A specific category of herbs, those considered adaptogens, can simultaneously improve focus and productivity while relieving anxiety. They work by helping the body cope with, and resist the effects of stress, properties that originated because the plants themselves have a unique ability to ‘adapt’ to stressors and other challenges in their environment.
As herbal medicines, adaptogens are defined by 3 main characteristics: they (1) are universally nontoxic, (2) create a normalizing effect no matter which direction an imbalance occurs, and (3) increase resistance to the impact of stress.
In effect that means, adaptogenic herbs generally
– reduce the body’s stress response by regulating the production and clearance of cortisol,
– promote relaxation,
– speed recovery (from workouts, fatigue, or stress),
– protect the nueroendocrine cascade (including the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenals),
– improve the amount and quality of mental work, and
– increase longevity and libido.
Though there are about 20-25 herbs widely recognized as adaptogenic in nature, they vary in their targeted uses. Some are more stimulating, others more calming, some more effective on the the immune system and others on the reproductive system.
Below you’ll learn about five adaptogens whose actions are specifically associated with increasing focus and simultaneously reducing anxiety. These five enhance mental clarity and brain function, thus contributing to more time on-task, sharper thinking, and greater overall productivity.
Schisandra (wu wei zi in Chinese medicine) is actually one of the most accessible and useful adaptogenic herbs. It is extremely safe, has many different uses, and makes a surprisingly flavorful tea.
Among adaptogens, it is unique in that it is simultaneously both calming and stimulating. It helps to relieve mild anxiety and provide a feeling of alertness without caffeine-like jitters. Research suggests it improves reflexes, work performance, mental activity, and reading comprehension and speed.
In addition, schisandra has a normalizing effect on blood pressure and is both protective and healing for the liver.
Look for it as whole dried berry for herbal tea or decoction, powdered berry (to add to smoothies), or as a capsule or other herbal supplement.
Rhodiola is most renown for it’s effects on memory and concentration. It’s other effects include enhancing alertness, improving endurance, and reducing fatigue. In addition, rhodiola reduces cortisol levels while boosting mood hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. (Low serotonin levels are often linked to anxiety.)
Regular, long-term use improves learning, memorization, and the production of endorphins that relieve stress and pain.
It is said to improve both male and female reproductive function that has been hampered by stress.
To conceal it’s rather unappealing flavor, it’s most commonly found as an extract in an alcohol tincture or capsule.
Eleurthero was originally termed Siberian Ginseng because of it many similar effects to that of Asian Ginseng, though no actual botanical link was found. They’re similar in that the two herbs support both physical and mental energy.
More specifically, eleuthero is known to boost stamina, endurance, and performance, and reduce recovery time. For that, it is also popular among athletes.
Eleuthero is also used to improve mental clarity and enhance short-term memory. For those overworked, stress-out types, it can increase alertness and cognitive function, while also improving quality of sleep.
Generally eleuthero root is found in tincture and capsule form, or possibly made into a tea or decoction.
Gynostemma, or jiao gu lan as it’s know in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is considered a calming adaptogen, helping to alleviate anxiety, stress headaches, and the insomnia caused by a racing mind. Traditionally gynostemma was used to relieve fatigue, while increasing endurance as well as longevity.
Jiaogulan tea is drunk all across Asia in the morning to increase energy, during the workday to enhance concentration, and in the evening to ease tension and promote relaxation.
Furthermore, it enhances both the immune system and antioxidant activity, including production of superoxide dismutase (SOD).
Gynostemma leaf and stem make a very palatable, even sweet tea or can be added to soups and stews; it’s also found as a tincture and capsule.
Ashwagandha is likely a familiar name to anyone who’s studied Ayurvedic herbs. It is one of the more calming adaptogens, appropriate for the wired and frazzled crowd. Still, it helps relieve fatigue and increase strength, stamina, memory, and reaction time. It’s used to stimulate the mind thus relieving brain fog.
Ashwagandha is also effective at alleviating anxiety and stress-induced insomnia; it’s also popular as a libido booster.
It should be noted that ashwagandha has a direct on effect on the thyroid, so cycling on-off is recommended. Anyone with a hyperthyroid condition, sensitive to nightshades, or suffering from excess iron should avoid it.
Ashwagandha is most widely available as a tincture, decoction, or capsule.
As with most adaptogens, the effects are cumulative, so it may take 1-2 weeks before effects are noticeable.
If you’re unsure which to choose, consider this: rhodiola and eleuthero are slightly more stimulating, while gynostemma and ashwagandha are more calming; uniquely, schisandra is both. But, as always, before diving into an herbal regimen, it’s best to consult a health practitioner.
And, of course, when looking to enhance cognitive function, focus, and productivity, the basics of a healthy life are still paramount: eating a nutrient-dense diet, getting sufficient sleep, and engaging in regular physical activity.
Sources: Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes, and “Nootropics: The new adaptogens” by Renee Davis on the Goldenroot Botanical Medicine blog.
Toffler Niemuth is an author, entrepreneur, and educator passionate about empowering individuals to take care of their own health and vitality. She does so with her wellness tea blends, BeLight and BeBalanced, which help individuals forge a new path toward better health. She fell in love with tea during her six years living in Asia, where she also obtained certificates in Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. She shares her passion for tea, herbs, and a healthy lifestyle through writing and speaking.