Amazing Adaptogens

by Clare McQuade, Medical Herbalist

Having just returned to work after maternity leave with an 8 month old baby who is yet to learn the rejuvenating values of a good nights sleep, I find myself thinking about how best to take care of myself through this time - how do I  keep my energy levels up, my mind focused, and my immune system strong when the magical 8 hour sleep feels so far off?

Adrenal Function

For me, it all comes down to supporting the adrenal function. Your adrenals are tiny glands responsible for producing three hugely important hormones – adrenalin, cortisol and DHEA – known as our ‘stress hormones’. The balance of these hormones is key to keeping a stable energy pattern throughout each day, giving us the strength and resilience we need to handle stresses and keeping us fighting fit. The problem is, the adrenals can get overworked or fatigued when we don’t look after them.

There’s no getting away from the fact that we all tend to live busy, fast paced lives that can put us under strain at times; whether it’s a high pressured job, long or variable working hours, juggling work and kids, university exam time, emotional stress, or just being unable to say ‘no’ and taking on too much at once, we could all do with some adrenal support from time to time to help us get through.

So, I am sharing with you some of my most trusted herbs to support the adrenal system – aka ‘adaptogens’.


The one I come to most often is Ashwaganda -  I will often use this wonderful root as a basis for an adrenal formula as it soothes and balances the adrenal function. It can be taken morning, noon or night as it will not over stimulate, making it a perfect choice for those suffering with sleep problems or anxiety.

Another balancing root for the adrenals comes in the form of Liquorice and though it does balance it will also give a bit more of a lift than the Ashwaganda plus it has the added benefit of making your herbal tincture taste that bit better! Liquorice will also aid digestive issues, which are often associated with poor adrenal function and acts as an immune supportive anti-viral.

Slightly more stimulating to the adrenal function, but still focusing on nourishing and protecting, are Gotu Kola and Schisandra. Gotu Kola also has valuable use as a tissue healer in cardiovascular and skin issues – another area often associated with chronic stress – and Schisandra’s beautiful berries double as a gentle liver tonic.

Rhodiola will provide a stronger energy boost, but a stable one none-the-less, and I find it particularly useful in PMT related energy ups and downs and to treat mental fatigue.

The ginsengs, perhaps the best known of the adaptogens, will likely give you the quickest energy kick of the lot but take heed – too much ginseng with a depleted adrenal system may make you feel great but without supporting the foundations with some of the more soothing adaptogens, there’s likely to be a crash on the horizon. However, they have great use for times of short term intense mental or physical strain such as exams or long distance running races.

Where there are immune deficiencies alongside the stress use Andrographis and Astragalus. For hormonal upsets combine these with Shatavari. Never overlook the restorative qualities of oat, lemonbalm, vervain or hypericum for a depleted or frayed nervous system. And, of course, don’t forget that all important SLEEP!