To our credit, humans are the most adaptable beings on earth. Yet our ability to adjust to constant physical and emotional
changes—and the stresses that accompany them—can demand what feels like superhuman amounts of energy. And that extra oomph
isn't always there when we need it. Fortunately, a class of herbs known in herbal medicine as adaptogens can provide an added
boost of vitality and increase the body’s ability to adapt to common stresses.
Adaptogens are plants with properties that are believed to assist in the restoration of homeostasis, creating harmony between
the body's internal stress management systems and the external forces that trigger them. They are credited with defusing the
effects of emotional tension, aiding the body's recovery from physical stresses such as manual labor or sleep depravation,
and speeding recovery from surgery. Adaptogens have also been found to boost athletic stamina by increasing the body's
tolerance for the demands of rigorous physical performance.
Ginseng, ashwagandha, tulsi, astragalus, and schizandra are among the better-known adaptogens; they're thought to help
relieve fatigue, muscle tension (particularly in the shoulders), TMJ (teeth grinding with jaw tension), a lack of or
excessive appetite, headache, heart palpitations, sweaty palms, frequent social and relationship conflicts, back pain,
insomnia or sleeping too much, and reduced sexual interest.
But the lesser known Tibetan Rhodiola is equally effective and gaining in popularity. Formally known as Rhodiola sacra, it is
a medicinal herb that grows naturally on the high slopes of the Himalayas about 10,000 to 16,500 feet above sea level—one of
the most pristine environments on the planet. Tibetan Rhodiola is rich in glycosides, various vitamins, trace minerals, and
microelements and is now believed to be one of the most powerful adaptogens. It is thought to enhance blood circulation
throughout the body, help maintain healthy cardiovascular functioning, enhance sexual function in men and women, increase
energy levels, support the immune system, delay senility, improve memory, and accelerate the healing process. Like ginseng
and other adaptogens, it is said to cure nothing yet prevent everything. (And don’t forget, an ounce of prevention is worth a
pound of cure.)
Rhodiola has been revered in Tibet for more than a thousand years as a "holy herb." In Tibetan culture, is has come to be
regarded as sacred—a life-prolonging, wisdom-enhancing herb. Rhodiola was traditionally used by Tibetan Buddhist monks to
increase the inner spiritual power that safeguards yogis from being distracted from their true path.
These days, in addition to all the benefits mentioned above, people also use it as a gentle and safe antidepressant; some
believe it to be even more effective than St. John's Wort. (While no adaptogens should be used as the primary treatment for
serious health problems, they can be an effective part of a treatment plan.)
Recently, Tibetan Rhodiola has been studied extensively in Asia. Nearly a hundred universities, hospitals, and research
institutes have analyzed its pharmacological properties and performed clinical studies of it. One study found that regular
consumption of a small amount of Rhodiola extract significantly improves the body's capacity to absorb and utilize oxygen.
In the United States, where stress rules, Rhodiola—often marketed as "plateau ginseng"—is gaining ground in consumer markets
as a powerful aid in stress reduction.
James Bailey, a YJ contributing editor, practices Ayurveda, Oriental medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and
Tantra Yoga in Santa Monica, California.