Western herbs are classified by their medicinal and physiological influences on our bodies and other complex factors. Some herbs are sedative, others astringent. A number of herbs serve as expectorants while others are diuretic. Some are antispasmodic and others analgesic. When learning about herbs, it's important to understand the lexicon.
One of the more interesting herbal categories is "adaptogen." Considered "tonics" that normalize and strengthen body functions, adaptogens have powerful effects on the endocrine, immune and other organ systems. Used in proper dosages, even over many years, adaptogens are considered nontoxic.
One celebrated adaptogen that even casual herb shoppers will recognize is ginseng root. Chinese (Panax) ginseng is arguably the best-known and most-researched adaptogenic plant in the world. It's been used for ages and can help people overcome stress and fatigue and improve mental and physical performance.
Last year, North Korea tried to pay a debt to the Czech Republic in the form of ginseng. In fact, it wouldn't be the first herb to serve as currency. History is peppered with such stories, but last I read, the Czechs were ready to settle the debt in exchange for zinc — go figure.
Ganoderma is an adaptogenic mushroom you can find in many health-food stores these days. Ganoderma, which also goes by the names "reishi" and "ling zhi," is widely cultivated on logs or beds of wood chips, though it grows in the wild on maple and hemlock and is often as beautiful as the trees on which it grows, with an amber sheen and artfully curved shape.
Reishi is one of the more revered Chinese medicines, a cardio-tonic mentioned in 2,000-year-old texts. It boasts powerful constituents that protect the liver from chemicals and various drugs.
The adaptogen story is still being written, and drawing a clear line among herbs toward what is and isn't an adaptogen is an ongoing challenge.
Though all the herbalists I know are particularly fond of adaptogens, their potential value makes them vulnerable. American ginseng was overharvested before the nation was born, and many of the rarest, wild botanicals worldwide are threatened by development, climate change, drought, overharvesting and other factors. It's important to buy herbs from ethical vendors, some of whom focus on cultivating herbs, fungi or other botanicals in conditions that mimic the herbs' natural habitats.
Finding a competent herbalist who can give advice is another challenge.
The American Herbalists Guild maintains a database of peer-reviewed clinical herbalists throughout the country and has a website (americanherbalistsguild.com) with a "find-an-herbalist" feature.
Many natural-food stores and herb shops have staff that can point people in the right direction to avoid quality and sustainability pitfalls and to harness some of the benefits of adaptogens and herbal medicines. Most herbs — including the majority of adaptogens — can be paired with other medicines and individualized to best effect.
Phytotherapy, in all its forms, can be a safe and effective adjunct to healthy diet, lifestyle and relationships, the foundations of health.
Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.