In Part 1 of Supporting the Adrenals Through Herbal Stress Solutions, we learned a lot about the physiology of stress, and how chronic stress is linked to several illnesses. We also learned that the adrenal glands are the primary bodily structure involved in the stress response, and how chronic stress can impair adrenal function. In Part 2 we will discuss several natural strategies that can be used to support the adrenal glands, and thus reduce the deleterious effects of stress.
Keep in mind that dealing with chronic stress is complex. Treatment must be comprehensive and customized, targeting the root cause of the problem, while also addressing the specific ways in which disease manifests as a result. There are a whole host of plants that can support the various systems of the body. For the purposes of this article, we will discuss those which directly and indirectly affect the adrenal glands, while keeping in mind that anything we do to combat stress will help to support the adrenals.
The Adrenal Tonics
In herbal medicine, a tonic is an agent that energizes, strengthens, and improves the function of the body or particular tissues or organs. An Adrenal Tonic, is therefore a substance that supports the adrenals, making hormone production more efficient. Adrenal tonics reduce adrenal fatigue, increase energy, and improve immune function.
Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Licorice root is considered ‘trophorestorative’ to the adrenals. This means that it restores function by nourishing – providing the fundamental elements that the adrenals require to function normally. There are several ways in which licorice is supportive to the adrenal glands:
Licorice spares cortisol by suppressing the action of an enzyme called 5-beta reductase. This enzyme inactivates cortisol, thus suppression of this enzyme prolongs the activity of cortisol in the bloodstream, which means the adrenals don’t need to produce as much cortisol.
Licorice itself is also anti-inflammatory. One of its components known as glycyrrhizin mimics cortisol, which is an anti-inflammatory hormone. Having glycyrrhizin in the body to reduce inflammation takes pressure off the adrenals because they won’t have to produce as much cortisol.
Finally, licorice root is also antiviral, anti-allergic, immune-stimulating, and antitumor. All of these features come in handy considering that our immune systems are suppressed during times of stress. (Yance, 2017)
Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa)
Rehmannia is a herb that comes from the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) tradition where it is used to restore kidney deficiency. Kidney deficiency refers to a lack of life force or ‘vital essence’. In other words, a deficiency in overall endocrine function. Rehmannia helps to restore HPA (remember: Hypothalamus, Pituitary and Adrenal) function and as a kidney tonic with endocrine activity, it serves to support adrenal function. It gently stimulates the adrenals to produce cortisol and has been used for centuries to increase energy and improve immune function. (Yance 2017)
Although very few human trials have been conducted to demonstrate these effects, Rehmannia has been used consistently for thousands of years in Chinese medicine. These have not been included here as they are published in Chinese and not translatable here.
Borage (Borago officinalis)
In medieval times Borage was infused in wine as a tonic to banish melancholy and was called ‘the herb of gladness’. To this day it is used for its effects on long-term depression caused by adrenal and hormonal fatigue. Borage has a normalizing action on the adrenal glands and supports them in the production of adrenaline. (Macrides) The leaves are used to balance and restore the health of the adrenal glands following periods of stress, such as surgery or following steroid treatment.
Ginseng (P. ginseng, P. quinquefolius)
These two species of ginseng increase the responsiveness of the adrenals to stress and increase their ability to stop excreting hormones once the stress has stopped. This allows the adrenals to recover faster and means the body is exposed to less adrenaline overall. Essentially, ginseng helps the adrenal glands become more efficient. As with Licorice, ginseng contains compounds called ginsenosides, which are similar to the body’s own hormones, meaning that the adrenals have to manufacture less to achieve the same effect. Finally, ginseng sensitizes the Hypothalamus – the hormone command centre of the brain, which makes the hormonal response more efficient. (Willard, 1992)
Of these two species, Panax ginseng (Asian ginseng) is far more stimulating, whereas Panax quinquefolius (North American ginseng) is less so. This is important when considering different scenarios. If someone is hyper-stimulated, Asian ginseng will make the situation worse, whereas someone who is lethargic might benefit from a boost.
Essentially, adaptogenic plants help regulate and support the interconnected neuroendocrine and immune systems. They help maintain homeostasis and allow our bodies to sustain an adaptive response, minimizing some of the damage that a prolonged stress response can cause. In doing so, they are supportive of the adrenals in helping to keep the exhaustion phase at bay. They are also antioxidant, which neutralizes oxidative damage that can result. (Winston, 2007)
The idea is that if the body can adapt to stress more efficiently, less will be required of the adrenals.
This class of plants is one of the most heavily researched of all, and as their actions are non-specific, they are the perfect answer to curb the wide-ranging effects of chronic stress. The following is just a short list of some of the more popular adaptogens.
Ginseng (Panax ginseng & P. quinquefolius)
Ginseng has been used as a rejuvenating and revitalizing tonic in Asia for over 5000 years. It has shown the ability to increase longevity, increase endurance and muscle strength, and acts to regulate the HPA axis. It reduces fatigue, normalizes blood pressure and blood sugar, protects the cardiovascular and nervous systems, and is strongly antioxidant. It is often used to treat tiredness, overexertion, hypotension caused by adrenal exhaustion, hypertension, weakness, and mild depression. (Yance, 2013)
Eleuthero/Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Eleuthero has been used in TCM for over 2,000 years to prevent upper respiratory tract infections, colds and flu, and is the most widely studied adaptogen in the context of clinical science. Where Asian ginseng is strongly stimulating and North American ginseng is only mildly stimulating, Eleuthero is considered the most neutral of them all. Eleuthero protects against excesses of: workload, heat, cold, exercise, lack of physical activity and radiation. It has also been shown to enhance physical endurance by increasing oxygen uptake by muscles, which can enable longer workouts and quicker recovery. Eleuthero also improves learning and memory, regulates blood sugar levels, stimulates the immune system and protects against liver damage. (Yance 2013)
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera)
Ashwaganda is widely used in the Ayurvedic modality and is traditionally used to promote physical and mental health, to increase resistance to disease, to revitalize the body in debilitating conditions, and to increase longevity. In translation, “ashwaganda” means strong as a horse, and “somnifera” means restful sleep. This makes it ideal for those who are “tired but wired”, meaning those who feel exhausted, yet can’t fall asleep.
Studies of Ashwaganda show significant anti-stress activity. It counteracts many biological changes induced by extreme stress, for example: changes in blood sugar, adrenal weight and cortisol levels. It also protects and restores the immune system and bone marrow during and after chemotherapy and radiation. Interestingly, it can also reduce resistance to chemotherapy. (Yance, 2013)
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
The first mushroom on our list, Reishi, has been used in TCM for over 2000 years, where it is considered ‘The Plant of Longevity’. Traditionally viewed as an ‘elixir of immortality’, studies on Reishi have shown that it is antioxidant, neuroprotective, cholesterol lowering, supportive to the immune system, and protective to the cardiovascular system. Like Ashwaganda, Reishi also has the ability to protect against the negative effects of chemotherapy and radiation, while also enhancing these therapies. (Yance, 2013)
Tulsi/Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
Tulsi is a close relative of sweet basil and has been considered a sacred plant in Hinduism for thousands of years. Human studies on this plant are minimal. Most of the research has been in vitro, but these results combined with a consistent and successful history of traditional use, have shown us that it has a wide range of benefits. Tulsi decreases incidence of gastric ulcer, increases endurance and physical performance, lowers stress-induced release of adrenal hormones, and supports the entire endocrine system. It can also help with drug and nicotine withdrawal and alleviate mild depression (especially when induced by stress). (Yance, 2013)
Finally, Tulsi makes a delicious tea. In addition to the above list of benefits, the simple act of taking time to make and enjoy a cup of tea can itself be a stress-reducing activity.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosacea)
Rhodiola is a plant that has undergone extensive clinical testing in humans, including olympic athletes. It has shown to increase physical performance, productivity and shorten recovery time. It also increases learning and memory, and decreases mental fatigue and anxiety. Interestingly, in its ability to balance the nervous and endocrine systems, it appears to be superior to Ginseng during periods of acute stress. Along with an extensive list of other qualities, Rhodiola can provide sexual enhancement, relief from depression, support for the immune system, and protection to the liver and cardiovascular system. (Yance, 2013)
Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
Shisandra has a long history of use in China, Japan, Korea and Russia. Commonly, the berries are used, but most of the research has been done on extracts of the seeds. It offers protection to the liver and cardiovascular systems and can prevent damage to DNA. It can alleviate fatigue, protect against ulcer and improve mental acuity. (Yance, 2013)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
While not adaptogenic itself (although some believe it is), Turmeric is probably the best adaptogen companion plant we have. As a powerful anti-inflammatory, it is appropriate when cortisol is not able to keep up with the demands of systemic inflammation. This can happen in 2 ways.
As the adrenals become fatigued, they fail to produce the amount of cortisol that is required to keep inflammation under control.
As cells are constantly awash with cortisol, they become less sensitive to it and it becomes less affective. Turmeric is perfectly qualified to step in.
In addition, turmeric has its own laundry list of talents. It is anti-carcinogenic, anti-angiogenic, antioxidant and inhibits chemical carcinogenesis, among many other things. (Yance, 2013)
As described in Part 1: The Physiology of Stress, the signal to the body which initiates the stress response comes from activation of the sympathetic nervous system by the hypothalamus. If the nervous system is not functioning optimally, it interferes with the ability of the adrenal glands to address our needs in times of stress. As a strategy for supporting the adrenals, improving nervous system function is important. Plants which help to build, strengthen and normalize the nervous system are called Nervine Tonics.
Oats (Avena sativa)
Oats are one of the most important plant restoratives for nervous system disorders. They are Trophorestorative, meaning they feed nerves with minerals like calcium, magnesium, silica. Oats are used medicinally for nervous exhaustion, anxiety, insomnia, weakness, ad poor libido. (Yance, 2013)
St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
St John’s Wort is considered a nervous system tonic and life force tonic. It is often used for nerve pain, nerve damage, and mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. As it is also antiviral, it has particular use against viruses with an affinity for the nervous system, such as shingles and herpes. (Winston 2007)
Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia)
Skullcap is indicated for stressed-out people who, when agitated, develop muscle spasms, nervous tics, and tight, painful muscles (Winston 2007) It acts on the cerebrospinal centres to reduce nervous irritability and is specific for excess brain activity, i.e. insomnia where the mind can’t stop thinking.
Damiana (Turnera diffusa)
Sexual dysfunction can not only be a result of stress, but a cause of it. Damiana is quite effective for nervous conditions with sexual overtones. It is considered an aphrodisiac, which gently increases testosterone, and increases libido in men and women. It is also strengthening to the central nervous system and the endocrine system.
All of the plants discussed thus far deal with the underlying effects of stress on the body. There are also symptoms that need to be addressed with the understanding that our perception is important. Simply put, if we feel less stressed, our perception of stress (along with the cascade of physiological consequences) will decrease. Nervine relaxants come in a range of strengths, and can be used to relax the body, reduce tension and encourage sleep.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) and Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) are both very gentle relaxants that can be taken throughout the day with no concern over sleepiness. They both also stimulate the digestive system, which is supressed during times of stress.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and Hops (Humulus lupulus) are all herbs which can encourage sleep, so be careful when and where you use them. Note: Valerian can actually be stimulating to some people, and Hops should not be given to people suffering from depression.
Strategies you can explore at Home
Of course, there are several things you can implement into your lifestyle to reduce your overall stress… Here are just a few options.
1) Stress-Reduction Techniques: Proper time management, adjusting work/life balance, addressing negative coping patterns (drugs, alcohol, workaholic, technology, sugar), improving relationships, and mindfulness techniques (yoga, meditation, journaling) are all important factors to address in order to reduce our daily load of stress.
2) Improve Sleep: The more we sleep, and improve the quality of our sleep, the easier it is to navigate through the pitfalls of life that cause us stress.
3) Eat Healthfully: Ensuring that we get high quality protein, a diverse range of whole foods, and plenty of healthy fats, fruits and vegetables is the best way to provide the body with all of the essential nutrients it needs to function optimally. It’s also important to eat regularly planned meals in a relaxing environment. Finally, try to eliminate or restrict caffeine, alcohol and refined carbohydrates from your diet.
4) Get Regular Exercise: There is abundant research which demonstrates that regular exercise can reduce symptoms of both acute and chronic stress.
5) Eliminate Dietary and Household Chemicals: Chemicals in our food and in our households are one of the more common hidden stressors we deal with every day. Eating organic food where possible and tossing out chemical cleaners and detergents from the household can make a huge impact on our health. Making sure we have clean drinking water is important, as well. Find a good quality water filter for your home.
1) Yance, D. Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism. Rochester: Healing Arts Press; 2013.
2) Macrides, D. Borago officinalis Monograph: http://www.theherbalist.com.au/herb_gallery/borage
3) Willard, T. Textbook of Advanced Herbology. Calgary: Wild Rose College of Natural Healing; 1992.
4) Winston, D, Maimes, S. Adatpogens,: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief. Rochester: Healing Arts Press; 2007.
5) Hechtman, L. Clinical Naturopathic Medicine: Australia. Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier; 2011.