In most Asian households, meals are often prepared with herbal ingredients that have long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Mine was no different – while as a kid I used to hate the weird dates, the black chicken essence and all those bitter roots in soups she prepares, I eventually learned to love them since I started cooking. This soup was one example, but there are many more herbs in the Materia Medica that I now ingest regularly. The following are just the 2 I try to take everyday.
Before we dive in, let’s look at what they are exactly, and why I became a big proponent of these herbs.
They’re called adaptogens. TCM and Ayurvedic practitioners have used them for healing for thousands of years. In the world of naturopathy, adaptogenic herbs are like the elite class of herbs. To qualify for this dream team, a herb must support all major systems of your body and give you a leg up in any area that throws you and your health off balance. For the most part though, adaptogens are known for fighting stress on a physiological level.
Adaptogens literally “adapt” to help enhance and/or restore the body’s physiological functions, depending on its specific needs. Saponins, the compound found in most adaptogenic herbs (and responsible for their ultra bitter taste), help normalize the body’s imbalances, so on some days they can calm you down while on other days, they boost your energy. Sounds like magic? Not quite. Specifically, adaptogens restore your adrenal glands – the part of your body that’s responsible for producing stress and other hormones.
Unlike conventional stimulants, adaptogens are non-toxic and safe for long-term use. They don’t give you the jolts from caffeine, or the energy crashes you get from sugar. Although the changes are subtle, over time you’ll be surprised by how much resilience you’ve stored in the face of stress, thanks to tonifying effects of adaptogens.
Why it works
Depending on your definition of vitality, adaptogens essentially work to harmonize your qi (气). It’s a very woo-woo concept for most Western thinkers to grasp, but as a skeptic myself, I’ve seen how using integrative medicine (a combo of alternative medicine and evidence-based approach to healing) is much more beneficial for your overall wellbeing than isolated treatments. You don’t wait for an illness to come to you and study the illness under a microscope so that pharmaceutical companies can design drugs to target that illness (along with some side effects). Instead, integrative medicine is a proactive and more wholesome approach as it conditions your mind, body, and spirit for optimal health. To that, I highly recommend adaptogens as a complement to your healthy lifestyle. Let it tweak the little imbalances back to their optimum state one day at a time, and you’ll be surprised to see how much energy you have.
P.S. See this great intro to TCM.
To put it simply …
Say everyday life obstacles are little rocks being thrown at you. Most of us can stay put to resist for a while, but the rest of us would turn all kamehameha and throw back fire to them. Those rocks are never going to stop for the rest of your life, and you’re not getting any hotter (no pun intended) as we’ll lose the energy we once had eventually. Wasting energy on building massive flames will exhaust you, so if there’s one thing we can rely on to access more energy is by building some level of grit within ourselves. A river cuts through a rock not with an ability to crash and burn, but its gentle persistence to keep flowing, right?
Adaptogens help you do just that. It’s why most people who are already healthy take them for increasing longevity.
There are many different types of ginsengs in the world, but the gold standard is the red Asian ginseng (those from China, Korea, and Japan). My cute 7-year-old cousin once saw ginseng candies in my mom’s fridge and gulped it down. Within 2 seconds, he spitted it out as if it’s poison.
It’s really that bitter, but so good for those of you who need lots of yang (阳). The yang qi refers to the positive stuff (light, warmth, dry, aggressive), masculine energy, and the sun. It’s mostly taken by elderlies because it’s super warming and invigorating, whereas the younger generations tend to prefer the American ginseng because it’s a yin (阴) product (shady stuff like the dark and moist, the cool moon, and passive feminine energy). This makes it much less stimulating than the Asian variety and helps tranquilize your stressed and anxious mind. In fact, American physician Finley Ellingwood recommended it as a nerve tonic.
Generally, high-energy and hot-tempered people aren’t advised to take Asian ginseng because it’ll just throw flames to the fire. That’s what I experienced too, that I felt the heat rising quickly and was even more temperamental after drinking the horrible taste. Other than that, I see no reason why I should eat something I despise, all because there wasn’t much conclusive evidence to back up the claims back then.
In the last couple of years, I’ve also gotten mixed reviews about ginseng: My brother said it caused him pimples, my mom obviously said it’s an elixir, scientists have gathered convincing evidence over the years that it enhances cognitive functions and improves athletic performance, while a friend who works in the TCM industry said it’s not one of those herbs that’s good to start ingesting early, because the positive effects would wear off by the time you’re old.
The whole confusion slowly erodes once I discovered American ginseng. I started taking it as a daily cup of tea because it’s the one form of ginseng I can tolerate (my mom used to want me to swallow a spoonful of powdered ginseng … it’s horrible). Why was I suddenly so diligent about it? Late last year I started falling off a lot of hair due to stress and lack of sleep. I was so afraid of becoming bald that I tried everything from upping my protein to no ‘poo-ing. Nothing worked as significantly as ginseng did, and the habit carries on till this day.
My friend was probably referring to the Asian ginseng, but the American ginseng works just the same (they’re both made up by the same active compounds after all, namely the saponin ginsenosides), only with milder effects. It’s shown to deliver a broad spectrum of health benefits, including reducing blood sugar levels in diabetics, treating anemia, colds, fever, asthma and many other illnesses, strengthening your immune system, even easing certain types of cancers. Sounds too good to be true, but it might be why the tonic has lingered in the Chinese tradition for so long. In my case, I’m now falling off about 10-20 strands per day than the previous bunches I took out every time I shower.
In China, people refer jiaogulan as the immortality herb. Specifically in the Guizhou province, it’s not rare to see locals drinking this as tea daily in order to live a long life. It increases antioxidant activity, contains nearly 4 times as many saponins as ginseng, and has powerful regulatory effects on your system including your cholesterol levels, your blood pressure, immunity, fat metabolism, as well as enhancing physical strength and endurance.
I was first introduced to jiaogulan late last year from my mom. Sometimes she also suffers from overthinkingitis so she couldn’t sleep. She’s been keeping a stash of this tea by her bedside for the last 5 years or so, and when I told her about my sleeping difficulties, she suggested me to drink her jiaogulan tea.
At first taste, it hit me sharp and was soooo bitter. It’s like the most bitter variety of unfiltered olive oil, only with a light body. Now that I’m drinking this almost nightly, I’ve gotten so used to the taste that regular water tastes somewhat sweet (I’m serious). Up to this day, I still have to breathe deeply before downing anything with ginseng, but jiaogulan has become a pleasure. The best part of all is that it’s 100% caffeine-free, so you don’t have to time your meals like you do with ginseng. Ginseng can cause insomnia if you ingest it late during the day, so naturally, jiaogulan has become my go-to adaptogen.
For the first month or so, I still found it hard to sleep until very late, but there weren’t any more sleepless nights. Over time it became easier for me to “just let go” and stop thinking. I just felt calmer, and my mood swings gradually became more moderate (no more extreme highs and lows – just ask my boyfriend). I started off drinking 1-2 cups before bedtime, but now I also drink it in the late afternoons.
I don’t know if it’s just the jiaogulan or with the ginseng and other adaptogens I now take on a regular basis, but one thing I noticed since TCM’s become an integral regimen is that I can’t tolerate black teas anymore. Some days caffeine is just too much for me, and while I used to drink plenty of green tea, I now enjoy white tea the best (white tea is a tea variety with the lowest caffeine and highest antioxidants).
If you’ve been around here for a while, you know that back in June 2011 I was seeing a gynecologist in Singapore to see what’s up with the period I haven’t had for the past 17 months. Another doctor prescribed medroxyprogesterone the same year in January and I bleed right away, but the next 5 months it’s missing again. So what did the doctor in Singapore say? “DON’T STRESS!!” with a sage smile. My blood results were normal and everything else is normal, it’s all internalized stress exacerbated by all this junk I feel inside.
Next time, I’ll be sharing 2 more adaptogens I take regularly that boosts my mood and energy. Call it all feelings, but it’s a lesson I learned that emotional health takes precedence over the physical things, and there are stuff other than drugs to help you with that. The American Psychological Association and Macquarie University’s Center for Emotional Health is a great place to start educating yourself about it, but if you’re like me and you want a daily dose of coping strategies for life, bookmark HuffPost’s Emotional Wellness section right now.