- Phytotherapy for adrenal health — the role that plant medicine plays within our body
- Medicinal herbs for adrenal imbalance — our suggestions
- Real support, not just a one-size-fits-all solution
Does any of this sound familiar?
- Feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and stressed all the time?
- Need five cups of coffee or a constant infusion of soda just to make it through the day?
- Find that you do better when you’re always on the go?
- Have trouble waking up, falling asleep, or staying asleep, no matter which herbal supplements you try?
- Find yourself feeling forgetful, “foggy,” or unable to concentrate?
- Notice yourself feeling constantly irritable or on edge?
- Feel that you need to exercise to stay in shape even though you’re exhausted when you do?
- Feel as though everything you eat turns to fat?
- Find that you actually enjoy adrenaline rushes and feel a little bored without a crisis to handle?
- Always hungry, frequently craving sweets, or tempted by “carb-binges”?
- Plagued by irregular or painful periods or PMS?
- Struggling with perimenopause or menopause symptoms including lowered sex drive, vaginal dryness, mood swings, and hot flashes?
- Struggling with anxiety, depression, or despair?
Restoring The Energy You Thought Was Lost
If I’ve painted a picture you recognize—in yourself, in your family, among your friends and colleagues—you’ve just gotten a good look at adrenal dysfunction, a distressingly common problem in which overworked adrenal glands combined with lifelong emotional patterns add up to a painful set of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. In the early stages of adrenal dysfunction, you might feel “tired and wired”: keyed up, anxious, fatigued, and depressed. In the later stages, you might simply feel exhausted. Either way, you know something’s wrong—even if your health-care provider has assured you that you’re fine, or hasn’t mentioned adrenal dysfunction.
So many women come into our clinic feeling listless, with very low energy levels, and they think this is normal. Many have felt that it’s just part of the aging process. However, I am happy to say that it is not natural to feel fatigued purely as a function of your age. And as long as there are no major health issues causing your fatigue, we can absolutely get you back to feeling as energetic and vibrant as you did in your younger years. What it really boils down to is learning to listen to your body and being able to identify what is wrong. This includes understanding your body and its functions – like how to better support your adrenal glands, two walnut-sized but powerful glands that many women have never even heard of.
You may not think much about your adrenals, but they are crucial to your health, mood, and well-being. These little glands sit on top of the kidneys and are responsible for giving us those extra surges of vitality that we need to cope with unusual challenges, new demands, and heightened levels of stress. That vitality is commonly known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction. When a major challenge threatens, our adrenal glands kick up the stress hormones, enabling us to cope with whatever challenge or emergency befalls. Then, when the crisis is over, the stress hormones subside and we relax once more.
Today we live in a world that is troubled with so many challenges. It’s a relief to know that although your adrenal glands serve a number of functions within your body, their primary responsibility is to help you react — and survive — in the face of stress. Sometimes we may not feel stressed, but stress comes in many disguises: physical, emotional, perceived, psychological, environmental, infectious, or any combination of these. Because your adrenal glands work in tandem with your body and mind, they have the ability to respond to every kind of stress.
Unfortunately, your health-care practitioner is likely to ignore or dismiss adrenals as the source of your problem unless you are suffering from either Addison’s disease, in which case your adrenals severely under produce, or Cushing’s syndrome, in which they severely overproduce. These two conditions are well understood by conventional medicine. But if your adrenal imbalance is less extreme—as is true for hundreds of thousands of U.S. women—your practitioner is unlikely to recognize your condition. That’s because, despite the enormous body of science relating adrenal problems to a wide variety of symptoms, adrenal dysfunction is not a commonly accepted diagnosis.
From both my personal and professional experience, I understand the impact when your adrenal system and body are not working in harmony with one another. Sometimes we need to look beyond conventional medicine towards alternative forms of therapy that will enable you to live an optimally healthy lifestyle.
Adrenal depletion can drain the entire body
As our stress levels reduce the functionality of our adrenal glands they also affect other functions in our body. Along with their primary role in dealing with stress, your adrenal glands:
- Maintain the balance of over 50 hormones in your body
- Manage stress and sex hormones as well as a number of other hormones which they are able to synthesize
- Assist in regulating blood pressure and our heart rate
- Assist in balancing blood sugar levels
- Quiet inflammation throughout the body
- Support nervous system function (behavior, mood, memory, clear thinking)
As you can see, the adrenal glands are so intimately intertwined with our physiological and emotional well-being that we need to heed what our bodies are telling us. If we understand our bodies and the role that these ‘little glands’ play we can avoid suffering from weight gain, fuzzy thinking, insomnia, severe fatigue, thyroid disorders, and accelerated aging. For more on the connection between adrenals and thyroid, see our articles on hypothyroidism in menopause.
Are your adrenals imbalanced?
Our adrenals produce bio-chemicals that our body needs to function on a daily basis. Women with adrenal issues often say they have issues in other areas of their bodies as well, such as: irregular blood-sugar; thyroid and sex hormone imbalance; digestive problems; cardiovascular difficulties; immune and autoimmune disorders; mood complaints, such as anxiety and depression; and cognitive difficulties, such as poor memory, fogginess, and an inability to concentrate and think clearly. This range of symptoms can make adrenal dysfunction problematic to recognize. But if you know what you’re looking for, it can be done.
Below is a simple list of questions which may help you to identify whether your adrenal glands are functioning correctly. If you answer yes to more than one of these questions, I recommend consulting with a functional medicine practitioner regarding your adrenal glands.
- Are you always on the run?
- Do you often feel the inability to cope with things around you?
- Do you feel that you need to use far more energy than normal when you need to do something?
- Are you struggling to get out of bed in the morning?
- When your energy levels are low do you turn to caffeine and sugar to give you a boost?
- Do you feel tired and irritated with those around you?
- Are reading and watching movies your cue to fall asleep?
- Are you so hyped up at night that it is difficult to fall asleep?
- Do you feel listless, depressed, or emotionally numb?
Now that you have established that many of the symptoms you are feeling are typical with adrenal dysfunction, we can work together to see what natural options are available to put you back on the pathway to achieving adrenal health. Let’s take a look at some treatments that can help restore your energy, balance your adrenal output, and get you on the road to feeling like yourself again.
How herbs benefit your body
The good news is there is much that can be done. Advances in science are uncovering new understanding all the time. There are many new natural modalities that have come to light when it comes to restoring your energy levels and supporting your adrenal functions instead of depleting them. For thousands of years man had predominantly lived on a diet using our natural resources – plants. With this in mind, the properties of plants have been used as a source of healing either in its whole-food form or in standardized extracts and supplements. This process is called Phytotherapy. Now, with evidence-based research, we are able to back up the benefits of phytotherapy treatment.
Extensive research carried out in the in the US and across the world has established that the herb Eleuthero (aka “Siberian ginseng”) contains anti-fatigue and anti-stress properties that help to support the adrenal glands. In 2009, Swedish researchers found that there are certain molecules which are released by the adrenal glands to protect the body against physical and emotional stress. These same molecules are found in Eleuthero. By introducing these “molecular chaperones” to the body, we are able to help treat and repair damaged proteins during times of intense physical demand.
Furthermore, a research team in Australia demonstrated how Eleuthero inhibits the binding of stress hormones to their receptors. Eleuthero has also been found to bolster the immune system, aid with inflammation and boost clarity of mind. And that’s not all! It has been found to help in nervous system function, assist in regulating blood sugar levels, and there is thought that it may benefit bone remodeling by increasing the amount of a hormone called osteocalcin in the blood.
My patients are adept at multitasking, but are completely overworked and highly stressed. Many have found relief and benefit from using adaptogenic herbs such as Eleuthero and other supplements. Unfortunately, we live in an age where the expectation is one of immediate results and gratification – and if these don’t happen, the natural assumption is that the therapy is not working. Sometimes, we have to exercise patience and belief in what has been recommended by our health practitioner.
Phytotherapy and mineral supplementation are very gentle remedies and take time for your body to absorb and feel the benefits. Remember that we are all different, therefore you may have to try a number of options until you find the right one that works for you. Thank goodness the plant world is so diverse which means that there will be something available to help you – don’t give up!
Adrenal imbalance – suggested supplements
Western medicine has been taking its time recognizing the importance of adrenal health but Eastern cultures have always given the adrenals their due. Conventional medicine focuses on acute adrenal-related conditions, like Addison’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome, which are not exceedingly common. However, more sensitive testing will show a trend toward one end of the spectrum that, though not an illness, may point to vulnerability. My goal is to have you look deeper and start at a place where we view food as medicine.
It is also important to think about using a number of safe and supportive herbs and supplements in your daily regimen. When you are attempting to try a more holistic and natural route of medication, it is important to listen to your body and monitor your growth as you experiment with a natural approach, as we all react differently to therapeutic agents. If you find that you are having a reaction to the herbs, or are sensitive, modify your dosage or consider working with an experienced herbalist.
Herbalists and many other alternative practitioners rely on herbal medicine, which happens to be the basis for many prescription drugs. Herbal remedies can take the form of teas, tinctures, oils, creams, and pills. Many herbs can be poisonous or interact dangerously with prescription drugs, so it is best to use them only under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. Below is a list of some of the herbs that I have used to treat my patients:
- Astragalus root (A. membranaceus). Your body has a natural ability to adapt to stress, but sometimes this is not enough. Astragalus boosts your body’s capability to handle stress, gives your immune system a healthy boost, regulates normal blood sugar levels and alleviates insulin resistance.
- Cordyceps (C. sinensis). An antioxidant fungus, Cordyceps can slow down the aging process, support your immune system, assist in inflammation and help stabilize your blood sugar levels.
- Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus, also known as Siberian ginseng). As discussed before, Eleuthero is an adaptogenic herb that helps to protect our bodies from the debilitating effects of stress, reduces fatigue, assists in clarity of memory, aids in balancing blood sugar levels, and even perhaps supports bone remodeling.
- Rhodiola rosea (“golden root”). Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb that protects against stress-related fatigue and ultimate“burnout,” increases mental clarity, supports the immune system and assists in balancing blood sugar regulation. An added benefit of Rhodiola is its antidepressant and antianxiety effects.
- Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Licorice Root is well known for helping support adrenal balance as well as energy levels and endurance. Although many herbs do not have many restrictions with their use or dosage, there are certain forms of licorice which are known to increase blood pressure and lower potassium levels in the body. So be cautious, and check your blood pressure when using it.
As a holistic and functional medical practitioner, I have found the strengths in using diverse forms of intervention. I believe that each health professional has their own unique expertise and whether one consults with a herbalist, naturopath, or functional medicine practitioner it is all about you and finding the solution that is going to work best for your condition. Many times finding that solution may require seeing multiple practitioners.
I’ve borrowed a phrase from healer and best-selling author Caroline Myss because I think it sums up so beautifully the other key factor behind adrenal dysfunction. She says “Our biography becomes our biology” if we do not pay attention. No matter how disciplined we are about cleaning up our diet, taking our nutritional supplements, and getting regular exercise, if we don’t attend to the emotional piece of the puzzle, our adrenal symptoms won’t go away.
We have become used to living in a world where there seems to be a solution for everything. Advertisers have led us to believe that we can expect immediate results and we’ve been brainwashed into believing that one-size-fits-all is the answer to our problems. It’s important to remember that phytotherapy isn’t a magic bullet, either. What it offers us is an additional source of extra energy and support as we take the necessary steps towards healing the adrenals. However, in order to have optimal adrenal gland functionality we need to be honest with ourselves, and acknowledge and address the root causes of stress in our lives.
I am reminded of a patient whose toddler son was admitted into hospital after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Upon release he needed care 24/7 which left my patient sleep deprived and depressed. She also began to notice that her elevated blood sugar levels were entering into a pre-diabetes danger zone.
After intense discussion and evaluation of what was happening in her life and body, I recommended that she start with a combination herbal/mineral supplement. Very soon, she started to feel much better – but unfortunately her new sense of well-being tipped her overboard. She felt so invigorated that she joined a gym, took on more responsibilities at work and at home, and started writing a book! Now you may say this was amazing and wonderful, which it is, but what she needed to understand was that the herbal support was just one piece to healing her adrenals. Even though you may feel infinitely better after starting phytotherapy, true adrenal health comes from creating conditions that sustain not just physical health but emotional and spiritual wellness, too.
All of these realizations can lead us on a path of discovery, understanding what our problems are and how or what can we do to change – to learn new ways of “being.” This does not mean that you have to undergo a radical change. Taking baby steps can allow you to make one small change at a time. I understand that this sounds a lot easier than it actually is, but I would like introduce you to a few changes that you can make to your lifestyle that will ensure a full adrenal recovery:
Modify your exercise. There are many benefits to regular exercise and although it may be difficult to begin, many of my patients marvel at how well they feel after a workout. If this is you, stick with it. However, some people will feel absolutely exhausted and their energy levels depleted. If this is the case for you, you need to slowly introduce exercise into your daily life. Mornings are best for aerobic exercise because this is when your cortisol is naturally highest, but try not to let your heart rate go above 90 beats per minute. If aerobics are not for you, then find something less demanding like a relaxing walk, yoga, or any kind of exercise that restores you instead of draining you.
Eat often and well. I have written extensively on how to support your adrenal glands by eating the correct foods. Nothing is more discouraging than being disciplined about your eating plan and not losing the weight you’d like—only because you aren’t appropriately supporting your adrenal-friendly food choices with healthy lifestyle and exercise choice. Eating certain foods, at specific times of the day, can help you return to a natural cortisol rhythm thus avoiding the “crash and burn” of the peaks and valleys of sugar and caffeine. One point that I have always stressed is that a body that is allowed to be hungry places a huge strain on the adrenals and therefore it becomes absolutely vital not to miss meals or let too much time pass between meals or a snack.
Relieve stress. If you can find a way to quiet your mind periodically, you can release an enormous amount of stress. One of the most wonderful ways to quiet your mind is through meditation. Meditation offers many health benefits, including improving blood pressure, circulation, and heart health; it also supports mood, self-confidence, and relaxation. Even just five minutes a day of quiet breathing or meditation can do wonders for your adrenals. Create ‘me time’ and be kind to yourself. Find things that are going to make you feel relaxed like going for a massage, or ask your partner to massage your feet or head. The practice of yoga, t’ai chi or qi gong is non-invasive, but smooth and tranquil. When was the last time you put your feet up with a cup of tea or had an extended phone call just to talk? Look at the things that you feel will best relieve tension and stress and follow this path.
Play. We so often take on responsibilities or agree to do things that require a lot of time or drain your energy. We need to learn to say no and only take on things that are fulfilling and satisfying. Step out of your box and have fun – meet up with friends that you haven’t seen for a while, spend time with your family, take your grandchildren to a movie, go to the beach – the list is endless. Don’t feel guilty but rather embrace your new life and give yourself permission to do it during this time of healing.
Sleep. Get a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night. The connection between lack of sleep and weight retention is clear. Insufficient sleep stresses your body, chronic loss of sleep equals chronic stress and chronic stress means chronically high levels of cortisol, which encourages your body to hold on to every extra ounce of fat. If you regularly go without at least seven hours of good, restful sleep, you will find it nearly impossible to lose weight or even to maintain a healthy weight. Women are often so busy that we end up burning the candle at both ends. Try to go to bed at a reasonable hour as sleep is one of the magic remedies to restore your adrenal glands. Before going to sleep try having herbal tea or consider a natural herbal supplement to help you relax and ease into a peaceful sleep. And while napping isn’t always possible, a short nap during the day can boost your energy levels.
Natural methods to rejuvenate your energy
The mind, emotions, and spirit have an enormous impact on the body. How we think and feel about ourselves and the world, and how we experience a spiritual connection, can make a huge difference when it comes to healing the body. If we’re prisoners of our past, responding with amygdala-driven impulsiveness to replay the same panic, anxiety, sorrow, or anger that colored our past, our bodies will find it far more difficult to heal. But if we learn to reprogram our emotional responses our bodies can begin to shake off the burdens of the past. How exciting and empowering is that? Just by the choices we make each day about what we eat and how we live, we can alter the way our genes express themselves and create our own good health.
Climb off the rollercoaster and shrug off the ideas that you have to do more or that enough is never enough. Be kind to yourself and do only what you can without relying on sugar, carbs, and caffeine to make it through the day. Support your adrenal glands by trying some of the natural herbal options that are available to boost your energy. You have to take control, adopting a path that will lead to adrenal health and lifelong balance. After all, what is more important than feeling great?