Last week on my Page (Facebook) I had promised a couple of new recipes, and then alas, life, work and all that jazz simply got in the way. So I promised to share a recipe, an existing one from my (hopefully) forthcoming ebooklet…this is one I make and use with my own dogs all the time, and it incorporates herbs that support the immune system and can actually assist the system in coping with stress. These herbs are known as adaptogens, and while there is a little controversy about how to use them (in herbal circles) I have a very straightforward take on this. Any herb can be abused, but used correctly, the ones we bake into these yummy, low carb treats support health and benefit the dog, period full stop. Let me back up and explain what adaptogens are, and why there’s controversy in the first place.

Here’s David Winston’s definition (and he literally wrote the book, one of the best we have on this topic, see footnotes for more info):

“…herbs [that] help the human body adapt to stress, support normal metabolic processes, and restore balance. They increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional and environmental stressors and promote normal physiologic function”

Tulsi, or Holy Basil, is a popular herb with adaptogenic actions

Sounds pretty wonderful, yes? Well, not every herbalist agrees, many of my peers feel that to classify herbs in such a way opens them to abuse – to using them not as tonic-support for the body during times of stress, but to force oneself(or one’s dog) to work past endurance on a regular basis. My own take on it, as an herbalist, is no one I work with would dream of doing this with a dog, and we can’t stop people from abusing any substance, aside from education, which this blog is all about. Adaptogens are wonderful! And to be clear; adaptogenic herbs are not addictive, but they could be abused in the same way as humans(I am guilty of this) sometimes abuse caffeine to keep going. Used properly – that is, under the care of an experienced herbalist OR in small, tonic-levels (such as the cookie recipe) are safe, effective and can help support your dog through all kinds of stressors – from surgery to cold weather to the death of another dog or human, and more.

Many herbalists identify adaptogens as possessing actions that affect the HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal) and thus act through the endocrine and immune systems…others disagree.

Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald describes this class of herbs succinctly:

Adaptogenic herbs increase the ability of the body to cope with and respond to stress. They tend to act on the adrenals and the endocrine & immune systems. This is the class of herbs people think of when they hear the word “tonic”… There is much academic debate about what can and should not be called an adaptogen. For my part, if an herb relaxes tension, increases one’s resilience to the stress they are exposed to, and, if taken over time, helps replenish their vital energy, then the herb is acting as an adaptogen,, whether or not we can pinpoint and verify that its actions are manifested via the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis.”

In my clinical work, I use adaptogens all the time – I’m a pragmatist and I see dogs (in particular; I have also used adaptogens with cats) helped greatly by the right herb and dosage. That said,they are chosen specifically to best suit the needs of the individual (dog, cat, human). The pop-culture idea of taking such-and-such an herb because it’s “good for” a list of ailments, is not a good plan with this group. When considering which herbs to use, and perhaps especially from this group, it’s important to consider the full veterinary history, the dog’s age, diet, exercise level and even the climate he lives in…not to mention, constitutional type, as these herbs are given over time and we need to match energetics. The right adaptogen can help with anxiety, with recovery from surgery or illness, with adapting to a new physiological reality(loss of a limb, blindness) or simple grief for the loss of a friend, an activity, whatever the dog mourns for. The wrong selection can exacerbate constitutional imbalances, irritate the GI tract, initiate inflammation, or do nothing at all to help.

The most common herbs that fall under the heading Adaptogen include

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Holy Basil/Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum )
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius )
Asian ginseng(Panax ginseng)
Eleuthero, or Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
Maral Root (Rhaponticum carthamoides)
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Shatavari (Asparagus recemosus)
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)
Dang shen (Codonopsis pilusola)

beautiful, nourishing American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius

Now, you may know some of these herbs by their other actions – astragalus, for example is often used in veterinary herbalism, and Tulsi is promoted as kind of a generic cure-all for stress (it’s a wonderful herb, but no plant really stands alone as a panacea for stress). Reishi and Cordyceps are commonly pointed to as help for cancer, as immunomodulators, and Licorice, you may know as a potent anti-inflammatory, very sweet herb with a good bit of demulcency, and several contraindications for long term use. Others on this list – Shatavari, maybe Maral root and/or Codonopsis, may be quite new. What is important here, as with all herbs,is before you decide to try one, read a few good monographs and understand ALL the actions and potential contraindications. Whenever I work with nervous dogs, with dogs who are over- worked, burned out, grieving, recovering, adapting to new situations – I consider an adaptogenic herb, or a blend of two or more, along with nervines, and whatever else is indicated. Selecting and dosing is always an art as well as a science-based process, so don’t just start trying these without consulting an herbalist or doing your own homework. Some resources for learning more about adaptogens below.

Lastly, I shared a baked treat for dogs in my Newsletter, which you can access here:

Enjoy, and feel free to post questions about this article, as always. 🙂


1) Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, Stress Relief, by David Winston and Steven Maimes
2) Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism, by Donald Yance
3) web article by Paul Bergner:
4) web article by Guido Mase:
5) assorted writings by Jim McDonald,