Adaptogens are one of my go-tos for treating burnout, but it’s important to know which help - and which are too stimulating when you’re feeling fried.

Overwhelm is now technically considered a modern epidemic – but I probably don’t have to tell you. Most of us feel the burden of burnout regularly. We all know what it feels like to be running on empty and not giving ourselves any time to refuel and replenish. I see you shaking your head – “Yup.” 

Women are bearing the major brunt of burnout. We experience far more stress than men due to a complex constellation of factors including the greater demands of managing multiple roles – and the influence of hormonal changes on our life cycles. Whether you’re a new momma, a woman juggling teens, a job, and older parents who also need your care, or a woman building a new career – you know what it’s like to feel like you’re on 24/7. And it can add up fast. 

For some, overwhelm has become a near-constant state, and the end result can be burnout – which can take its toll on your health. Studies show that women are not only more likely to experience burnout – but we’re more likely to experience the impact of this stress on our mental well-being and physical health.  

The Impact of Burnout on Our Health

Burnout has many faces. Some are familiar – feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, agitated, losing sleep, eating a bit more sugar than we’d usually choose to. We may find ourselves noticing that there’s more tension in our relationships than we care to admit when we suddenly lose it with a spouse, kid, or even the woman at the grocery store check-out.

But symptoms of burnout can also be subtler and trickier because it causes symptoms we might not associate with being “fried.” For example, burnout causes anxiety, depression, and even procrastination and low motivation. It makes us less able to focus and concentrate, puts our memory on the fritz, and can cause us to feel brittle to the point of snapping like a dry branch.

Burnout can manifest in physical symptoms including, but not limited to:

  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Hives and rashes
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Aches and pains
  • Insomnia
  • Weight gain – especially around your middle
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Chronic signs of inflammation, like joint aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Low libido
  • Decreased willpower and decision-making ability
  • Getting sick more often than you should with colds, UTIs, yeast infections, and cold sore outbreaks.

Sound familiar? Burnout can drive you right into Survival Overdrive Syndrome (SOS)   

It can even get more serious if it drags on – left unchecked, it can lead you down the path to a diagnosis of more severe anxiety or depression, an autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s, Crohn’s disease, or rheumatoid arthritis – or high blood pressure, blood sugar problems, or severe emotional challenges because metabolism, immunity, and mood are all connected to our Stress Response System.  

What’s Really Happening When You’re Burned Out

Burnout happens when you’ve pushed your stress response system past its limit of resilience. You’ve been ‘stretched’ for so long that you’ve actually started to put strain on your body’s stress system –  the circuit between your brain and your adrenals- and the downstream effects show up in your body, mind, and mood. Your brain starts saying, “I can’t let you keep pushing yourself like this anymore, so I’m going to basically send you into exhaustion and breakdown so you have no choice but to hit the brakes and pull over to the side of the road.” This is a phenomenon I call SOS, which you can read about here.

The problem is that even though as women we’re incredibly resilient, overwhelm can eventually turn into burnout and burnout into breakdown – that’s where little physical symptoms you may have been ignoring can start to turn into bigger problems.

 

Adaptogens to the Rescue: The Herbal Pause Button for Restoring Your Nervous System and Reversing the Damage

Adaptogens are a group of herbs that were first categorized with that name around the 1940s, though they’ve been used in traditional herbalism for thousands of years for their ability to improve stamina, fertility, and immunity, and as general tonics to promote longevity and well-being.

These herbs are well suited to help us rebound from burnout because they help us adapt to and heal from stress (that’s why they’re called adaptogens). They help to regulate the hypothalamus and adrenal glands (your HPA axis), which are in charge of your stress response and cortisol production.

How to Pick the Right Adaptogens for You: Soothe, Calm, Nourish and Repair

I sometimes hear women say “adaptogens don’t work for me.” Usually I learn that they were told to take adaptogens for stress, exhaustion, or insomnia, so they bought the first adaptogen product that looked good. Then, several later, they were sleeping worse. They were more agitated. They were more anxious, more irritable, or feeling manic, and they had no idea why. So they assumed, “adaptogens just don’t work for me.”

All adaptogens can help to heal the stress response system and boost your reserves and reslience, but adaptogens exist on a spectrum – from the calming, soothing, gentle, nourishing ones, to those that are stimulating and arousing.

When your energy tank is already “below the empty line,” and you’re running on fumes (f you have Hashimoto’s that’s a sure sign that your energy is below the empty line!), adding high-octane fuel – in this case in the form of the more stimulating adaptogens like ginseng and rhodiola – can add fuel to a fire. When we’re in burnout, it’s more effective to soothe and repair the nervous system, and heal any damage that’s been done. Adaptogens have been shown to do this by regulating the HPA axis and cortisol – the hormone responsible for most of the damage that happens when the stress response system is overactivated for too long.

Therefore, when it comes to adaptogens for burnout and related symptoms, I typically start with the most gent;e – ashwagandha and reishi mushroom, combined with herbs like lemon balm and motherwort, not adaptogens, but classically used to calm the nervous system. I may do this for for two to 12 weeks, while also adding in a daily meditation or yoga practice and a nourishing diet with special attention to blood sugar balance. Only after this do I usually add the next spectrum of adaptogens, those that are most energizing. I  reserve the more stimulating adaptogens (for example, ginseng) for women who aren’t actually burned-out at all, but need extra support for high-demand times in their lives – extra immune boosting for travel, during athletic training, while working night shifts, or when under a great deal of cognitive demand – like medical residents!

While adaptogens are not generally recommended for use in pregnancy due to lack of safety data, they are a great ally for tired new moms – but again, only the most gentle in the calming and nourishing categories in this article to prevent overstimulating baby if you’re breastfeeding.

By definition, adaptogens are non-toxic, even with long-term use. These herbs are safe and gentle. As their name suggests, adaptogens help your body adapt, or cope, with life’s stressors. You know that saying “you can’t fill from an empty cup”? Adaptogens help keep your cup full.

But an important  caution: Adaptogens are not meant to be used to keep you pushing harder and for longer. They’re not a substitute for sleep, meditation, time in nature, time with friends, or good food. While adaptogens may give you the extra support you need for those occasional times when you just can’t hit the pause button, the real goal is to address the underlying issues that are keeping you in chronic overwhelm.

 

Choosing the Right Adaptogen(s) for You

Let’s take a look at some of the soothing and nourishing adaptogens – these are the ones at the end of the adaptogen spectrum that will help you feel like you’re getting restored, repaired, and replenished.

When taking adaptogens for burnout, start with the lowest dose, and choose the most gentle among them. Follow the tips for integrating adaptogens that I laid out in this blog, and if you still feel too stimulated, wait to take the adaptogens again until you’ve tried other self-care techniques. When your reserve tank has been empty for a long time, you may have to get a little bit more nourished before you can even start to add in something that supports the engine further. Make sure to balance your blood sugar and get enough sleep. Getting some root vegetables or whole grains at dinner can help you sleep better because it helps reset your evening cortisol levels. Sometimes I “prescribe” a weekly massage, a short morning and evening meditation practice, and an Epsom salts and lavender bath at night.

If this sounds like you, bookmark this article on adaptogens and come back to it when you feel ready. Instead, you might want to try my Fear to Freedom, Perfectionism to Peace course, designed to help you step out of Perfectionism & Survival Mode and into your most healthy, energized, and satisfied life. And give yourself Permission to Pause — & 10 Easy Ways to Do It.

If you feel ready to try adaptogens, also incorporate all of the above practices, and keep reading to find out which of these herbs are right for you. I’ve described some of my favorites below. I recommend starting with one at a time, or using products that combine only the gentlest of the adaptogens to start. Note that adaptogens are helpful for exhausted new moms and are considered safe while breastfeeding, but they are not recommended for use in pregnancy.

 

Calming/Soothing Adaptogens

Ashwagandha: The mind, mood, and muscle soother

It’s suited for when you might say:

  • I’m tired and wired.
  • I struggle to fall asleep.
  • I have chronically achy and painful joints or arthritis.
  • I deal with memory and brain fog.
  • I’m nervous or anxious.
  • I have chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, or chronic muscle tension.

Ashwagandha has over 4,000 years of traditional use in India and is used to heal deep exhaustion, improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and boost memory. It is also very helpful if musculoskeletal aches and pains are keeping you up at night or have started to appear as a result of exhaustion.

Dose: 3 to 6 g dried herb in capsule/ day or 1 to 4 mL (20 to 80 drops) of tincture in water 3x/day

Contrary to popular misinformation, this herb is considered safe for women with Hashimoto’s and other autoimmune conditions. It is a nightshade but is not usually considered troublesome for those avoiding nightshades, but use your discretion on how you feel and start with the lowest dosing.

Reishi mushroom: The immune nourisher

It’s suited for when you might say:

  • I need to sleep better and deeper.
  • I want to boost my immune system.
  • I’m getting colds and infections more often than I think I should be
  • I need help detoxifying my body.
  • I usually feel overwhelmed and jangled.

Reishi mushroom is highly regarded in Chinese medicine for its ability to nourish and support adrenal function. It calms the nervous system and can be taken before bed for deeper, relaxing, and restorative sleep. It is also powerful herb for your immune system, so if you’re getting sick a lot because of stress, or never get sick and then crash on your first day of vacation, this might be a great choice for you.

Dose: 3 to 9 g dried mushroom in capsules or tablets daily or 2 to 4 mL tincture in water 2 to 3x/day. (Possibly avoid if you have a true mushroom allergy).

   Click here to receive a free chart for choosing the best adaptogens for healing burnout 

Nourishing/Replenishing Adaptogens

Ashwagandha (see Calming Adaptogens, above)

 

Holy basil: The vitalizer

It’s suited for when you might say:

  • I want a gentle tonic for mind, mood, and immunity.
  • I am struggling with depression, anxiety, or low mood.
  • I have sleep problems.
  • I want help shifting to a new mindset and making healthy lifestyle changes.
  • I struggle with mental clarity.
  • I have chronic inflammation.
  • I have high blood sugar, cholesterol, or triglycerides.

Holy or “sacred” basil calms the mind and spirit and promotes longevity. This herb, called tulsi in Ayurveda, is used to improve energy and relieve fatigue, and it elevates the mood, especially providing relief from mild depression. While this herb is related to common basil, that is not a substitute.

Dose: 2 to 3 mL (40 to 60 drops) tincture in water 3x/ day

 

Maca: The mother of hormone nourishers

It’s suited for when you might say:

  • I want more vitality and feel I need deep nourishment.
  • I have a low libido.
  • I have hormonal imbalances.
  • I want to improve my fertility.
  • I want to boost my mood, or I have anxiety or depression.

The Quechua Indians of Peru consider maca a food that promotes mental acuity, physical vitality, endurance, and stamina. Maca reduces anxiety and depression and is rich in essential amino acids, iodine, iron, and magnesium, as well as sterols that may possess a wide range of activities that support adrenal and hormone function.

Dose: 75 to 100 mg/day

 

Schizandra: The detoxifier

It’s suited for when you might say:

  • I can’t focus. I have brain fog or memory problems.
  • I don’t have energy anymore. I tired out easily with physical exertion.
  • I have anxiety.
  • I want to support or boost my detoxification.

Schizandra, revered as an elite tonic herb in traditional Chinese herbalism, is used to improve mental focus, while having calming, anti-anxiety effects. It’s been widely used to enhance athletic performance and endurance, improving energy and stamina in general, and to relieve anxiety.

Dose: 20 to 30 drops of extract 1 or 2x/day or 2 to 4 capsules daily. NOT safe for use during pregnancy.

 

Shatavari: The hormonal harmonizer, queen of women’s adaptogens

It’s suited for when you might say:

  • I feel like I need rejuvenation, balance, and calm.
  • I have hormonal imbalances, including PMS, fertility, or menopausal problems.

Shatavari is considered the “Queen of Herbs” in Ayurvedic medicine, where it is beloved as one of the most powerful rejuvenating tonics for women. It is nourishing and calming, as well as hormonally balancing; it is used for irritability and many hormonal imbalances affecting the mood, for example, emotional symptoms of PMS and menopause.

Dose: 2 to 4 mL (40 to 80 drops) of tincture in water 2 to 3x/day

Avoid if you have a history of estrogen-receptor-positive cancer.

When we’re tired we need to give ourselves what might seem impossible – time to restore, heal, and replenish. We need permission to pause. If you can learn to hit the reset button when you need to, the benefits will be many – greater longevity, inner peace, better relationships, a healthier more vital body and mind – and in the long run, more productivity, not less.

To your health, with love,

Dr. Aviva

 

18 Comments

  1. Do you have any guidance on adaptogens for men? And how this relates with caffeine addiction? My husband is burning out at work and starting to have anxiety. I want to wean him off coffee and start him on some helpful herbs. He drinks 5-6 cups a day I think. And then uses alcohol to try to calm down in the evenings. Can you help?

    • That’s a lot of coffee! Yes, the same info applies to men – and even my book, The Adrenal Thyroid REvolution has helped quite a few reluctant husbands and boyfriends! 🙂

    • Thank you for your question. While I don’t sell supplements directly, I do maintain a formulary with a company called Fullscript that I use for my patients and my own family’s and personal use. I’ve created a ‘public’ version of the formula that you can access with no obligation to purchase anything, but so you can see some of the companies and products I use. My go-to’s for adaptogens are Herb Pharm, Gaia Herbs, and Fungi Perfecti, and my go to’s for turmeric are Gaia Herbs, Herb PHarm, and I also use some of the other products in the formulary for curcumin capsules.

      https://us.fullscript.com/welcome/replenishsupplements

      Warmly, Aviva

  2. Thank you for posting this wonderful information on adaptogens. I have been wanting to try some, but I have some serious gut problems (SIBO) and I am managing it with the GAPS/SCD diet. I think some of these herbs are root vegetables and may contain some starch or FODMAPS? Could you (or anyone reading this) make some recommendations as to which of these adaptogens might be best for someone sensitive to starch and FODMAPS?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Deanna, I know of no problems with any of these on a FODMAPS diet, or GAPS/SCD. The amount you’d get of any plant starch is negligible – and almost completely absent in tincture form.

    • Thank you for your question. While I don’t sell supplements directly, I do maintain a formulary with a company called Fullscript that I use for my patients and my own family’s and personal use. I’ve created a ‘public’ version of the formula that you can access with no obligation to purchase anything, but so you can see some of the companies and products I use. My go-to’s for adaptogens are Herb Pharm, Gaia Herbs, and Fungi Perfecti, and my go to’s for turmeric are Gaia Herbs, Herb PHarm, and I also use some of the other products in the formulary for curcumin capsules.

      https://us.fullscript.com/welcome/replenishsupplements

      Warmly, Aviva

  3. I have ordered your book and cannot wait to receive it. I respect your work and want to learn more from you. I have been unable to find the downloadable chart regarding adaptogens. Perhaps your team could have a look at this posting and refresh the link for the download. I would really like to see that information. Thank you -Sharon

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