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Top 9 adaptogens: Chinese herbs for healthy aging

Recently, “adaptogen” has become quite the viral trend in natural health circles, and supplement companies use and misuse it to increase sales.

Because of the ever-increasing number of people negatively impacted by stress, adaptogens have become the focus of health blogs in the West.

But adaptogenic herbs have actually been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years.

Chinese medicine & the tradition of "nourishing life"

Thousands of years ago, the ancient Chinese Taoists viewed aging in quite modern terms. They believed that people are born with a given amount of qi (life force) and that this depends on their parents (genetics). They taught how to maintain and supplement this qi by eating well, exercising, and getting sufficient rest. These practices are called "nourishing life" or  养生,yangsheng.

All these good practices are now part of a scientific field called epigenetics, which studies of how your environment and your choices can influence your genetic code.

While we can’t do much about the cards we are given, aka our genes, we can however chose accordingly and adapt our lifestyle to optimize our chance of aging well.

So what are adaptogens exactly?

As the name suggests, these herbs help the body adapt to stress. More specifically, the compounds in the herbs normalize bodily functions and they strengthen organ systems compromised by stress. Adaptogenic herbs may protect against a wide variety of stressors, from

  • environmental stressors (high-altitude)

  • emotional trauma

  • physical overexertion

Chinese medicine's best adaptogenic herbs

None of these herbs are intended to be used on their own, and you should always consult a trained physician before self medicating with Chinese herbs.

close up of ginseng roots

Ginseng 人参 Ren Shen

One of the staples of Chinese herbology, Ginseng is a major qi tonic.

It has long been priced for giving energy and increasing vitality.

It seems to offset the effects of stress on the body and there is good scientific evidence that ginseng improves the immune system.

a spoonful of tiny red berries of schisandra

Schisandra 五味子 Wu Wei Zi

Schisandra is a Chinese herbs whose name means "the seed of five flavors". Because of its nature, it is used for tonifying Qi in most organs, most importantly the Kidneys.

The Kidneys (read kidneys and adrenals) is the storage house for your "essence" or energy battery. When you burn the candle by both ends, you deplete your essence and end up in adrenal fatigue. The kidney's energy also plays a role in fertility.

Read our article here on Yang Sheng tips for your kidneys and adrenals in the winter.

sliced dried licorice root on a grey background

Licorice Root 甘草 Gan Cao

A sweet flavored root that strengthens the digestive system, licorice can also reduce phlegm and excess heat, and relax pain and muscle spasms.

In western herbology, licorice is used for respiratory system- and adrenal support, among other uses.

A word of caution, this herb raises blood pressure.

reishi mushroom slices next to a bowl of powdered reishi

Reishi Mushroom 灵芝 Ling Zhi

Reishi is a longevity mushroom, whose name literally means lichen. It has immune support functions, specifically for the lungs.

It also calms the Spirit, which makes it one of the rare herbs that are safe to take as a daily supplement.

Think of it as a healthy anti-coffee !

cordyceps on grey backgroud

Cordyceps 冬虫夏草

High in antioxidants, Cordyceps is all the craze in China, and sometimes goes for insane prices. A lot of fake cordyceps also goes around for this reason.

It has immune-boosting properties and has the ability to enhance energy.

I prefer to only prescribe it to extremely weak patients, because of its price.

Recent research has shown that cordyceps can reverse some of the effects of aging in mice.

a yellow spoon containing dried rhodiola

红景天 ,Rhodiola

This herb is often included in remedies to appease altitude sickness. Used by Russian athletes and cosmonauts to improve energy and performance, Rhodiola helps your body manage stress.

It is calming and plays a role in normalizing heart rate after exercise.

a white cutting board with fresh turmeric root, a spoon with powdered turmeric and a bowl with powdered turmeric.


This anti-inflammatory root is used in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.

Turmeric has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s disease when paired with vitamin D.

It also promotes circulation, relieves aches and pains, reduces inflammation, can prevent certain cancers and protects the liver.

People on blood thinning medication should NOT consume turmeric

slices of dried Fo Ti, they look dark brown

何首乌 He Shou Wu, aka Fo-ti

This Chinese herb translates as “black-haired Mr. He”. This refers to a famous folk story of an owl mad called Mr. He who took fo-ti and restored his black hair, youthful appearance, and vitality.

Fo-ti is used for fatigue, immune dysfunction and to treat premature aging, particularly premature grey hair.

cooked gingko nuts falling out of a ceramic bowl

Ginko Biloba –

Like turmeric Gingko improves circulation and can be used to protect against Alzheimer’s and other conditions that affect memory and cognition.

It can also be used to prevent heart disease and macular degeneration

If you are interested in Chinese herbs, you might like our other article: 8 Chinese Herbs for menstrual cramps


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