Herbs for adrenal fatigue
You may have heard of the term ‘burnout’, ‘adrenal fatigue’ or even ‘adrenal dysfunction’ in the news over the last few years.
The medical establishment doesn’t recognise it as a condition, but health bloggers and natural health practitioners just won’t stop going on about it. So, what is adrenal fatigue?
Stress and the adrenal glands
The adrenals are two important little glands that sit on top of the kidneys and produce the life-saving hormones cortisol and adrenaline, among a few others.
Without these hormones, we wouldn’t be able to regulate our body temperature or blood sugar levels, fight infection or inflammation, or respond to sudden or urgent demands, like running for the bus or getting out of the way of a charging rhinoceros.
The problem is, when we’re under chronic stress – whether this is due to a traumatic life event, poor dietary and lifestyle choices, toxic heavy metal exposure or just your inner perfectionist niggling away – these hormones get overproduced and, after a while, this starts to cause problems.
Stages of adrenal dysfunction
In the beginning, it might mean you feel anxious, have trouble sleeping, get a lot of infections, gain weight and experience more ‘blood sugar moments’.
At this stage, cortisol and adrenaline are being pumped out at high levels – we call this the ‘Adaptation Phase’, a term coined by the endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1936 (1).
After a few years of this, your brain starts to realise that the overproduction of adrenal hormones isn’t doing you any favours. So it starts to dial back and slow down production in a well-intended attempt to conserve energy and protect the body from damage.
Enter the ‘Exhaustion Phase’. And that’s exactly what it feels like – fatigue, poor concentration, forgetfulness, low mood, excessive but poor-quality sleep, and an inability to handle even the slightest stressors.
Commonly this picture includes low blood pressure, postural hypotension (dizziness when going from sitting to standing), muscle or joint pains, and increased susceptibility to inflammatory or autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or endometriosis.
When you’re in the Exhaustion Phase, your cortisol levels are low all day long – so you might feel constantly tired, and be stocking up on caffeine just to get you through the day. Our bodies are telling us to rest and restore, but our busy lifestyles aren’t about to let that happen!
This is where liquorice and other herbs can help, along with some mindful lifestyle and dietary changes.
Adrenal ‘sparing’ effects of liquorice root
Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) works by stopping the breakdown of cortisol in the body, to allow the cortisol that is being produced to hang around for longer.
It does this by inhibiting an enzyme which converts cortisol to the less active cortisone (2). One side effect of this process is a potential increase in blood pressure, so I never give liquorice to people with diagnosed hypertension.
However, it’s completely safe to take liquorice and monitor your blood pressure to make sure it isn’t having any adverse effects.
Other adrenal herbs
There are lots of other herbs I use for different stages of adrenal depletion. Rhodiola rosea has been shown to lower the cortisol response in patients with stress-related fatigue (3), and calming nervines like St John’s Wort, Motherwort and Passionflower also help to lower the high cortisol state of the Adaptation Phase, improving mood, sleep and reducing anxiety.
For the Exhaustion Phase, I use the ginsengs in small amounts alongside liquorice root – mainly Panax ginseng and Eleutherococcus or Siberian ginseng. These ‘adaptogen’ herbs have a normalising effect on the endocrine system, bringing physiology back into balance and increasing resilience to ‘stressors’, whether physical, mental or emotional.
Adrenal nutrients and the elephant in the room
Having mindful eating habits is crucial to proper adrenal recovery, with nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, B5, zinc and magnesium at the top of the list. Making sure you have adequate sources of healthy protein is also important.
And the elephant in the room is, of course – REST. Your body simply can’t repair and regenerate without the space and time it needs to do so.
That’s what I try and work with people to create in my practice – a vision for a more balanced lifestyle that nurtures rather than depletes. It’s never too late to start!
1) Selye, H. (1950) Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome. Br Med J. 1(4667): 1383–1392.
2) Armanini et al. (2004) Licorice reduces serum testosterone in healthy women. Steroids. 69(11-12):763-6.
3) Olsson et al. (2009) A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Planta Med. 75(2):105-12.
By Poppy Burr
Poppy, BSc MCPP, is a qualified medical herbalist practising from Aljezur and Praia da Luz. To book a consultation, visit www.poppytheherbalist.com
or call on 969 091 683.