experimenting with new ones.

The other essential tool? Your intuition! “To me being an alchemist in the kitchen is all about creating magic with unique ingredients and being guided intuitively to upgrade all aspects of your health and wellbeing,” says Julie Mitsios, founder of Earth to Table and raw food chef. She recommends beginning with elixir drinks, saying that medicinal mushrooms and tonic herbs generally work well combined with nut milks and other flavours, such as cacao, matcha, turmeric or coffee.

As well as incorporating them into elixirs, Mason Taylor from Superfeast also recommends adding them to food. “It makes them feel more a part of the kitchen and not something I’m taking as a medicine to heal something, which helps me use the herbs in conjunction with long-term health intentions I have for myself and my family,” he says.

The more you try, explore and play, the more you will become attuned to how different adaptogens taste, feel and work in your unique body.

“Once this process of transformation starts, the herbs and mushrooms begin to fit themselves into your lifestyle seamlessly. They slot in as a staple that you won’t live without, because with a world that is, albeit magical, extremely stressful and toxic, we need adaptogenic plants that work wonders at helping us adjust and come back to harmony,” Taylor explains.

Tips for new alchemists

Always begin slowly. You can gradually increase the dose as you become accustomed to these different, incredible plant-based substances. After all, though they are non-stimulating and non-toxic, adaptogens are still medicinally active and your body may benefit from time to adjust. Start with around a quarter of a teaspoon of a powdered mushroom or herb, then increase intermittently until you reach around one teaspoon a day, or whatever level feels right for your body. Experiment with adding your adaptogens to hot drinks, smoothies, homemade raw chocolate or desserts, soups, stews, granola, bliss balls, dips and salad dressings. Remember, if you have any medical conditions, it’s always best to be guided by a healthcare professional when adding adaptogenic plants and supplements into your protocol.

“Although it can seem overwhelming at the start of this adaptogenic, medicinal mushroom and tonic herb journey, remember that it’s a very accommodating path that offers you a whole lot to gain physically, mentally and spiritually,” says Taylor.

Indeed, once you dive in, you will find that you quickly and naturally fill the role of the adaptogen alchemist, guided by your own inner wisdom, senses and spirit.

Adaptogenic Hot Chocolate

This dreamy, creamy adaptogenic hot chocolate is such a calming, meditative way to wind down in the evening with its delicious flavour and ensuing chill vibes.

Recipe: Julie Mitsios
Prep time: 10 minutes
Serves: 2

2 cups almond milk
2 tbsp cacao powder
2 tbsp carob powder
2 tsp maca powder
1 tsp reishi
¼ teaspoon ashwagandha
1 tbsp cacao butter or coconut oil, melted
1 tbsp coconut nectar
Pinch Celtic salt

Place all the ingredients together in a blender and blend till incorporated.
Adjust sweetness to your taste.
Warm to serve. I love to use a milk frother which makes it super-creamy.
Note: While reishi, maca and ashwagandha are incredible additions, you don’t have to use these exact adaptogens. Feel free to play around with what you have available and/or tailor your selection to your individual wellness goals.

Lolita Walters

Lolita Walters

Lolita Walters is an Australian freelance journalist, editor and lifestyle writer focused on wellness, beauty and travel. She enjoys life by the ocean, whether she is residing in Sydney as a North Bondi local, or is spending time at her overseas home in beautiful Bali.

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