An Herbalist on the Healing Power of Adaptogens
Written by: the Editors of goop
Updated: November 14, 2022
Reviewed by: David Winston
Adaptogens—edible herbs that can help your body adapt to a variety of stressors—merit a good deal of the hype they’re getting, if goop staffers’ experiences with them so far are any indication (we’ve seen some serious benefits as we’ve incorporated them into our diets and daily routines). Some adaptogens—red ginseng, for example—boost energy levels, while others, like reishi, have a soothing effect. Many (from rhodiola to ashawaganda) have immune-strengthening effects. Still others promise glowy skin and shinier hair.
David Winston is a clinical herbalist and ethnobotanist with nearly fifty years of training in Chinese, Native American, and Western herbal traditions. (His 2007 book with co-author Steven Maimes, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, is an excellent beginner’s guide.) Below, Winston outlines how adaptogens work, how to get the best results out of them, and what you need to know before you use them.
A Q&A with David Winston
Can you tell us about your background and how you got into studying herbs?
I became fascinated by the idea that the wild plants growing around me could be eaten and used for medicine when I was thirteen years old: I bought every book on edible plants and herbal medicine I could find (this was in the late 1960’s when there were not many such books), and I would experiment with what I read about. I taught myself to identify plants: I would go out into the woods and fields gathering plants, drying them and making them into teas, tinctures, ointments, and liniments. I believed that it was unethical to give someone something you did not have personal experience with, so I tried everything I could purchase, wild-craft, or grow on a two-acre garden (I sold organic vegetables from it at a roadside stand in the summers).
Later, I had the opportunity to spend time with a Native American “uncle” and “aunt” (actually more distant relatives than the terms connote) in western North Carolina. Both used herbal medicine, and shared their traditions with me. After that, I apprenticed with a Chinese doctor in New York City and took college classes in pharmacognosy (related to plant-based medicine), anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, cellular biology.
I’d started leading herb walks when I was sixteen and by the age of twenty, I was teaching classes in herbal medicine, and began practicing as a clinical herbalist. When I’d say I was an herbalist, people had no idea what I was talking about. Now, forty years later, interest in herbs and herbal medicine has exploded, and I’m still a practicing herbalist. I’ve taught throughout the world about herbal medicine, written multiple books on the topic, and have a company that manufactures what I believe to be some of the finest quality herbal products in the U.S.
How do you define adaptogens?
The term adaptogen is neither an ancient term nor one that comes from herbal medicine. The concept was first described by the research scientist Dr. I. I. Brekhman in 1961, using a science-based understanding of what exactly is (and is not) an adaptogen:
1. Adaptogens are nontoxic in normal therapeutic doses.
2. They produce a non-specific state of resistance in the body to physical, emotional, or environmental stress. So they reduce the effects of stress, whether the source is psychological, physiological, noise, temperature, etc.
3. They have a normalizing (amphoteric) effect on the body, helping to restore normal physiologic function that has been altered by stress. This means if the immune system is depressed, adaptogens enhance the immune response. If the immune system is overactive—for instance with allergies—adaptogens help re-regulate the immune response, decreasing overactivity.
How do they work?
Research has found that adaptogens work through two master control systems in the body, the HPA axis (hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis), which controls endocrine function, as well as the nervous system and some immune function. The other system is the SAS, or sympatho-adrenal system, which is our fight or flight response. More recently, Dr. Panossian (the world’s foremost authority on adaptogens) found that they also work on a cellular level to prevent cortisol (the major stress hormone)-induced mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria are the “engines of our cells,” and when they no longer function appropriately, this can contribute to conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. By up-regulating particular proteins and peptides within the body, adaptogens help keep the mitochondria properly functioning even when under chronic stress conditions.
Although all adaptogens meet the above three conditions and work via the same systems in the body, they still have unique properties: Some are stimulating, some calming, some warming, some cooling, some moistening, and some drying. Because different species of plants have different chemical makeups, some may also have additional specific uses. For example, ashwagandha—the only adaptogen rich in iron—is useful for treating anemia.
What’s the difference between adaptogens and tonic herbs?
The word tonic is relatively meaningless. What is meant by a tonic herb in Chinese medicine is very different than in Western herbal traditions. Calling something a tonic often means something is “good” for a person or a specific tissue or organ. I would say all adaptogens would be tonics of one sort or another, but most “tonics” are not adaptogens, because they do not fit the very specific definition above.
How many adaptogens exist—is the number finite and fixed, how are they classified?
It is hard to say—there is much less research currently than there should be. There are about eight herbs that are well-researched adaptogens, another ten that are probable adaptogens, and twelve others that are possible adaptogens (too little research to be conclusive). More research would certainly find that many other plants around the world fit the definition of an adaptogen, but have just not been discovered yet. At the same time, there are dozens of herbs that people claim are adaptogens that are not.
Do you think adaptogens are safe for self-diagnosis, or do you need a professional? What about mixing them?
It depends on several factors. As mentioned, adaptogens are nontoxic in normal therapeutic doses. But one size does not fit all. Some adaptogens are stimulating (red ginseng, white Asian ginseng, rhodiola), some are calming (schisandra, ashwagandha, reishi, cordyceps). Some are moistening (American ginseng, codonopsis, shatavari); some are drying (rhodiola, schisandra). If you have dry skin or a dry cough, for instance, the drying adaptogens would be inappropriate for you. Similarly, if you are easily overstimulated, the stimulating adaptogens may cause insomnia or anxiety. Some adaptogens are best for younger, healthy people (eleuthero, rhodiola, holy basil), while others are more appropriate for older, more depleted people (American and Asian ginsengs, cordyceps, shilajit).
The idea is to learn about adaptogens and figure out which one—or which combination—fits you. I wrote my book to help people understand how to use these herbs and the unique “personality” of each.
Note: Adaptogens are not replacements for a healthy lifestyle. Adequate and good quality sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, stress reduction techniques, and healthy lifestyle choices are foundational. Taking adaptogens can help you function better if you have short-term situations when you are not getting enough sleep, or your diet is not what is should be. Using them long-term and continuing to live an unhealthy life just delays the inevitable crash.
How can you be sure you’re getting good quality herbs?
I would suggest sticking with high quality herb companies, where the principals are actually herbalists—who follow the FDA’s GMPs (good manufacturing practices)—herbs are their business (rather than nutritional supplements), and they have organically grown or consciously wildcrafted herbs.
David Winston is an herbalist and ethnobotanist with forty-seven years of training in Chinese, Native American, and Western herbal traditions. He has been in clinical practice for forty years and is an herbal consultant to physicians, herbalists, and researchers throughout the U.S. and Canada. He is the president of Herbalist & Alchemist, Inc., a manufacturer of herbal products, and the author and co-author of several books, including Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.