Herb + Food Pairings to Optimize your Adaptogenic Potions

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All of you know by now what Adaptogens are. For those of you new to this herbal ballgame, Adaptogens are a very special class of herbs that are famously known for their multi-leveled ability to protect and prevent the body and mind from the damaging effects of physical, biological, atmospherical, emotional, spiritual (etc.) stress. These plants all share a particular intelligence in common — they work ‘non-specifically,’ meaning they target multiple functions in the body — physically, mentally and biologically. The inherent intelligence of adaptogens also works by providing your body with what it particularly needs in that moment. For example, if you’re fatigued, adaptogens give you energy; or, if you’re anxious, they calm you down. This is due to the impact that these special plants have on our endocrine system, the HPA axis (hypothalamus + pituitary and adrenal glands).


The HPA axis continually assesses what’s happening in the body; it gives feedback and calls for appropriate action using hormones as its’ messenger molecules to bring homeostasis in the body. The hypothalamus (H) is the command center of the brain, often called our 'god' center. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system and through an influx of hormones. H perceives, oversees and assesses everything going on in the body and then informs its’ 'personal assistant', the pituitary (P) gland, what to do. The personal assistant informs the 'general managers' (the target organs), who then enlist the 'workers' (particular biochemical processes) in the relevant tissues or organs in the body. The enlisted or activated tissues include the visceral organs — heart, lungs, intestines, kidneys, liver, pancreas (and their less publicized agents such as the gallbladder, spleen, blood vessels, skeletal muscles, etc.).


OK, let’s jump right into what we came for. Many of you ask me about herb/food pairings, as I recently wrote about how matcha is an excellent base due to the powerful oxygenating abilities of its’ high antioxidant nature. Pure raw Cacao for example, is the richest known source of antioxidants. Its ORAC score (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) is 95,500 ”mol in each 100 g. To compare it with other antioxidant rich foods, consider the fact that goji berries and acai berries both score below 30,000 ”mol per 100 g. So it’s not a coincidence that our body loves pairing cacao with Ashwagandha’s polysaccharide rich nature, assisting a deeper opening into Ashwagandha’s brain protective powers. Or, pairing Rhodiola showing that it’s anti-depressive capacity can be stronger and more supportive when paired with antioxidant rich roses and hibiscus. The exquisite flavor that is naturally born from unions like this are also signaling that the chemical pairing is perfectly complementary.

Photo from Adaptogens Herbs for Longevity



It is of vital importance to pair the right herbs with each other in order to receive not only a harmonized formulation, but actually effective results from herbal intake. The science of formulation has been a key component to the success of traditional systems of medicine and indigenous herbalism. 

It is important to note that a healthy lifestyle and dietary changes is essential to the effectiveness of adaptogens and any plant medicine being used for healing. It goes without saying that adaptogens alone will not make up for poor dietary habits, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, addiction to stress, and an emotional or spiritual depleted life. Modern day cultures live a very malnourished life within the pantry of plenty. It’s vital to choose the type of diet that works best with your constitution, paired with the right herbs for the current cycle you're in. 

Below are complementary herbs that enhance or synergize the effects of primary and secondary adaptogens along with suggested base pairings. All of the complementary herbs referenced below are generally safe, “tonifying”, balancing, and like adaptogens, offer protective chemistry against oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. The herbs below do not directly modulate the HPA axis or the neuroendocrine system. In other words, there is simply insufficient data regarding this action if they do.

Some of the plants treat major symptoms while others enhance absorption, create an inflammatory response, increase circulation, assist the heart, protect the liver, improve quality of sleep, and more. There are unlimited possibilities. Here I chose general subjects that most of us seek in day-to-day health or common imbalances that arise within the seasons.

Photo from Adaptogens Herbs for Longevity



HEALTHY FATS: nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut meat, coconut oil, flax oil, chia seed oil, extra virgin olive oil, ghee, etc.

ANTIOXIDANTS: green tea, matcha, cacao, goji berries, hibiscus, amla, and most super-berries and superfruits with high vitamin C and antioxidant count.

HIGH VITAMIN C: sources: goji, mangosteen, blueberries, etc.

BROTHS: medicinal mushroom broths, bone broths, soy-free miso broths, etc.

PROBIOTIC rich foods: sauerkraut, kombucha, jun, truly raw coconut yogurt (and alike), kim chee, miso, etc.

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Essentially all primary and secondary adaptogens, along with supportive herbal companions that exalt the adaptogenic chemistry, can be paired with any of the main bases mentioned above. The question is, what are you looking to work on directly? Choose the proper base to enhance bioavailability for your body. 

The most effective way to go about it is:

1st. Analyze your constitution or seasonal body/mind needs. To learn more about constitutional theories, read this blog post on ancient body types 

2nd. What are you looking to achieve, heal, balance or enhance?

3rd. Based on what you’re looking to work on that day, or let’s say that month, and the season we’re in, choose the corresponding ingredients to work with


IMMUNITY: Herbs for Protection

Immunity represents an ecological interface between inner and outer environments. Immunity is an expression of homeostasis. Immunity is an expression of relationship, bodily health, and wholeness. Encompassing emotional wellbeing, mental vision, spiritual openness and vitality. (Hoffman, David) The following immune protecting herbs are some of the top herbs that have been studied for their profound ability to protect and strengthen the immune system. Some of the herbs delineated below are immune-modulators, meaning they modify the immune response or the functioning of the immune system (as by the stimulation of antibody formation or the inhibition of white blood cell activity). Some are immunostimulants, lead to a nonspecific stimulation of the immune system by inducing activation or increasing activity of any of its components; or, immunosuppressants, meaning they suppress the immune response. 

Some of the herbs below have remarkably similar adaptogenic abilities, although they lack further research to officially classify them as such. The herbs delineated here, in this section, act as excellent companions to other adaptogens and secondary adaptogens, in particular: Reishi, Cordyceps, and Panax Ginseng. 

Food Pairings: Antioxidant and Vitamin C rich bases. The antioxidant rich Vitamin C sources are a vital component when extracting mushrooms. Rich Vitamin C sources, (like adaptogens Amla, Shizandra, and other potent plants like Mangosteen and Hibiscus) allow for the mushrooms to extract further, making many of their medicinal components more bioavailable.

Herbal Pairings for Immune Defense: Agaricus, Chaga, Turkey Tail.

Fun Fact! Mushrooms act as a prebiotic to stimulate the growth of gut microbiota, conferring health benefits to the host.


HEPATICS: Herbs for the Liver 

Herbs that assist and support overall liver function. They tone, strengthen, and in some cases increase the flow of bile. Hepatoprotective herbs are those that support and prevent damage to the liver. Adaptogens that particularly assist and protect the liver are: Red ginseng, Shizandra, Lycium, Rhaponticum, and Amla.

Herbal Pairings: Dandelion, Turmeric, Nettle Leaf, Oregon Grape Root, Rehmannia

Food Pairings: Antioxidants and Probiotic Rich Foods.

Fun Fact: Antioxidants and Vitamin C can help detoxify the liver from too much fat accumulation and stagnation. Vitamin C powerhouses like Hibiscus, Mangosteen, Camu Camu, and Amla are known to “cut fat” helping not only to metabolize it, but prevent the fat build up from becoming bad cholesterol. 


NERVINES: Herbs for Relaxation

Nervines are herbs that specifically support the nervous system. Many times, nervines are calming, but not all calming herbs are nervines. Calming nervines can ease the worry we all experience from time to time and can be helpful for occasional sleepless nights. Adaptogens that are also used as nerviness or in combination with are: Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, Gynostemma, Rhodiola and Rhaponticum. Secondary Adaptogens: Reishi. 

Herbal Pairings: Albizzia, Blue Lotus, Lemon Verbena, Skullcap

Optimal Food Pairings: Antioxidant rich herbs (For nervines aromatic herbs can deeply assist relaxation, such as: cinnamon, turmeric, lemon peel, clove, cacao etc.) Another excellent pairing is nervines with medicinal broths for a restorative evening meal. 

*Fun Fact! Did you know cacao can actually help you sleep better?! The magnesium and tryptophan are a lot higher than its caffeine content. So combining some of your nervines into a nice hot cup of cacao might just be a perfect evening or decompressing pairing.  Read more here about how cacao can chill you out. 

NUTRITIVES: Herbs for Mineralization

A class of plants that are rich in vitamins and minerals. These plants provide a great source of bioavailable nutrients that provide a broad spectrum of nutritional potency.

Adaptogens that are highly nutritive: Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng), Gynostemma, American Ginseng. Secondary Adaptogens: Maca and Suma. 

Herbal Pairings: Alfalfa, Horsetail, Moringa, Oat Seed, Spirulina, Chlorella, Mesquite.

Food Pairings: Broths, Probiotics, Healthy Fats 

Fun Fact! Increasing gut flora will combat a state of deficiency. Restoring the GI Tract with probiotics  and embedding deeply nutritive plants afterwards can deeply harmonize and create a solid foundation overall within digestion and metabolism. 

NOOTROPICS: Herbs for the Brain

The word nootropic comes from the Greek words noos (mind) and tropos (a bend) meaning “acting on the mind” and is pronounced “no-trop-ik.” The media and more mainstream use have coined them as “smart drugs,” especially the isolated pharmaceutically derived plants (like galantamine) that act as cerebral stimulants. The botanicals that fall under this category assist in enhancing emotional and mental wellbeing and promote cerebral circulation. Adaptogens that pair well due to their stimulation of the cerebral and mental faculties are Ashwagandha and Rhodiola. Secondary Adaptogens: Lions Mane, Mucuna. 

Herbal Pairings: Bacopa, Gotu Kola, Ginkgo, Rosemary.

Optimal Food Pairings: Healthy Fats + Antioxidants

Fun Fact! Using healthy fats and omega 3 fatty acids is known to help build and repair brain cells. Polysaccharide rich nootropics, like Ashwagandha, and complementary herbs like Lions mane and Ginkgo, tend to metabolize best and provide brain chemistry with healthy fat content. For more inflammatory imbalances regarding the brain, a higher amount of anti-oxidants in combination with a lower amount of healthy fats, act as a strong anti-inflammatory and brain protective combination. 

CARDIO-PROTECTIVE: Herbs for the Heart 

The heart is the primary organ of the cardiovascular system. Hand in hand with the vessels, it is constantly working, pumping life-giving blood and supplying oxygen to all the cells and tissues of the body. Besides oxygen, it carries all the nutrients for every cell of the body including vitamins, minerals, enzymes, sugars for energy, proteins for cellular repair, and numerous other vital substances. The blood is also responsible for carrying away waste products from the cells. If the blood is not moving properly, regularly, and strongly through all the tissues- waste products build up.

The following herbs are considered supportive cardiac remedies. Many of these remedies have been extensively studied and in particular thrive with high antioxidant containing plants.

Useful adaptogens that can be used within a formula: Shisandra, Reishi, Amla, Gynostemma. Secondary Adaptogens: Reishi, Dan Shen (often combined with Hawthorn for coronary heart disease). 

Herbal Pairings: Motherwort, Hawthorn, Dang Shen.

Optimal Food Pairings: Vitamin C and Antioxidants 

Fun Fact! The heart loves a high-potassium, high-fiber, low-sodium diet, focusing on fresh vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. It is not fond of sticky, fatty foods like bacon or doughnuts. Stimulants containing caffeine, cola drinks, and coffee cause the heart to work much harder than normal. Daily aerobic and cardio exercises are of vital importance, done at least for thirty minutes, three to four times weekly. Walking, dancing, jumping on the rebounder, movement of all kinds are excellent for the heart. 

In case you missed it! My book is officially here! This is part of a series of books called Ritual Wellness by Sterling Publishing of Barnes and Noble. You can find directly on our site, amazon and we offer them at wholesale pricing as well. 

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