Your body has two adrenal glands located just above each of your kidneys. As part of your endocrine system, your adrenal glands secrete more than 50 hormones, including aldosterone (which helps regulate your blood pressure and blood volume), cortisol and adrenaline, the latter two of which can become overactivated by stress.
Indeed, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the system responsible for the management of stress. This includes stress from every conceivable source, be it injury or disease, work or relationship problems, lack of sleep or poor diet.
Adaptogens for Adrenal SupportA more recent hypothesis is that most so-called adrenal fatigue cases are not really due to the adrenal glands' reduced ability to make cortisol. More often than not, the problem can be traced back to dysfunction in the brain signaling portion of the HPA axis, meaning the primary problem is with the hypothalamus and pituitary (the H and the P, and not so much the A, or adrenal portion of the axis).
Both primary and secondary adrenal insufficiency can be diagnosed with a lab test. More subtle abnormalities in the HPA axis, on the other hand, are more difficult to diagnose. To identify HPA dysfunction, a comprehensive hormone panel is recommended. One of the best is the DUTCH test (Dried Urine test for Comprehensive Hormones), a complete hormone panel developed by Mark Newman, founder of Precision Analytical Laboratory in Oregon.
The DUTCH test really outperforms all of the other methods when it comes to telling the story about what your hormones are doing, allowing you to determine what areas you should be focusing on in terms of taking corrective action. A number of nutrients are known to support adrenal function, including magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin C and animal-based omega-3 fat such as krill oil.
Ashwagandha — A Potent Hormone BalancerAn herb native to Asia and India, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been a powerful tool in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It's only in the last 50 years that this member of the nightshade family of plants has emerged in the West as a potent healing herb. As an adaptogen, it can:
- Help your body adapt to stress; by balancing your immune system, metabolism and hormonal systems.
- Increase strength and promote health when used regularly. In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is classified as "Rasayana," a type of essence that helps in the healing of the body and the lengthening of life.
- Protect your brain from oxidative stress.
- Support healthy levels of total lipids, cholesterol and triglycerides that are already in the normal range.
The root also reduces cortisol levels, restores insulin sensitivity and helps to stabilize mood. In one study, patients diagnosed with moderate to severe anxiety who were treated with ashwagandha reported "significantly decreased" symptoms compared to those undergoing more conventional interventions.
"Our results provide evidence indicating that key constituents in [ashwagandha] may have an important role in the development of pharmacological treatments for neurological disorders associated with GABAergic signaling dysfunction such as general anxiety disorders, sleep disturbances, muscle spasms and seizures."In men, ashwagandha can help boost testosterone levels. While some adaptogens are stimulants in disguise, this is not the case with ashwagandha. It can give your morning exercise routine a boost, and when taken prior to bed it can help you get a good night's sleep as well. I recommend using only 100% organic ashwagandha root, free of fillers, additives and excipients, to ensure quality.
Rhodiola — A Natural Anti-Stress AgentThe perennial plant rhodiola rosea, sometimes called "golden root," "roseroot" or "arctic root," is another powerful adaptogen known to enhance vitality by helping your body maintain homeostasis and adapt to physical, chemical and environmental stress. This plant has a long history of use in traditional folk medicine in Russia and Scandinavian countries. Among its many uses, rhodiola has been shown to:
- Have potent anti-inflammatory activity.
- Enhance nervous system health and cognitive function.
- Modulate immune function (raising low immune function and reducing overactive function) and protect against viral infections.
- Improve male and female sexual functioning, reproductive health and fertility.
- Enhance athletic performance and shorten recovery time.
The bioactive compounds rosavin and salidroside have also been shown to improve passage of serotonin precursors through the blood-brain barrier, and help preserve serotonin by dampening the activity of catechol-o-methyl transferase.
Evidence suggests rhodiola can raise serotonin levels by as much as 30% Research published in 2015 compared rhodiola to the antidepressant sertraline, concluding it's a safer choice. According to psychiatrists who use rhodiola in their clinical practice, the plant extract is a "viable choice in many cases for the treatment of mild to moderate depression." Rhodiola has even been shown to improve symptoms of burnout caused by work stress.
In a study published last year, individuals suffering from burnout who were given 400 mg of rhodiola rosea extract for 12 weeks experienced significant improvements, reporting lower levels of emotional exhaustion, fatigue and exhaustion, and greater joy, zest for life and libido.
Rhodiola Helps Combat Chronic FatigueRhodiola's energy and vitality-boosting effects can have clear benefits for those struggling with chronic fatigue. As an added boon, it tends to be fast-acting. In one recent study, patients struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome who received 400 mg of dry ethanol rhodiola extract per day for eight weeks experienced significant improvements within the first week.
In all, patients experienced a 42% reduction in total stress and a 39% reduction in fatigue; 83% of them reported feeling "very much" or "much" improved by week eight.
Siberian Ginseng Promotes Vitality and LongevityThere are several different types of ginseng, and they are not necessarily interchangeable. Of the three major varieties, only two are actually ginseng:
Like ashwagandha, Asian ginseng impacts thyroid hormones. More specifically, it contains properties that block production of excessive amounts of reverse T3 (rT3). A study looking at the impact of ginseng injections found it produced healthy increases of T3 and T4 and a reduction in rT3.
Research has also shown Siberian ginseng has neuroprotective benefits, in part by improving hippocampal and microglial cell signaling, and there's some evidence suggesting it can help prevent or slow down the loss of motor function associated with Parkinson’s.
Siberian ginseng also has mild antidepressive effects, and is useful for insomnia, behavioral and memory problems, and has been shown to improve exercise endurance by improving oxygen utilization in your body.
Tulsi — The PurifierHighly revered in India for over 5,000 years, tulsi, also known as holy basil, has been valued for its many health-promoting properties. This herb is said to purify the mind, body and spirit, and has been cherished for its protective and uplifting nature. There are numerous tulsi products available today, including tulsi tablets, tea, powder and tulsi essential oil.
Protect and Support Your Adrenal HealthHealthy adrenal functioning is important for optimal health in general. Adaptogenic herbs are certainly not the only way to protect and support your adrenals, or even the most ideal strategy. But they can be helpful during times of stress.
If you've already succumbed to "adrenal fatigue" or HPA dysfunction, your treatment will require a whole-body approach — one that addresses the excess stress and unhealthy lifestyle habits that caused the impaired stress response in the first place.
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