What is an adrenal gland and why should I know about looking after it?
The adrenal gland is a walnut sized gland that sits on top of the kidneys. It is responsible for manufacturing certain hormones. These include cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline (the water balancing hormone aldosterone and as well as DHEA which is converted into testosterone) and estrogen. Healthy balance of these hormones helps a myriad of bodily functions which when out of balance can cause many detrimental symptoms.
How do I know if my adrenal glands are under stress?
When the body is under stress due to overwork, overexercise, irregular eating, drug use and lack of sleep this leads to adrenal hormonal imbalances. These imbalances in cortisol, pregnenolone, DHEA, aldosterone, testosterone and estrogen can lead to the following symptoms:
Can’t fall asleep Can’t stay asleep Fatigue Salt or sugar cravings (aldosterone imbalances / blood sugar irregularities) Allergies Slow to start Headaches Reduced immunity Need to eat more frequently Irritable before meals Bloating (suppressed enzymes) Constipation or diarrhea Poor memory Reduced drive Reduced muscle Weight gain around the mid-rift Erratic blood pressure- dizziness
If I recognize many of these symptoms and I suspect adrenal fatigue what can I do? Firstly, you can consult with your healthcare provider. They can test your cortisol levels in your saliva over 24 hours to see if you have adrenal fatigue. Or they may diagnose adrenal fatigue using other markers or based just on your symptoms.
If there is a problem luckily there are lots of natural remedies that have been used for millennia to support the function of the adrenal gland. These fall into three categories. Firstly nutritional support, secondly herbal extracts and lastly lifestyle changes.
Nutritional support includes magnesium, b vitamins, vitamin C and omega 3 oils. These nutrients are “used up” in the manufacturing of adrenal hormones so replacing them is important to help support normal adrenal functioning. Taking supplements containing these nutrients is one option, another is to increase foods rich in these nutrients including dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, avocado, garbanzo beans, bananas, lemons, berries and fish.
Herbal adrenal support involves the use of adaptogenic herbs. These are a group of herbs that help the body to cope with stress. Adaptogens include a wide variety herbs that work in a myriad of ways but the one common thread is they all help the body to adapt more efficiently to the effects of stress. Relieving fatigue, boosting the immune system and regulating blood sugar. One factor to bear in mind is that these herbs need to be taken regularly to get the full effects. So aim to take adaptogenic herbs for six weeks to two months to get the full benefits.
There are many adrenal supporting herbs to choose from and most herbalists recommend a combination of more than one for a full therapeutic effect. For this reason is is best to consult with a qualified herbalist or naturopath. However if you want to experiment on your own here are some tips:
Stimulating adaptogens are a group of herbs including panax ginseng, siberian ginseng, rhodiola and american ginseng. These are powerful herbal drugs worth reading about in detail before committing to taking. They all help the body cope with stress, boost immunity, improve memory and help regulate blood sugar. Here are some key points to distinguish them.
Panax “korean” ginseng: This adrenal supporting herb boosts white blood cell count, reduces autoimmune t-cells, reduces blood sugar, acts on the adrenal cortex causing a quicker response to stress. So hormones rise and fall quicker. During prolonged stress glucocorticoid production is reduced having a sparing effect on the adrenal gland. Avoid this herb if you are hyper-active or if you get palpitations, insomnia or anxiety attacks, instead take ashwagandha or a combination of siberian ginseng with holy basil.
Siberian ginseng: A herb that is adrenal supporting and increases stamina. It is much less stimulating than panax ginseng but it still helps with chronic fatigue, memory issues, lowered immunity, and blood sugar irregularities. Usually well tolerated.
Rhodiola: Also known as russian ginseng, this herb has a high antioxidant level. Rosavin boosts serotonin and salidroside increases dopamine and reduces anxiety. This helps to boost mood and memory and is best suited to people with low energy and mood who lack focus. It is quick acting and its effects can be seen after the first dose. This herb is best avoided if you have a mind that is already very busy.
American Ginseng: A native North American herb that helps to reduce stress and aids adrenal fatigue recovery. It is one of the only adaptogenic herbs that is a yin nourishing herb, which makes it particularly useful. Like siberian ginseng it is well tolerated and helps to increase energy, increase immune function and regulate blood sugar.
Tonic adaptogens are herbs that are more slow acting than stimulating adaptogens but equally useful. If you are unable to consult a herbalist these can be a good place to start.
Ashwagandha (Withania): Reverses stress induced illness and reduces plasma cortisol, it is a serotonin boosting tonic herb that if taken at night aids sleep. It also helps to convert t4 into t3 aiding thyroid function. It is anabolic which increases muscle mass as well as hypotensive when taken in large amounts. It is the only sedative adaptogen so is especially good if a lot of anxiety and restlessness is present.
Licorice: Corrects cortisol insufficiency and gives adrenal support. It is a digestive tonic, aiding absorption of certain minerals. Has been shown to be anti-inflammatory reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines and having a cortisone like action can aid withdrawal from corticosteroid therapy. Use under supervision if you have high blood pressure.
Maca: This Peruvian root is commonly used to aid mood balance during menopause. It improves fertility in animal studies and is used traditionally to increase sex drive and fertility in both men and women. High in antioxidants, this adaptogenic herb helps the body to cope with stress. Make sure to get a good quality extract due to heavy metal issues.
Holy basil: A lovely herb that supports the nervous system and calms the mind and spirit. This adaptogenic herb has also been shown to reduce blood sugar and lipids and has been shown to be hepatoprotective (protects the liver).
Astragalus: This adaptogenic herb, helps to normalise adrenal function and improve energy levels. Also a digestive tonic used for millennia especially in overly loose bowels and IBS. Lastly it is used as an immune tonic and helps to restore a healthy immune response.
Schizandra: This adaptogenic herb is also a liver and kidney tonic. It improves fatigue and memory. Schizandra berry is a famous traditional Chinese medicine tonic historically consumed by Chinese royalty and by Taoist masters. It is one of the few herbs that contains all three treasures. Schizandra is renowned as a beauty tonic and is considered to be a youth preserving herb.
Medicinal Mushrooms: All medicinal mushrooms are beneficial for reducing stress and supporting immunity but two stand out more in terms of adaptogenic properties.
Reishi: Boosts the vitality energy and is immune modulating.
Codonopsis: A digestive tonic that combines well with astragalus. Treats palpitations, diarrhea and anxiety as well as boosts vitality.
Any tips on how to choose what herbs to take?
When in doubt choose an herb from the tonic adaptogen section, however if one of the other herbs sounds like a good fit go ahead and try it. Take two to three times a day (as recommended by the manufacturer) for at least six weeks to see the full effects.
Any side effects or contraindications to take any of these herbs?
While all herbs are gentle they are at the same time powerful medicines. If you are taking any allopathic medication, especially warfarin, antidepressants, cardiac or blood sugar medication you should consult with your doctor, naturopath or herbalist before taking any herbs. Also these herbs are best avoided if pregnant unless under supervision. Lastly adaptogenic herbs, though immune boosting, are best avoided during acute infection. This is because they suppress inflammation and it is inflammation which helps to mobilize an acute immune response. So if you feel a cold or flu coming on, stop your adaptogenic herbs and switch to a pure immune stimulant or antiviral like echinacea or elderberry.
Any other tips?
It is also worth mentioning other lifestyle changes you can make to mitigate the effects of stress:
Meditation: Meditation can reduce cortisol by 20% Social interaction: Spending time with a funny friend can reduce cortisol by 39% Massage: Can reduce cortisol by 30% Tea: Regular consumption of theanine in tea can reduce cortisol by 47% Sleep: Sleeping more than 6 hours can reduce cortisol by 50%. Eating dark chocolate, berries and fish have all been shown to reduce cortisol. Reducing over exercising: Excessive exercise increases cortisol and adrenaline so it is best to stick to gentle exercise like walking, yoga and pilates when recovering from adrenal stress.