By Nicole Cieslak, NTP
Our health is arguably one of the most important things we have. When we lose our health, we lose our functionality and our zest for life. Nearly 60 percent of the U.S. adult population is living with a chronic disease and a majority of us are suffering from chronic fatigue, stress and mood conditions like anxiety and depression. As our lives get busier, we tend to continue to add more to our proverbial plate without realizing the toll it is taking on our body and brain. And sometimes life is just complicated. Stress comes in many forms: financial, personal, family responsibilities, career, economic. Oftentimes we don't realize the stress surrounding us, or we don't take the time to invest in self-care practices to help regulate our stress response hormones but in this article we will discuss herbs for stress and adrenal support.
"Adrenal fatigue" has become a popular term in the wellness community, however, it can be used quite loosely. Many people do have overworked adrenals, but few of us have legitimate adrenal fatigue.Let's first learn what the adrenals are and then how we can support their normal healthy function.
What are the Adrenals?
Your adrenals are two small glands that sit atop your kidneys. They are important for regulating and producing vital hormones such as your sex hormones and cortisol levels. Cortisol is one of your main stress hormones. It helps you quickly respond to stressful situations when your "fight or flight" response is activated. Your heart rate rises, your senses become heightened and your body conserves energy by slowing down the function of your digestive system and other systems non-essential for survival.
Our ancestors commonly relied on this stress response system to protect them from life threatening situations such as an enemy invasion or animal attack. However, in today's modern world, most of us are not very often in a life or death situation when we're stressed. Instead we find ourselves in a low level state of chronic stress that keeps our cortisol levels constantly elevated. This is not how they should function. When we recognize a stressor, our brain sends signals to our organs to release these hormones to turn on the sympathetic nervous system — think of it like stepping on the accelerator of your car. When the stressor passes, cortisol levels come down.
If cortisol levels remain constantly elevated, even slightly, this can wreak havoc throughout our entire system. Cortisol will raise our insulin levels and we will start craving certain foods, our appetite will increase. We might find we are moody and may have trouble focusing during the day or sleeping at night.
Eventually our energy stores will become so depleted from being "on" all of the time that we will continually feel exhausted, but might be unable to wind down in the evening. This cycle of stressful days and sleepless nights is fairly common and it impacts our daily lives significantly. This is akin to never taking your foot off the gas pedal — eventually, you will run out of gas and then you're in trouble. The bottom of the gas tank is where you'll encounter adrenal fatigue. Most of us have some varying degree of adrenal exhaustion.
How to Support Your Adrenals Naturally
The good news is that you can support normal healthy adrenal gland function through food, lifestyle, herbal remedies and natural supplementation at the foundational level. Now we are going to look at four of my favorite herbs that help our bodies adapt to stress.
- Rhodiola — This is an adaptogenic herb that promotes a normal healthy stress response and cognitive function. Plants and substances that have adaptogenic effects like Rhodiola are really good at supporting our ability to adapt to the effects of stress. Rhodiola is particularly effective because of the active compound rosavin, which promotes balance of the stress hormone, cortisol. It has cooling properties and a sweet and bitter taste.
- Ashwagandha — Another adaptogenic herb, ashwagandha works with our cortisol levels and restores equilibrium to our central nervous system. As one of the more popular adaptogens for supporting healthy adrenal gland function, it's also a popular herb used to support normal healthy thyroid function, emotional balance, healthy energy levels, and normal immune function. In fact, the word Ashwagandha means "smell of horse" and it's been said to provide you the strength and stamina of a horse. Ashwagandha is part of the nightshade family, so if you have a known or suspected nightshade allergy it's best to opt for an alternative herb to support your adrenals. Ashwagandha has warming properties and is great for those who tend to run cold or are more prone to fatigue.
- Skullcap — Skullcap is an ancient herb that has been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its healing properties. Although skullcap doesn't directly support the adrenal glands, it promotes emotional balance, and supports muscle and joint mobility. Sleep disturbances can often be an issue for people with imbalances in adrenal function and skullcap promotes normal healthy sleep cycles by promoting a healthy nervous system. Skullcap does have cool and dry properties with a sweet taste. If you have consistently low energy or chronically cold hands and feet, skullcap's cooling properties could potentially contribute to those issues and you might want to opt for an alternative herb that is more warming like ashwagandha or consume it with warming foods or liquids.
- Licorice — Licorice root has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for normal healthy digestive, immune, and hormonal functions. Also an adaptogen, licorice root extract has been shown to promote normal healthy cortisol levels. Glycyrrhizic acid, one of the primary compounds found in this plant, supports healthy adrenal gland function thereby strengthening our resistance to stress. It's not recommended, however, for pregnant women or those with kidney, liver or heart issues. Some people might be sensitive to glycyrrhizin. If that's the case, you can look at alternatives like DGL licorice, which is deglycyrrhized.
Supporting your adrenals with these healing herbs can be a great way to help you find balance and maintain homeostasis in your life. I've personally used all of these herbs over the years throughout my healing journey, and love their unique properties.
However, before considering adding any of these herbs to your daily regimen, it's always best to consult your doctor or practitioner to figure out the best way to incorporate these as part of your existing healing routine. Nothing in this article is intended as medical advice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicole Cieslak is a public relations professional, functional nutritional therapy practitioner, and certified personal trainer located in Denver, Colorado. Everyday she strives to help people overcome chronic health issues by getting to the root cause. She helps clients take back control of their health through personalized food, lifestyle and supplementation adjustments. You can find her on Instagram as @fitfoodist_foundations for free health, fitness and beauty advice, and check out her blog thefitfoodist.com for more in depth wellness insights.