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Plant-Based Interventions to Relieve Stress and Adrenal Dysfunction

By Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

Stress may seem like a largely modern phenomenon, but in one way or another, it has been part of the human condition for as long as weTieraona Low Dog Garden have been human.

So healers throughout the centuries, and across cultures, have paid close attention to plants that helped restore calm and resilience.

(Or, as we might say today, plants that modulated and restored appropriate function to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.)

Those traditional healers were often sophisticated observers, and in the last few decades, their conclusions have been confirmed by laboratories worldwide. The result? A range of plants physicians can recommend that offer relief for a variety of types of stress.

Here are some of my favorite plant-based interventions for stress and its eventual result, adrenal fatigue:

  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): The root of this perennial shrub from India has been shown(1) to help the body maintain a normal cortisol response under physiologic or emotional stress.* It is a classic example of an “adaptogen” – a substance that provides “non-specific” resistance to stress.* It works wonders for people who are exhausted at day’s end but can’t sleep; that is, those who are “wired and tired.”* Among the adaptogens, it is one of the most calming.*
  • Rhodiola root (Rhodiola rosea): Native to Canada and Northern Eurasia, this adaptogen is on the opposite end of the spectrum from ashwagandha. It is stimulating and energizing, and there’s no need to restrict its use to your patients – it has been shown(2) effective for tired, stressed physicians on night duty.*
  • Tulsi herb (Ocimum sanctum): Also known as holy basil, this gentle herb is prized in India as a way to increase awareness and focus, and is effective against a broad range of physical and mental stressors.(3)* I’ve found it especially useful for people who feel their stress in their digestive tracts.*
  • Schisandra fruit (Schisandra chinensis): A staple of traditional Chinese medicine, the bright red berry native to Eurasia is a classic adaptogen, capable of promoting stamina and overall strength.* A Swedish review paper summarizing Russian research(4) concluded it “increases physical working capacity and affords a stress-protective effect against a broad spectrum of harmful factors….”*

So which of these should you recommend?

In my experience, what is most remarkable about plant-based interventions is that the body often ends up using that which it most needs. Choose those that most suit the needs of your patient, remembering that combining several adaptogens might yield the best overall benefit.




  1. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022
  2. Darbinyan, V., Kteyan, A., Panossian, A., Gabrielian, E., Wikman, G., & Wagner, H. (2000). Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue — A double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty. Phytomedicine, 7(5), 365-371. doi:10.1016/s0944-7113(00)80055-0
  3. Cohen, M. (2014). Tulsi – Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 5(4), 251. doi:10.4103/0975-9476.146554
  4. Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2008). Pharmacology of Schisandra chinensis Bail.: An overview of Russian research and uses in medicine. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 118(2), 183-212. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2008.04.020

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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