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Everyone Wants to Have More Energy, Part 2: Magic Pills and Adaptogens

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

Have you ever learned about a treatment or technique and thought "maybe this is the thing that heals me, the missing puzzle piece." I know I have. When I sit down to write about adaptogens, I inevitably wrestle with this magic pill mentality that's so pervasive in our culture.

A lot of people walk into my office expecting to be able to take a "magic herb" that will resolve their complaints without them having to change a single other thing about their lives. Modern medicine views pharmaceuticals this way, and uses them as the primary intervention for just about any problem, so we've come to expect a magic pill when we're seeking healing.

We see a lot of "before and after" stories on the internet, especially when someone is trying to sell us something. The storyteller was so miserable/destitute/sick that they were practically dead, and then they took a course, or put wheatgrass in their smoothie, or started doing breath work, and viola! Now look at them! They're gorgeous, rich, happy, and they have their shit together. It's as if they've become a finished product. The results are in, and they came out on top. You can too, if you make (and probably pay for) this or that life change.

I'm not faulting anyone for saying "I had this problem, and this is what helped it get better." But this clear before and after illusion is unhelpful and unrealistic. Healing isn't a straight line from point A to point B, and it's most successful and sustainable when it's approached from more than one angle. I don't believe that perfect health exists, we're all constantly growing and changing, and that's ok.

Herbs for Energy
I love this illustration of the healing process by Thomas Easley at the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine

I see people approaching adaptogens as if they're magic pills, and for good reason. Adaptogens help us deal with stress and feel more energetic, but if what you're looking for is a way to continue the behaviors that are burning you out, go make friends with a cup of coffee or a Red Bull.

herbs for energy

Coffee is the most traded commodity in the world, it's cheap, instant gratification, energy in a cup. It's capitalism's dream drug, but it doesn't work in the long term. It keeps us from sleeping well, causes a caffeine crash later, and when it's abused, it ultimately goes in the stress bucket. (If you haven't read part one of this series, read about this important concept here).

Instead of chasing a coffee-like magic pill by abusing adaptogens, let us recognize that real healing takes time and effort. Sometimes having more energy is as simple as popping an herb or correcting a nutrient deficiency, sometimes we're best served by approaching it from all angles: physical, mental, spiritual, social, environmental.

herbs for energy
Holy Basil, courtesy of Wikimedia

Herbs for Energy, Part 2


There are more adaptogens out there than I'm going to talk about in this post. Every body is different, and when I'm working with clients I spend a long time interviewing them and picking plants that are well-suited to that person's constitution. I chose the following plants because they're likely to be appropriate for most moms of young children, and not likely to encourage overuse. Always do your thorough research before taking any herb, and consult your healthcare professional if you're taking medication or have a diagnosis.

Holy Basil, a.k.a. Tulsi Ocimum sanctum or tenuiflorum

I love Holy Basil for Mamas! It calms the nervous system, while simultaneously waking up the senses, encouraging clarity of thought, and increasing brain function. It's perfect for that mom who feels overstimulated by her environment, and/or is suffering from mental fog. It also stimulates immune and digestive function, and can soothe digestive discomfort. Renowned clinical herbalist Rosalee de la Foret notes “[Holy Basil] can also promote energy and endurance. One way it does this is by increasing the body’s ability to efficiently use oxygen.” David Winston uses Holy Basil for cases of "stagnant depression." Not to mention that it smells and tastes absolutely divine, making a delicious tea all by itself.

Reishi Ganoderma lucidum

I find Reishi mushroom to be one of the most instantly grounding herbs I've ever known. It immediately brings my energy and focus down into my body, and perhaps all the way down my root and into the center of the earth itself (all while I'm still able to carry on a conversation and operate heavy machinery of course). I started taking Reishi during one of the most hectic periods of my life, when I was working three jobs and regularly commuting 45 minutes to town. Those commutes started with me always being in a hurry and experiencing frequent bouts of road rage. After a while with Reishi, I noticed myself feeling like the drive was more of a pleasant stroll. I was somehow able to bend space and time to show up promptly for work, while feeling like I took my sweet time getting there, and waving amiably to anyone who cut me off along the way.

I talk a little bit more about Reishi in part one of this series.

Ashwagandha Withania somnifera

Ashwagandha is clearly one of my faves, I've talked about it in damn near every post on this blog. It doesn't generally produce an instant energy spike, but over time it really increases one's stamina and vigor, and it's safely taken in the long term. It also has noticeable nervine effects, making it helpful in cases of chronic anxiety, fatigue, and nervous exhaustion. It has an affinity for the musculoskeletal system, so it's a good choice for people who suffer from chronic joint pain, especially of the knees and back. It can be a helpful stimulator for people experiencing a hypothyroid condition, so be cautious if you know your thyroid is in a hyper or over-active state. Thyroid disregulation is common post-pregnancy, and often causes fatigue and mental health related symptoms. I would avoid using this herb during pregnancy, but it's commonly used by breastfeeding mothers in India.

Shatavari Asparagus racemosus

Shatavari is moistening, which means it's lovely for breastfeeding moms who might feel generally dried out from making all that milk. It's a reproductive and immune system tonic, and traditionally considered an aphrodisiac. It can be used for minor hormonal imbalance or in menopause. Use caution and consult an herbalist if you have a condition associated with estrogen excess, such as menorrhagia or endometriosis. According to Chinese Medicine practitioner Lesley Tierra "The Chinese believe that this herb engenders love and compassion."

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The information in this article does not constitute medical advice. It's not intended to diagnose or prescribe. Always thoroughly research an herb before taking it, and any decisions you make regarding your own health are always your own.

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