This article gives you a detailed analysis of adrenal support, from the use of herbalism as well as lifestyle. In doing so, it clears up some of the common misconceptions regarding adrenal fatigue and adrenal burnout, when these occur, and what should be done.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Autoimmune conditions
- Low libido
- Brain fog
- Hormonal imbalances
- Hair loss
- Weight gain
- Insulin resistance
- Cravings for salt and sugar
- Sleep issues
- Muscle loss
- Bone loss
- Inability to cope with stress
- Skin issues
- And more
Adrenal fatigue is not recognized by the mainstream as an issue. But that has more to do with the fuzzy nature of all that it can impact rather than any solid medical reason. However, Addison’s Disease is recognized which is the lack of production of cortisol. This is often autoimmune in nature, where the body is attacking the adrenal glands and is quite serious.
Table of Contents
- 1 What are the Adrenals?
- 2 Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
- 3 Calm the Nervous System with Nervines
- 4 Adapt to Stress with Adaptogens
- 5 Jing – Support the Kidney Energy
- 6 11 Steps to Reducing Stress
What are the Adrenals?
The adrenals, or adrenal glands, are pieces of fatty tissue that sit on top of the kidneys. Adrenal comes from “ad” and “renal,” meaning related to or above the kidneys.
The next bit is a bit science-y and filled with jargon. It’s included for those that want to know a little more, but is not necessary, for getting use out of the rest of the article.
The outer cortex of the adrenals produces steroidal hormones, including mineralocorticoids, glucocorticoids, and gonadocorticoids. Mineralocorticoids are responsible for blood pressure and electrolyte balance. Glucocorticoids are responsible for regulating the metabolism. The gonadocorticoids are weak androgens, such as DHEA and androstenedione, which have uses themselves and are converted into testosterone and estrogen.
Meanwhile, the inner medulla produces epinephrine and norepinephrine. These two hormones/neurotransmitters are also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline, respectively. They are primarily responsible for the stress response, or fight and flight.
When we talk about the topic of adrenal support, it primarily has to do with just three of these things: cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. (We’ll leave the mineralocorticoids and glucocorticoids for another time.)
Epinephrine and Norepinephrine
When entering the fight or flight response, ACTH or adrenocorticotropic hormone is released from the hypothalamus, which in turn floods the body with epinephrine and norepinephrine, which than act on adrenoreceptors throughout the body. At the same time cortisol is released.
These in turn increase blood pressure, blood sugar and suppress the immune system. The purpose of which is to increase usable energy, preparing the body for response.
One other thing that might be useful is knowing the biosynthetic pathways for these neurotransmitters. While these can also go off in other directions, transforming into other molecules, this is a general pathway:
Phenylalanine -> Tyrosine -> L-DOPA -> Dopamine -> Norepinephrine -> Epinephrine
The first two, phenylalanine and tyrosine are amino acids, that will be found in many protein sources. L-DOPA and dopamine are neurotransmitters.
Cortisol and the Corticosteroids
Cholesterol is the precursor material for cortisol. While your body will make this, it can easily be acquired from most animal foods. And despite the bad name it has been given, it is critically important for the creation of many different hormones.
Cortisol is commonly called the “stress hormone”. It too has gotten a bad name. The problem is primarily only when it is chronically high. This occurs when you have too much stress. But cortisol’s role is in trying to fight all the stress and inflammation you’re dealing with. It is important to realize that cortisol is one of the major anti-inflammatory chemicals inside the body.
It too is originally triggered by the hypothalamus, but only by going through the pituitary first.
Because cortisol is higher up on the chart, and fighting stress is important, if you’re under too much of it, most of the cholesterol and precursor material, will go into corticosteroid production. This is commonly called pregnenolone steal (though I feel the term cortisol steal makes more sense). If this happens, not enough will be available for androgens or estrogens. This equally impacts both men and women.
Adrenal Fatigue and Burnout
Physiologically, the amount of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine circulating in our body increases with more and more stress. In the modern age, we don’t have short bursts of these hormones being released because of an attacking tiger. Instead, we have it repeatedly released from multiple stressors: work stresses, financial stress, family issues, and the constant beeps and vibrations of our personal devices.
Over time, these systems may get fatigued and therefore not able to produce enough of these hormones anymore, or the constant overabundance of them taxes other bodily systems (immune system, metabolism, sex hormones, etc.)
Spend too long in adrenal fatigue and you may eventually reach adrenal burnout. This is when the adrenals are no longer creating cortisol, or only in trace amounts. This is a serious problem and may require medical attention and the use of drugs.
But hopefully, you can deal with the issues before they get that far down the road.
It’s not that stress is bad, in fact, we can’t live or grow without it, but modern day living causes low levels of chronic stress, which is worse for the adrenals than a one-off thing.
Okay, now that we’ve covered some of the basic scientific details, there are a few areas you must understand to really know what it takes for adrenal support.
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
The adrenal medulla is a bundle of nerve fibers that is tied directly into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is responsible for the fight or flight response. As described by Chris Hardy, Ph.D. in Strong Medicine, this is the fast pathway that activates with epinephrine and norepinephrine. This in turn raises heart rate, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, diverts blood flow and constricts blood vessels, readying you for action. This is an inflammatory pathway. Todays modern approach to living is the reason that the SNS is active for more time than it should be in most people.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the “rest and digest” system. When you’re not in fight or flight, which is ideally most of the time, then your body can relax, digest food, have sex, maintain a strong immune system, and much more. This is largely anti-inflammatory.
Notice that stress, because in real dangers it requires an immediate response, is largely related to the nervous system and its electric signaling molecules, such as neurotransmitters. The slower moving hormones, like cortisol, come in to play later. Essentially, cortisol is there to mop up the damage done by epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Because of this, long before you ever are to reach real adrenal fatigue or exhaustion, instead, first you would be going through nervous system fatigue or exhaustion. This brings us to our first category of herbs that can help deal with stress.
Calm the Nervous System with Nervines
Nervines are those herbs that act on the nervous system. While there are nervine stimulants, such as coffee which we’ll talk more about shortly, primarily this category has to do with nervine relaxants.
Some of the herbs we sell that fit in here include:
Blue Vervain – This is by far my favorite. The bitter nervine quality calms the nervous system in a noticeable way as soon as you taste it. It is particularly great for Type A personalities and people that get stressed about work.
Gotu Kola – Gotu kola is known as the herb of enlightenment. While it is used by many for meditating, it is not stimulating to the mind in the same way bacopa is. Instead, it helps with a relaxed focus. It can be a great option for those that need to lower their stress, while still getting stuff done.
Mucuna – Mucuna has long been known as an anti-stimulant. It was classically combined with cacao (a nervine stimulant) to help balance it out. It is also rich in L-DOPA, which if you saw from earlier, can be converted into epinephrine and norepinephrine.
The following are all classified as Shen tonics in Chinese medicine. To a bigger or lesser degree, they all help the nervous system to relax a bit more.
There are tons of other nervines that we do not currently sell that are great too. Some of these include milky oats, skullcap, lavender, chamomile, hops, red belted conk and more. For more on nervines, see this article.
Adapt to Stress with Adaptogens
The second place to go to would be the adaptogens. But you have to be careful here…
Many people use adaptogens a bit haphazardly. Many people take them as a way to combat stress and have greater energy. They do help with this for sure. However, if you take adaptogens to push harder in your life it can lead to more problems.
For this reason, it can be very useful to combine the nervine relaxants along with adaptogens for a more balanced approach.
As the name might suggest, adaptogens help your body to adapt better, especially to stress. They help fight both mental and physical fatigue. In tests with several different varieties, the stress response evens out more so like shown below:
Here are a few of the top adaptogenic herbs, though most of the herbs on our site will have some adaptogenic effects.
While there are many adaptogens for the best effect I think a blend of them, like our Spartan Broad Spectrum Adaptogenic Formula, may be a better, more balanced approach to taking adaptogenic herbs.
I am specially pointing this adaptogen out because in one important way it is vary unlike the others. Most adaptogens are stimulating in nature to a bigger or lesser degree. That is one reason people love them, because they tend to get an energy boost from taking them. Ashwagandha is a bit different.
In fact, it could be put into the nervine relaxant category, while also being a excellent adaptogen. Ashwagandha has been shown to produce GABA-like activity. GABA, or gamma amino-butyric acid, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it helps to calm the nervous system.
Meanwhile, ashwagandha has also been shown to significantly impact cortisol levels as compared to placebo.
Many people agree…we have the best ashwagandha tincture on the market, one grown in the USA and spagyrically prepared. Mike Turnapoll of InsideTracker reported his blood test results using our Ashwagandha here.
Jing – Support the Kidney Energy
Eastern “Kidneys” work differently than the Western view of the organ. It appears the adrenal, endocrine and stress component is rolled into the Chinese concept of the Kidney energy.
The kidneys are said to be the storehouse of Jing. And the adrenals sit physically on top of the kidneys. I don’t think it’s possible to have excellent adrenal health without having the Kidneys in good shape as well.
There’s a saying in China that “It’s okay to become tired, but not exhausted.” Being tired is fine. That’s just using your everyday Qi. But exhaustion taps into Jing and depletes the adrenals.
Very often the adaptogen herbs are considered Jing herbs (as well as Qi). This gives you one more way to look at adrenal support, specifically through Jing support.
When we’re talking about Jing, and you can read a full article about the topic here, it is often divided into yin and yang.
In this article, we’ve already covered this in one way. Yin is the PNS while yang is the SNS. Yin is rest and digest. Yang is fight or flight.
So, here we want Yin Jing herbs, more so than their yang counterparts, because we want to have more of that relaxation energy.
Probably the top yin jing herb in Chinese medicine is He Shou Wu. This herb is specific to the Kidneys and is one of the very best for them, though it has far reaching functions. This can be seen in its effects in restoring hair color. (As with everything this only appears to happen in some people, and likely where there is this stress-depleting, Jing-depleting effect in place that causes it to happen, which is not always the case.)
There is also Rehmannia, which is known as the “Kidney’s Own Food.” It also happens to be moistening, while the vast majority of herbs are drying.
Coming from the West, but definitely fitting into this same category is Nettle Root, which we have available as both a powdered extract and tincture.
More specifically for women, shatavari is a stellar yin tonic.
Famed herbalist, Michael Tierra, has stated that “yin deficiency” is a huge issue in the West, that is not often seen. Without sufficient yin, the body can’t do much. This can even stop other herbs from working because there is insufficient yin to absorb and utilize them. Therefore, supporting your yin is critically important for many.
We don’t currently sell licorice, but when it comes to the adrenals and cortisol it is necessary to mention it. Licorice is used in many Chinese formulations because of it’s moistening qualities, when so many other herbs are drying, in order to balance them out. This is why it is called the “Great Harmonizer.”
Licorice contains triterpenes with similar structures to the adrenal cortex hormones. In addition, licorice has other compounds, such as glycyrrhizin, that extend the duration cortisol works within your body. Normally cortisol has a half-life of 66 minutes. (A half-life is the time it takes for half of the material to be cleared, in this case, from the body.), Licorice can inhibit the enzymes that cause the transformation of cortisol and approximately double this period of time.
Of course, this action is not right for everyone. At the same time, there is aldosterone-like action that can lead to other effects. And there is some concern that licorice may decrease testosterone (which would be concerning to many readers here) as it appears to inhibit other enzymes in steroidogenesis.
11 Steps to Reducing Stress
As we often say, herbs can do wonders…but they won’t make up for a crappy lifestyle. Herbs are best used in combination with making lifestyle changes.
The following list covers some of the basics. You’ll probably be thinking I know all these. But the basics are the basics for a reason. The question is: Are you doing them?
- Sleep. Are you getting enough of it? The average American sleeps only 6.8 hours per night. If you’re suffering from adrenal fatigue, you’ll want to be getting between 8 and 10 hours of sleep per day. (This can include the use of naps.)
- Lay off the caffeine and other stimulants, especially coffee. While coffee certainly has its place, supporting the adrenals is not one of them. If you do drink coffee, at least add some balancing herbs to it such as he shou wu, rehammania or chaga.
- Optimize your diet. Know that too many sugars, carbohydrates, hydrogenated oils or processed foods are likely to exacerbate any issues. Make sure quality proteins and vegetables are in your diet, plus…
- Good Quality Fats. The adrenals are fatty organs. Many of the hormones, especially the sex hormones, are made up of fatty substances, and in our “low fat” world many people do not have enough starting material from which to build everything they need. And the nervous system is coated in fats (myelin) that help it run optimally. See Megadosing Ghee for a couple stories on one way this can be done.
- Be on the lookout for food sensitivities as these are stressors to your body. If in every meal you’re eating gluten or dairy, and you happen to be sensitive to them, you’re entering fight or flight mode, without even knowing it.
- Optimize your micronutrients. Your body uses vitamins and minerals for every reaction it does. Thus, an insufficient supply makes everything work less than optimal. Specific nutrients to pay attention to include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, vitamin D, B-complex vitamins and selenium.
- The right kind of exercise. Exercise is good, but too much or too high intensity (and especially the combo of the two) is problematic. Keep your exercise easier. Moving meditations like walking, bodyweight flow, qi gong or yoga can be great. I’m a big advocate of keeping your training relatively easy.
- Do some form of meditation every single day. Enough said.
- Laugh and utilize your social support circle. Get rid of, or at least cut down on, negative people that bring stress into your life.
- Minimize stressors in your life. Common stresses include work, finances, relationship issues. Sometimes the best thing to do is to cut something out completely, though this is not always an option. If necessary, seek counseling or other help.
- Minimize EMF’s. I know, I know, some people will say this is unproven and doesn’t do anything, but there is plenty of research saying it is and it does if you actually look. These can act as stressors, that you may not even be aware of, which steadily impact your body over time.
Stress is not always what we think of as stress. We’ve all had times when we are “stressed out,” and feeling that. Of course, that is important to notice and do things in order to lessen your stress load.
And there are many times when our bodies are stressed, meaning they’re physiologically changing, releasing these hormones, that we do not feel. They’re under the threshold of conscious awareness. While these may be smaller stressors, they can certainly add up and make a big impact on how healthy you are.
In the modern age of chronic stress levels, it is essential to understand the role of the nervous system and hormones so that you can do your best to support your body. Ideally, no herbs would be necessary, and it could all be done merely through lifestyle. But as you work your way in that direction the herbs can be there to help.
Throughout this article on adrenal support I’ve listed probably about 30 different herbs. No, you don’t need to take all of them. Just a few in fact, or maybe even just one, would be enough to get started with. So where do you start? I can’t give you any blanket statements because it depends on you, your constitution, your lifestyle and your symptoms. Instead, I invite you to read more about the herbs and select the one(s) that stand out to you. Plus, you can always email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for help.
- Mehta AK, Binkley P, Gandhi SS, Ticku MK. Pharmacological effects of Withania somnifera root extract on GABAA receptor complex. Indian J Med Res. 1991 Aug;94:312-5.
- Chandrasekhar K., Kapoor J., & Anishetty S. A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jul-Sep; 34(3): 255–262.
- Walker BR, Stewart PM, Shackleton CH, Padfield PL, Edwards CR. Deficient inactivation of cortisol by 11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase in essential hypertension. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 1993 Aug;39(2):221-7.
- Kroes BH, Beukelman CJ, van den Berg AJ, et al. Inhibition of human complement by beta-glycyrrhetinic acid. Immunology. 1997 Jan;90(1):115-20.
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