Let's face it: Herbs can be overwhelming. With thousands of varieties—each with its own benefits and rich cultural history—it's tricky to know how to start harnessing their power. That's why I reached out to herbalists to get their absolute favorite herbs for common symptoms—and find out exactly how to use them. They spelled out some amazing ways to utilize their potent power. Here are the highlights:
The best herbs to...
Help you relax and fall asleep:
Summer Singletary, an herbalist at Traditional Medicinals tea made a really important distinction with this one: Herbal teas and tinctures labeled "relaxing" won't necessarily help you fall asleep. In fact, they're probably best consumed during the day, when you're feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or nervous. These herbs, like chamomile, lavender, and lemon balm, all have restorative, calming effects on the nervous system and digestion, but they won't slow you down. Skullcap is another extra-potent option. "If I'm about to speak in front of large groups, skullcap is my go-to," she says.
So what should you reach for if you're just looking to catch some zzz's? Adriana Ayales, the founder of Anima Mundi Apothecary, recommends herbs that decompress the nervous system and relax the mind, like blue lotus and passion flower. "Blue Lotus contains identical adaptogenic chemistry that soothes the entire nervous system while providing circulation to the pituitary gland. Passion flower is excellent for relieving deep stress and anxiety. Both of these are also very well-known for their mystical properties and often used for meditation or lucid dreaming," she explains. Sign us up!
Get you through the 3 p.m. slump:
Ginger and tulsi are two activating herbs that can help perk you up if you're feeling foggy-headed in the middle of the day. And if you consistently feel groggy and sleepy in the afternoons, it might be time to experiment with adaptogens. These herbs (think ginseng, rhodiola, ashwagandha, and maca) help bring the body back to balance during times of stress, restoring the nervous system for more sustained energy. Singletary says to take a cue from ayurvedic philosophy, which often pairs herbs with milk, and combine adaptogens with some sort of fat for a restorative latte packed with herbal goodness.
Boost gut health:
"That is an area where herbs are really great," gushes Singletary. "Ginger relaxes digestive spasms and can help calm your stomach after a big meal. If you have a nervous stomach associated with stress, lemon balm, chamomile, and lavender are really great." As for more general digestive balancers, she recommends fennel and cardamom.
Simon Cheng, the founder of Pique Tea, adds that black pu'er and hawthorn are also effective digestion boosters used in Traditional Chinese medicine. "Black pu'er is consumed in Southern China, and especially in Hong Kong, where I'm from, to help digest heavy meals and detox after boozing and eating sweet foods," he says. "The most detoxifying tea out there, it's been prized for these functional benefits for hundreds for years." Hawthorn is a bit different in that it's actually a fruit! "It's made into sweets and gummy-like candies or sold in dry form to brew as tea. This fruit is widely available and quite tasty. It's great for helping with digestion, especially after heavy, greasy, meat-heavy meals."
Exactly how to use them.
When I asked Singletary about the most effective way to take in herbs to maximize their benefits, her answer was simple and sensible: "Whatever way you can commit to doing every day."
"It's hard to create a whole new ritual, so to make herbs accessible we need to incorporate them into what we're already doing," she says. While she acknowledges that, yes, certain herbs become more potent when paired with fats or other herbs, it's really about committing to a method that works for you and your lifestyle.
So ask yourself what you're already doing and how you can make it medicinal, more worthwhile. If you don't enjoy sitting down for an afternoon cup of tea, try adding herbs to your morning coffee or nighttime dinner instead. Food is a vehicle that's too often overlooked, especially considering the fact that popular herbs like maca, a root vegetable grown in the high Andes of Peru, were traditionally consumed as diet staples.