Jayney Goddard explores how herbs and mushrooms can heal you
The plant and fungi kingdoms are able to arm us with some extraordinary ‘secret weapons’ that can support us through stressful periods and amplify our resilience – which helps us to regain and maintain equilibrium when times are tough.
These plants and fungi constitute a unique group called adaptogens. They have a long history of use throughout all the healing traditions all over the world. In ancient, and not so ancient times, they were considered to be ‘tonics’ or ‘rejuvenators’ and would have been prescribed, prepared and dispensed by the community’s wise-woman. However, in 1947 the term ‘adaptogen’ was coined by Nikolai Lazarev to describe a plant or fungus that helps one to adapt to stressful circumstances (mentally, physically or emotionally).
Imagine the thermostat in your home that reacts to changes in ambient temperature and acts to bring your home’s temperature up or down – to the level that you desire. Adaptogens are a little like this. It is intriguing how one herb can, for example, lower unhealthy high blood pressure and raise unhealthily low blood pressure – and return them to normal levels, or give you energy when you are exhausted and conversely calm you down when you are too wired. Some herbalists view this ability to be a form of plant ‘intelligence’. But, the question remains, why would plants evolve to do this? According to ethnobotanist, James Duke PhD, plants have to contend with lots of stressors themselves, so they developed this adaptogenic ability to survive. It is interesting to note that the most effective adaptogens actually come from some of the harshest environments in the world. We don’t know exactly how adaptogens work physiologically – but research shows that they bring balance by acting on the following processes in our bodies;
IMPORTANT: Always check the Latin botanical name to be sure you’re getting a remedy from the right plant species. Don’t rely on common names as they vary widely. For example, there is much confusion among the ginsengs – see right.
Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
Ginseng is one of the most popular herbal remedies with a 5,000 year history of use. Ginseng’s botanical name “Panax” means “panacea” or “cure-all.” Ginseng is used to improve depression, exhaustion, cognitive performance, sleep, energy, sexual function, and immunity. Ginseng is the most stimulating of the adaptogens but because of this it can make anxiety and insomnia worse. If that’s the case, you might want to try ginseng’s close relative ‘American ginseng’.
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
American ginseng was used by several Native American tribes including the Cherokee and Iroquois as a healing tonic. American ginseng has a proven ability to enhance cognitive function. Since it’s considered less stimulating than Asian ginseng, American ginseng is a good choice for anxiety relief for anyone whose mind tends to race.
Siberian Ginseng – AKA Eluthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Siberian ginseng has been used as a general health tonic for vigor and stamina and to treat respiratory conditions for over 2,000 years in China. Its benefits are similar to those of Asian ginseng even though it has different active components. This herb is a favourite in Russia where it’s used for physically demanding situations. Olympic athletes rely on it as a natural way to enhance performance and aid recovery after training.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
One of the most important herbs in ayurvedic medicine, Ashwagandha literally means “smell of the horse.” It is said to ‘bestow the strength and stamina of a horse’ on those who use it. All adaptogens reduce stress, but ashwagandha excels in this area. It has been found to reduce stress and anxiety by 44 percent while decreasing the stress hormone cortisol by 28 percent. Studies show it can significantly improve anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and increase productivity. Ashwagandha is an excellent choice if you’re looking for an herb to enhance your overall quality of life.
Arctic Root (Rhodiola rosea)
Arctic root hails from cold northern regions of the world and has played an important role in both traditional Scandinavian and Chinese medicine. It was also used by the Vikings to increase physical and mental stamina. It is one of the most popular adaptogens being widely appreciated for its ability to increase physical vitality. It is unparalleled for overcoming fatigue and exhaustion due to prolonged stressful situations. It can help with depression by transporting serotonin precursors into the brain. It’s also a useful aid when you want to quit caffeine since it can minimise withdrawal side effects. I often prescribe Rhodiola for my patients who are recovering from adrenal fatigue.
Reishi AKA Ling Zhi (Ganoderma lucidum)
Last, but definitely not least, do try the ‘Queen of Mushrooms’, reishi. Due to potent mind and body adaptogenic effects, reishi are one of the most frequently used medicinal mushrooms. Reishi helps balance the hormonal system and reduces cortisol levels. It enhances both the quality and quantity of deep, slow wave sleep. Research shows it can also be helpful in lowering blood sugar in diabetics and reducing excess fat storage. Finally, reishi tea has been used as an immune and longevity tonic because it is so rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Jayney Goddard is president of the Complementary Medical Association. Find out more at the-cma.org.uk
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