Will adrenals be the next “everything comes from the gut” wellness talking-trend? We’re well on our way… We’re hearing more and more about the adrenal system in today’s burn out world. Overworked, under-slept, fried by despair over the state of the world/climate/onslaught of awful news... Our adrenals are in overdrive, and we’re exhausting this delicate system and over stimulating the body’s neuron-hormone connections to the point of developing chronic health issues. On a personal level, balancing my adrenal system is something very central in my health battle. One of the comorbidities of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is an overstimulated adrenal system: adrenal insufficiency you might call it. I’ve spent years battling with my broken stress hormones. And experimenting with different plant and alternative treatments has given me relief where pharmaceutical treatments found their limits. Adrenal issues is such a universal problem with a wide spectrum of symptoms and severity. You don’t need to suffer for chronic health problems to have adrenal fatigue. Here’s my list of adrenal supporting plant and holistic treatments that have worked for me, and here’s hoping that it might help you find some peace and relief too.
Our adrenal glands produce hormones that help regulate everything from the immune system, metabolism, blood pressure, to our response to stress. The “fight or flight” system refers to the production of two key hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. While adrenaline works in the short term (think of spurts of adrenaline released when under perceived stress or frightened), cortisol has a larger “momentum” working in the long term.
When we encounter a perceived threat (our anxious thoughts included), the hypothalamus triggers the alarm. Neurotransmitters tell the adrenal glands (located above the kidneys) to release a surge of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline.
In turn, heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and cortisol triggers a rise in blood glucose levels (telling the brain to increase the availability of substances that repair tissues). This is a key action, because cortisol blocks non-essential functions that could be detrimental during dire situations. Immune system response is altered, digestive function is suppressed, in addition to reproductive and growth processes. These complex actions also lead to changes in the brain, connected to mood, motivation, anxiety and stress responses.
These chemical changes are programmed to be temporary, so when the perceived threat disappears, cortisol and other hormone levels drop back to normal and the effected body functions shift back as well. But when stressors are always present (chronic illness, anxiety, burn out), the fight or flight response remains on and becomes depleted. A spike in adrenaline can lead to an even bigger crash. (1)(2)(3)(4)
When adrenal glands are over producing–and as a result, crash back down–the roller coaster effect takes place, exhausting this delicate system. This can lead to the following: anxiety, mood swings, depression, waves of fatigue followed by manic-like episodes, digestive issues, heart complications, headaches, sleep disturbances, weight gain, immune issues, cognitive impairment, trouble getting started in the morning, afternoon fatigue, getting a second burst of energy after 10pm, trouble staying sleep, dizziness upon standing, chronic inflammation, and mood swings.
Over worked? Not sleeping enough? Dealing with stressful life situations and general anxiety, or in my case, suffer from complex genetic conditions that wreak absolute havoc on my adrenal system. (For more on how adrenaline dysfunction occurs in those with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, refer to this article referencing a lecture by Dr. Alan G. Pocinki). Whether you’re suffering from more severe forms of adrenal dysfunction or you’re experiencing burnout and stress related fatigue that’s gone on too long, the natural treatments are very much the same. And the magic of plant and holistic medicine is that it often targets the root of the issue rather than offering a bandaid solution, treating only the symptoms.
Here is my list of plant-based, lifestyle, and alternative treatments that can support the adrenal system.
I am not a doctor, just a patient (and a witch!), although many of these treatment protocols have been discussed with my doctors. Keep in mind that this is just a list of what has worked for me a fellow patients to help direct you on your own searches to more balanced health. Always speak to a health care professional when integrating plant medicine, especially if dealing with pre-existing conditions.
The best class of plants to help support and boost the adrenal system are adaptogenic herbs. The word “adapt” is key, meaning helping the body adapt and adjust to stressors. Many of these plant treatments take root in ancient Ayurvedic medicine from India, with some magical berries and medicinal mushrooms thrown in.
Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha root is one of the principle Ayurvedic hormone balancing adaptogenic plants. This root helps to stabilize cortisol levels and increases stress resistance as well as protects the body from oxidative stress. Aswhagandha is also used as a fertility treatment, particularly effective in balancing excess androgen hormones in women. (5)(6)(7)(8)(9)
Astralagus root: In Chinese medicine, this root is known to protect us from the effects of stress and helps block inflammation. Astragalus root may temporarily increase cortisol levels to allow the body to positively respond to certain types of stress. This quick, short term boost in cortisol in turn helps balance hormone levels as soon as the stressor has been removed. (10)(11)
Holy Basil: This Indian basil is one of the pillar’s of Ayurveda and is used for everything from colds to infections. Holy basil also acts on improving the body’s stress responses and can help lower cortisol levels.(12)(13)(14)
Amla: This indian gooseberry is exploding with vitamin C, helps fight free radicals, inflammation, and is charged with antioxydants and help the body respond to stress signals in a balanced way. (15)(16)
*Maca: This turnip-like South American root vegetable supports normal hormone production, the body’s stress response, boosts depleted energy stores, balances sex hormones/boosts libido, and supports the body’s natural liver detoxification. (17)(18)
*Rhodiola: As an adaptogen, rhodiola increases the body’s resistance to stress and can help restore and boost burnt out adrenals. The actions of rhodiola are similar to the energy inducing and balancing effects of astralagus root. (19)(20)(21)
Cordyceps: Although they’re not technically plants, these zombie mushrooms (they’re actually zombies…) hold incredible medicinal powers, not just stimulating immunity, but with healing the adrenal system. These mushrooms contain adenosine that helps alleviate adrenal fatigue and boosts stamina and endurance. Stress creates elevated cortisol levels and cordyceps help to lower and balance these hormones. (22)(23)(24)
Schisandra: As an adaptogen, these berries are known for increasing resistance to disease and stress, increasing energy, and increasing physical performance and endurance. In addition to its effects on adrenal glands, schisandra also helps treat liver disease and a range of common conditions like coughs, pms, asthma, high cholesterol, and diarrhea.(28)(29)(30)
*Rhodiola, astralagus and maca are on the “energizing” spectrum of adrenal repair, so it’s often best to start off with more balancing adaptogens like ashwagandha, holy basil and amla. Look into taking these nurturing plants for a few months to calm a burnt out adrenal system, before integrating more energizing plants like the aforementioned. Plant medicine is powerful, especially dealing with hormone levels, so always speak to a doctor or naturopath to customize your own treatment protocol, especially when dealing with chronic conditions.
Eat a protein dense diet: Chinese medicine equates adrenal fatigue with “yin” deficiency (as in ying and yang, the two balancing forces in the body). One of the treatments for yin collapse (adrenal insufficiency) in Chinese medicine is eating a lot of poultry. Organic chicken, turkey and grass-fed organ meats also help to support the adrenal system. These protein sources are particularly charged in B vitamins, and vitamin D, Zinc, and choline–especially in organ meats–that work together to restore cortisol and adrenaline levels.
Dark green superfoods: These foods are rich in magnesium and powerful antioxydants, acting as nutritional chill pills that regulate neurotransmitters (communication) between the brain and adrenal system. More green vegetables=calmer adrenal responses and less rollercoaster ups and downs. Spinach, swiss chard, bak choy, broccoli, and brussel sprouts all fall under that category.
Magnesium dense foods: Up your magnesium intake. Fruits and vegetables have become so nutrient starved and over produced that magnesium levels in produce have plummeted. Adrenal issues or not, almost every single one of us is deficient in magnesium (unless you’re juicing green vegetables in massive quantity every day). And if you eat magnesium dense food or take a supplement, after 24 hours, the levels drop back down again. This crucial mineral supports adrenals, in addition to stressed muscles, nerves and promotes good sleep. Magnesium charged foods include avocados, nuts, seeds, beans/legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, tofu, whole grains, and chocolate!
B Vitamins and Folate rich foods: Foods like asparagus and avocados are charged with the B-vitamin folate. Low folate levels are linked to neurotransmitter impairment that can cause hormone-brain imbalances. And the various B vitamins all play a role in the production of adrenal hormones, so increasing vitamin B charged foods (whole grains, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, seeds, nuts and dark leafy greens) can help strengthen adrenal hormone production.
Good fats: Avocados, nuts, seed oils, and wild-caught fish like Alaskan salmon are charged with omega-3 and 6 fatty acids that support the adrenal system, support brain health and hormone function.
Anti-inflammatory foods: Chronic inflammation can exhaust the adrenal system. Bring down inflammation with curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric root) and other anti-inflammatory foods. Integrate more of the following into your diet: turmeric, ginger, broccoli, avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, berries, green tea, beets and garlic.
Potassium rich foods: Potassium helps keep sodium levels and blood pressure balanced balanced, effecting the adrenals as well. Potassium rich foods include avocado, banana, coconut water, watermelon, spinach, broccoli, and sweet potatoes.
Vitamin C rich foods: Vitamin C rich foods like blackcurrants, rosehips, sweet peppers, guava, parsley and thyme, strawberries, berries, kiwi, kale, tomatoes oranges, and broccoli all play a vital role in supporting the adrenal system and hormone production.
Zinc rich foods: This mineral is crucial to proper adrenal function, and immune function (which is also effected be adrenal insufficiency). Zinc rich foods include meats, shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts, eggs, whole grains and (organic!) and dairy products.
Improve sleep habits: This is one of the most crucial parts of healing and supporting the adrenal system. Lack of sleep and unstable sleeping patterns fry the adrenal system and leave you running on fumes. The brain and adrenal glands recuperate and repair themselves at night time, so sleeping is the best treatment. Sleep and exercise patience. Repairing takes time. Your body knows how to heal itself, you just need to give it the tools. Need help getting to sleep? Try passionflower, blue lotus, cbd oil, chamomile (it really does work), calming music before bed, and turning off electronics that can disrupt melatonin production. Another food tip? Try mixing turkey (which contains tryptophan) with dark green vegetables (charged with calcium) which together stimulates the production of melatonin, a sleep hormone.
Acupuncture: Acupuncture can target and stimulate (or calm) different organ systems and can be particularly powerful at balancing the adrenal system. Often acupuncturists can detect weaknesses in the body by observing specific points on the tongue, wrist or in the ear and can lead to finding issues that other tests might not necessarily detect. Side note: my acupuncturist discovered I had a kidney infection well before my body started showing discernable symptoms.
Heart Coherence: This breathing and heart regulating technique can reduce stress and cortisol levels.
Spend time outdoors: Nature can literally lower cortisol levels and reduce stress. And sunlight exposure will boost vitamin D production and can improve mood and energy. Eating fatty fish helps boost vitamin D as well.
Yoga and meditation: These two practices can help balance the mind-body connection that plays such a crucial role in adrenal issues. Calm the body and the mind with yoga, meditation, deep breathing, nighttime baths, or whatever rituals bring you calm.
Learn to say no! And make calm a priority: Make sure you prioritize your mental health and surround yourself by healthy influences and people. In the end, a balanced adrenal system and mind will make you so much more able to accomplish your goals and handle stress than burning the candle at both ends while you can.
*For adrenal issues/POTS complications related to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, low dose beta blockers have really helped me regulate my adrenal rollercoaster and prevent spikes and crashes before they happen. This could be a potential treatment options for this struggling with EDS/POTS, so perhaps discuss this with your doctors if you think this might be the right direction for you.