Typically, when I think about health, I think about cardiovascular health, immune health, digestive health, blood sugar management—the list goes on and on. However, adrenal health is largely overlooked.
The adrenal glands are the two walnut-sized endocrine glands on top of each kidney. They may not seem significant, but they play an incredibly important role in overall health. The adrenal glands secrete nearly 50 hormones, including adrenalin, cortisol, estrogen and testosterone. These hormones help to regulate the body’s response to stress, among other things. The challenge with the adrenals is that so many people are overextended by work and family, which means these people are under stress virtually all the time. That said, the adrenals rarely get a break. Over time, the exposure to chronic stress, which is more often the norm rather than the exception, wears the adrenals out, leading to adrenal fatigue. This leads to a collection of symptoms that results when your adrenals are no longer functioning the way they should.
Although there are no recent statistics available, according to AdrenalFatigue.org, John Tinterra, M.D., who specialized in low adrenal function, said in 1969 that he estimated approximately 16 percent of the public could be classified as having severe adrenal fatigue. However, if all indications of low cortisol were included, the percentage would be closer to 66 percent. And this was before the extreme stress of living in the 21st century.
Cortisol: A Complex Hormone
As previously mentioned, normal functioning adrenal glands produce a wide range of hormones. But cortisol is especially noteworthy. The adrenal glands of a healthy person produce about 20 mg of cortisol daily. This may increase to 200 mg daily during periods of stress. This increase is the body’s coping response when under stress. Cortisol is a complex hormone responsible for:
- Maintaining normal blood sugar levels
- Immobilizing fat and protein stores for increased energy
- Producing an anti-inflammatory response
- Controlling and modifying most blood cells that participate in immune and/or inflammatory reactions
- Impacting blood pressure
- Impacting electrolyte levels in the heart muscle
- Impacting the heart beat
- Influencing mood
During early stages of adrenal fatigue, cortisol levels are usually high, which promotes weight gain and an increase in cholesterol and blood pressure. Additionally, adrenal stress will alter brain chemistry causing depression and anxiety, insulin resistance, disruption of thyroid metabolism, as well as negatively impacting bone density, among other conditions.
Adrenal Fatigue Symptoms
Adrenal health cannot be understated and plays an incredibly important role in overall health and quality of life. The following symptoms. Among others, are indicators of an altered adrenal profile:
- Inability to recover appropriately from exercise
- Headaches associated with physical or mental stress
- Compromised immune function
- Slow in the morning
- Afternoon headaches
- Full or bloated feeling
- Craving sweets, caffeine or cigarettes
- Blurred vision
- Unstable behavior
- Becoming shaky or light-headed if meals are missed or delayed
- Disrupted sleeping patterns
- Periodic dizziness
Adaptogens for Adrenal Health
So, the logical question is what can help us adapt to stress and lower cortisol? Adaptogens.
Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants. They help balance, restore and protect the body. Adaptogens help the body cope more effectively with the demands of everyday life. They provide a sustained sense of calm and are non-stimulating.
In addition to their effects on stress adaptation, adaptogens have profound antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that protect cells from damage from a variety of chemical exposures. Also, one of the definitions of adaptogens is that they are non-toxic, even with long-term use. You can rely on these herbs to be safe.
Adaptogens are truly remarkable in that the chemicals they contain actually help to normalize adrenal function. They calm and nourish the adrenal glands, and support the processes that are controlled by the adrenals—from blood sugar and immune system regulation, to hormones and blood pressure. While some adaptogens can work fairly quickly, their actions tend to be more subtle, with benefits growing with regular usage.
The following are my favorite adaptogens that will help to lower stress and cortisol levels. They meet all the scientific criteria for being in this category. However, this list is not all inclusive and there are many other efficacious adaptogens that address stress and cortisol not included here:
Ashwagandha: Often referred to as Indian ginseng, ashwagandha regulates the immune system and eases anxiety. It has been used in Eastern medicine for more than 2,500 years and has immuno-modulating effects that boost the immune system and aid the body in lowering cortisol levels.
Ginseng: One of the most well-known adaptogens, research indicates the use of Asian ginseng for improving mental performance and the ability to withstand stress. This red ginseng also has antioxidant and antidepressant benefits, and helps naturally lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Holy Basil: This botanical helps the body to better adapt to stress. Holy Basil doesn’t impact a person’s mood, but does help the body function at its optimal level during times of stress. It does this by modulating the production of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Stable cortisol levels result in improved mental clarity and memory. Holy Basil promotes a feeling of less agitation and anxiousness, allowing the person to perform at optimal levels resulting in a higher quality of life.
Licorice Root: Can increase energy and endurance, boost the immune system, and protect the thymus from being damaged by cortisol. Be aware of certain extractions as they may negatively impact blood pressure. A recent study published in the scientific journal Food and Nutrition Research showed a special extraction of the molecule reduced diastolic and systolic blood pressure. (2016;60: 10.3402/fnr.v60.30830.)
Maca: Maca is a good source of calcium, vitamin C, amino acids, phytonutrients and healthy fatty acids. According to a December 2009 report in the German medical journal Research and Complimentary Medicines, Maca may help relieve stress and anxiety while boosting energy and mood.
Rhodiola: A widely researched, potent adaptogen that provides a buffer to stress-related mental and physical fatigue, Rhodiola contains a phytochemical known as salisdroside, which may help to relieve anxiety and combat aging. Rhodiola suppresses the production of cortisol and increases levels of stress resistant proteins.
Today’s world is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations and demands on a wide range of fronts. And these challenges seem to increase as life becomes more complex. For so many of us, stress is so commonplace that it has become a way of life. However, it is important to remember that stress isn’t always bad. But when stress is a constant, the mind and body pay a huge price.
Mark Becker is an account manager for Vivion, a raw materials distributor, based in Vernon, California. He has worked as a natural products sales and marketing executive for 20 years. Mark has written more than 300 articles and has hosted or been a guest on more than 500 radio shows. He obtained a bachelor's in journalism from Long Beach State University and did his Master’s work in communications at Cal State Fullerton. For more than 30 years he has participated in numerous endurance events, including more than 150 triathlons of Olympic distance or longer, 103 marathons and numerous other events including ultramarathons and rough water swims from Alcatraz to the mainland. He has relied on a comprehensive dietary supplement and homeopathic regimen to support his athletic, professional and personal endeavors. Follow Mark Becker on Facebook and Twitter. For more information, access www.vivioninc.com or www.EnergyatLast.com.