There are many lessons we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic. Like how important it is to reflect on our vulnerability, mortality and values, the importance of connecting with others, especially our families and friends, the role of nature in our lives, the benefits of taking a break from the human rat race we have imposed on ourselves, the importance of taking better care of our health and more.
Whether you are taking the opportunity to learn from this global crisis or not, the pandemic has brought an enormous amount of stress to many of us.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are experiencing difficulty sleeping or increased anxiety. Some notice difficulty concentrating. Many fear what the future may hold.
Many, especially physicians and those who are caretakers for others, have already begun to experience increased fatigue and burnout. Stress suppresses the immune system and can make us more prone to infection. It can also take a toll on the cardiovascular system, increasing the risk of heart attacks, irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and strokes. If persistent, stress can even increase the risk of dementia. It has a negative impact on our digestive system (many may experience a flareup of reflux, irritable bowel, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) and can cause a flare up of autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis.
At this time, more than ever, we need all the help we can get. And there is a lot of help we can get from Mother Nature. Adaptogens are plants and mushrooms that help us deal with stress both physically and emotionally. These wonderful gifts of nature support our immune system and make us less likely to catch an infection. In addition, adaptogens support our nervous and endocrine systems by normalizing hormone levels and sharpening our focus and memory. Herbalists use the term tonic for herbs that support a healthy function of our organs. As such, tonics promote health and longevity. All adaptogens are tonics; some are liver tonics, some are lung tonics or kidney tonics. Most are immune tonics. They protect our bodies from depletion.
Many adaptogens are anti-inflammatory, reducing the collateral damage of stress on our cells and organs. Through their effect on hormones and neurotransmitters, adaptogens also improve brain function. They can be very helpful for prevention and treatment of anxiety, depression and insomnia, as well as for improving focus, memory and mental stamina.
Certainly, more research is needed to understand how adaptogens may interact with medications and to establish safety (although most seems to be quite safe with only a few warnings). Still, when using herbs, I recommend working with a trusted and experienced practitioner who will guide you towards reputable sources and help you avoid adulterated or contaminated products, especially since herbs are not regulated by the FDA.
For these challenging times, I recommend the following adaptogens, each of which is supported by modern research:
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
With a 3000+ year-long tradition of use in India, Ashwagandha has been shown to improve sleep quality, fatigue, anxiety and ability to focus. It improves many stress-related blood markers, such as C- reactive protein (CRP), DHEA-S (the vitality hormone), cholesterol, glucose and even muscle strength. This is a wonderful plant to help you not only deal with stress but also to promote recovery from a disease or surgery both physically and mentally.
Ashwagandha seems to minimize the pathology of Alzheimer’s (in a test tube and in animals) and has been used to boost memory and promote longevity for centuries. As the saying goes, “If you take Ashwagandha for a year, you will have the strength of a stallion for ten years.” Indeed, besides increased muscle mass, Ashwagandha has been shown to improve fertility as well as libido (I am just mentioning it in case that COVID-19-related stress has suppressed yours—just don’t blame me if we end up having a boom of births!).
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
This may be my personal favorite adaptogen. While I have been using it mostly to help me focus (especially when having to read and digest large amounts of medical literature or studying for medical boards and other exams), it has many other wonderful applications. Traditionally, Rhodiola has been used to prevent upper respiratory infections and, in the pre-antibiotic era, even to treat lung diseases such as tuberculosis. Modern studies support its use for depression, stress-related insomnia, fatigue and burnout. In studies of Rhodiola for improvement of mental performance, many noticed its beneficial effect in less than a week. Modern animal research has shown its ability to reduce stress-related damage to the heart muscle and protect the heart from stress-related heartbeat irregularities (arrhythmias).
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
Astragalus was the first plant that turned me into a big fan of botanical medicine. When my daughter was little, I kept getting sick each time she brought home another germ from her playgroup or kindergarden. My immune system was weak due to sleep deprivation (my daughter was a terrible sleeper, so I was getting little sleep for years). The infections used to trigger a dry, asthma-like cough in me for weeks and weeks. I felt ashamed that I could not handle this as a physician. That is, until I came across Astragalus. With Astragalus, as if by magic, my immunity improved. I rarely get a cold when I use it (and I use it each flu season). I have not used my inhaler for years. In China, Astragalus was traditionally believed to strengthen the lung and protect it against diseases caused by negative external influences (such as infections). It may even prevent immunosuppression caused by chemotherapy. My own dramatic experience with Astragalus started my herbal studies and I could not imagine practicing medicine without using herbs now.
There are dozens of adaptogens and tonics that might help you deal with the stress of COVID-19 and modulate your immunity. Once you start learning about them, a whole new world will open up to you, full of support, gentle healing and deeper connection to nature. Please consider these times as an opportunity to widen your knowledge and improve your health. These plants will continue to serve you long after COVID-19 is gone.
Tereza Hubkova, MD
Integrative Medicine Specialist at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission
Dr. Hubkova offers consultations to patients from the state of Kansas in person as well as via telemedicine, for appointment call 913-632-3550.