Have you ever felt a wave of anxiety wash over you with such force that the only thing you can do is stop, breathe and hope a cup of tea will ease the tightness in your chest even just for a moment?
Now more than ever we're living in a constant state of fight or flight mode with the latest APS Stress and Wellbeing survey revealing Australian's anxiety levels are the highest they've been in five years.
And where once a cup of english breakfast may have been a source of comfort, an anchor to hold to stay grounded, it now no longer has the force we need to cultivate an effective mood change.
Or could it? What if tweaking your herbal blend could be the difference between stressed out and blissed out? Meet adaptogens: the new hero herbs making their way into our kitchens, cuppas and day-to-day meals.
Adaptogens are Eastern medicine's answer to alleviating stress and boosting wellbeing. In the most basic sense, adaptogens are naturopathic herbs (and mushrooms in some cases) that work to calm the nervous system and maintain wellbeing. But they are far from basic. The plants are gaining worldwide attention for their plethora of benefits – fans say they can reduce the risk of inflammation and autoimmune disease, boost energy, increase digestion, fuel weight loss and even help relieve stress and anxiety.
And their arrival on the wellness scene couldn't have come at a better time. Of the things worrying us, health is near the top of the APS Stress and Wellbeing survey. Yet, interestingly, food wasn't found to play a part in our stress management techniques whatsoever.
Despite this, if you've ever felt the satisfaction of a nourishing soup on a sick day you'll know that food has the power to heal and comfort. Now with ayurvedic eating hitting the mainstream throughout Australian cafe menus, we have the chance to add a little adaptogen goodness to our diet, and may even be doing it already (whether we consciously know it or not).
Top five adaptogens
1. Rosemary. "Undeniably one of the most delicious herbs out there! Not only tasty, it's been known for centuries for its stress-relieving and immune supporting qualities," says Lee Holmes, a Sydney-based nutrition coach and founder of Supercharged Food. To cook with it, try Holmes' Rosemary and Thyme Chicken Stew.
2. Turmeric. "Ayurvedically speaking, turmeric is what we call 'tri doshic' i.e – suitable for all dosha types. When you combine it with other activators, it is a powerhouse drink and is particularly great for increasing ojas (the body's vital strength). We make our turmeric latte with ashwagandha and several other activators of turmeric like cardamom, cinnamon and pepper," says Vidya Raman, owner of Sydney's Nalini's Wholesome Streetfood.
3. Licorice root. "Best consumed in tea, licorice root has an amazing super-sweet taste that is great for keeping sugar cravings at bay. It's a perfect afternoon-pick me up or after-dinner beverage. Buy as tea bags or purchase a knob of liquorice root and infuse in boiling water," says Holmes.
4. Moringa. "Moringa is very healing on the gut and helps regulate blood sugar levels. I grew up with a Moringa tree in my backyard in India and would pluck the fresh leaves and fruit and then mum would make it into soup, keeping the leaves in for my dad who was diabetic (they are quite bitter and therefore more detoxifying). At Nalini's, we make our moringa soup with fresh moringa leaves and moringa fruit along with other ayurvedic herbs like turmeric, coriander seeds, cumin," says Raman.
5. Holy basil. "Holy basil is hailed as one of the most sacred plants in India and is a potent antioxidant with powerful antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties. It is used to treat everything from the common cold, to bronchitis, to fever, to digestive complaints and ulcers – but its greatest potential is for stress relief and relaxation," says Holmes.
In the past year, Nalini's Wholesome Streetfood has experienced a great response from customers since the launch of their ayurvedic cafe that offers adaptogen appetisers such as turmeric lattes and moringa soup.
"When we opened Nalini's we decided to include adaptogens in our offering but didn't advertise it, we simply included it in our dishes and let them do the talking. Now when people say they feel better drinking the 'moringa soup' or 'turmeric latte' we know they mean it," says Raman.
Raman believes this subtle introduction to adaptogens through delicious dishes has allowed people to gain their own respect for the ayurvedic way (an ancient Indian health practice).
"Our turmeric latte which has ashwagandha along with 12 other ayurvedic spices and herbs, is by far the most popular item we sell in the cafe – people tell us they are addicted to the calming, strengthening feeling they get from drinking it," says Raman.
She now believes there has been a dynamic shift in people's thinking: "People are really getting the 'food is your medicine' concept (finally!), they realise the healing power of traditional and eastern medicines and how herbs can help their body. But it's only recently. Take the powers of turmeric - while it's only becoming known in the West now, it's been a common household spice in India for decades."
But of course, just like her customers, it was only through experiencing them herself that she come to believe in their power.
"A herbalist made me a concoction of Ashwagandha and Shatavari and I started taking them but didn't expect much. Then within two days I was sleeping better and feeling clearer in the head," says Raman.
"Taking them now I feel calm and clear. Without them it's like being deprived of coffee after drinking it every day - you feel something's amiss. The difference is though, these herbs are non-toxic and don't give you the negative side effects coffee does."
Lee Holmes is also an avid believer and is excited to see adaptogens gaining mainstream respect.
"Having an Indian background, I've always loved Ayurvedic medicine but as soon as I began adding adaptogens to my diet, my life started to feel less tense – almost like a masseuse had come and massaged out all the knots of my life! It makes me so happy to now see something I love gaining exposure."
But just as you would read up before taking medication, we too need to understand what adaptogens can do before we dose up on them.
So, what are adaptogens exactly and it as simple as sprinkling a few herbs into our smoothies?
"Adaptogens are herbal botanicals that help the body adapt to different situations and emotions, most notably stress, but they can also regulate hormones, boost the immune system and encourage better moods," explains Holmes.
How do they fit into ayurveda? Well, according to Holmes, "adaptogens and ayurveda go together like avocado on toast!"
"Ayurveda is about healing the body through natural sources and balancing our lifestyle so we can enjoy a stress-free life. Which is exactly where adaptogens come in! They rejuvenate the body and enhance our ability to cope with situations that may make us feel stressed."
So where do we get our hands on them? Well you may have actually used them before and just not realised.
"A lot of the time adaptogenic herbs are used without the knowledge of their ability to relieve stress! For example, aloe vera is an amazing adaptogen that's full of vitamins and used in beauty products for its anti-ageing quality or in water for its hydrating and nourishing ability," says Holmes.
"There are various natural herbs available that can be taken in tea form as well as a spice or in a capsule including - milk thistle, holy basil, rosemary, maca and ginseng just to name a few!"
Looking to add some feel good vibes to your diet? Read on for Holmes and Raman's top wonder herbs...
Turmeric is a powerhouse adaptogen. Photo: Breathing Light Photography
Holy basil coffee
A cup of holy basil coffee each morning will treat all doshas to gentle detoxification, boost immunity, improve digestion and reduce mucus in the body. Served in a precious tea set, glass, earthenware or ceramic vessels, it will make having a cup an experience of self care, self honour, mindfulness and create a ritual that will bring a sense of soul-grounding to your day.
500 ml (17 fl oz/2 cups) filtered water
1 teaspoon coriander leaves
1 teaspoon ground ginger or dried ginger
1 tablespoon rice malt syrup
A handful of holy basil
Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan.
Add the coriander and ginger, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1 minute.
Add the rice malt syrup and stir to combine.
Rub the basil between your hands to release the flavour, then add to the saucepan.
Simmer for 2–3 minutes.
Remove from the heat and leave to steep for 5 minutes then strain and serve.
Note: Holy basil seeds can be purchased online and grown easily in a container in your herb garden or on a windowsill. The plant has long purple flowers and green leaves with a clove-like fragrance. The leaves can be used in herbal teas, coffee or added to salads.