“Every little stressor feels like the end for me! I’m screaming at my kids, my husband, and gritting my teeth with co-workers for at least the last 6 months,” Alice shared in her first visit. She was 10 months postpartum with her first baby and holding down a fulltime job on top of a household! To say she had some stress was an understatement. And it was clear her adrenals were contributing to her concerns. Luckily, I had a solution for her. Adaptogenic Herbs.
Boy, could I relate to how she felt! As a mama who has been through the grueling demands of medical school and runs a successful practice, I know all too well what it is like to be at the mercy of stress. And I’ll admit, I’ve hidden in a closet or two from my toddler before I got a handle on my stress in those early days of motherhood.
The early days of anything can be difficult – motherhood, new job, moving to a new house, or even forming new relationships. While you’re figuring out your rhythm and really, “how to do you” in your new scene, having a little herbal support can go a long way.
It’s easy to see how the events of our lives can contribute to our adrenal health—both good and bad. Life’s events can lead to habits and patterns that chip away at our adrenal and overall hormone health.
In my clinic and my life, I rely on a helpful group of herbs known as adaptogens to help me and my patients get ahead of the stress, the frazzled feelings, and burnout.
What Are Adatogenic Herbs?
Adaptogens are a group of herbs that are known for their enhancement of adrenal function, immunity, physical and mental endurance. They work by way of the HPA axis (how your brain and adrenals talk) and can help balance your cortisol output.
These herbs are relatively new in their recognition in conventional medicine, but have been used to enhance fertility, stamina, immune support and longevity in Chinese, Ayruvedic, and other traditional medicines for a very long time.
In Naturopathic Medical school we spend several years studying herbal medicine and the various treatment applications that enable people to heal. Adaptogens are one of the first groups of herbs we are taught and with good reason — today’s world is full of stressors the human body was not meant to encounter…let alone daily.
Common Adaptogenic Herbs
- Gotu Kola
- Licorice Root
- Reishi Mushroom
Adaptagenic herbs help you adapt to stress by modulating your stress response on the physiological level. They can help increase, decrease or harmonize your cortisol and other stress hormone levels.
Your stress response system can only take so much fight or flight before it just hits the freeze button and you crash. Over activation of the stress response sabotages your hustle, drive and ability to get it all done.
When most women hit the wall, their emotions take on a life of their own!
How Women Feel When Their Adrenals Are Struggling…
- At the mercy of stress
- Tired (which may flip come bedtime and you’ll feel wired)
- Trouble sleeping
- Socially overwhelmed
- Loss of motivation
- Diminished or missing libido
- Inflamed – stiff or painful joints, rashes, brain fog
- Light headed when changing positions too quickly
- Cravings for salt or sugar
- Heavy, painful, or otherwise difficult periods
- Feeling like you get every cold or flu
- And it can affect your skin from premature aging to acne!
Here Are 4 Must Knows About Using Adaptogenic Herbs to Heal Adrenals Naturally
#1 You Must Find the Root Cause
Look, it’s easy for any doctor to pass off your symptoms as stress, but in my experience, there is usually more than stress at play when it comes to adrenal exhaustion.
If you have an autoimmune disease, gut infection, viral infection or other condition that is driving your adrenals into overtime then that must be addressed! Just like taking ibuprofen won’t heal a nail in the foot…taking herbs for your adrenals won’t heal the unknown root of your concerns.
Dig! That’s what we do in my clinic! We dig to find your root cause so that you can get the energy and stamina you want.
When we dug into Alice’s case we found she had Hashimoto’s and a SIBO infection! A gut infection and autoimmune disease are enough to slow anyone down, but I find for my true A-type personalities, they can keep pushing through until their tank is totally empty.
#2 You Can’t Out Supplement Poor Lifestyle Choices
And you can not lean on herbs alone. Although herbs can be tremendously helpful, they can not successfully overcome poor lifestyle habits.
Not sleeping, working over 8 hours per day, engaging in toxic relationships, and skipping meals are all examples of poor lifestyle practices that no amount of herbs, supplements or medications can overcome.
The same is true if you’re eating foods you know you are sensitive too, processed foods, high amounts of sugar or gluten. These are all inflammatory and there is only so much your adrenals can do to keep inflammation down before they call it quits.
With Alice, our biggest focus was to get regular meals as part of her daily routine and make 7 hours her minimum when it came to sleep.
#3 They Won’t Help You Drive Yourself to the Ground
You can’t use adaptogenic herbs and think they’ll help you push through those all nighters or increased work load. Sure they’ll help. But if you’re not dialing back your stress, then these herbs aren’t about to push you to work harder.
It is ok to use adaptogenic herbs during times of stress. In fact, they can be tremendously helpful. But if there is no end in sight to that stress then the priority should be stress reduction first then supplementation.
To be clear, adaptogens will help, but you have to take care of that pesky life stress.
This was true of Alice. When she first started the adaptogens I recommended she began feeling capable of taking on more work, but rather than saying yes to everyone like she once had, Alice began to re-examine where she really wanted to be spending her time. Over time, she got into more hobbies and out of less life commitments that left her depleted, rather than invigorated.
#4 They Don’t Work Overnight
They work at night. They will work while you sleep. But you will not have bounding energy after one night of taking them.
People are quick to call it quits when it comes to herbs and supplements, often expecting results in a matter of days. Adaptogenic herbs work by naturally stimulating your body’s own mechanisms to realign you in health. That business takes time!
Don’t approach an herb with the same expectations as a pharmaceutical, which is designed to strong arm your body into submission, not work with it.
Give adaptogens a good 2-3 months before calling it quits. Of course, if you find they are too stimulating (as some can be) or that they aren’t working with you then you’ll want to stop. This is why it is often best to work with a doctor who is an expert in this arena before getting started.
7 Adaptogenic Herbs to Heal Adrenals Naturally
My clinic combines herbal medicine with lifestyle therapies to create lasting improvements in energy, mood, and stamina. Here’s a few tips we share with patients who are at both ends of the spectrum.
Maca can improve hormones overall by acting on the adrenal glands and supporting healthy estrogen and testosterone levels. Try Maca as part of a daily smoothie!
Maca can be great at all stages, but for someone people feeling totally tapped out, it can be a bit overstimulating. If this is true for you, then trying a lower dose may be warranted.
This herb is best consumed earlier in the day to improve energy and stamina. It can help reduce or eliminate fatigue and is supportive of the immune system. It has also been shown to improve memory.
3 Gotu Kola
When stress has been going on for a while or is ramping up, this is one herb I like to leverage. Gotu kola is touted for keeping the adrenals healthy despite while you work on dialing back what’s overstimulating them to begin.
I like to say this “puts the hush” on cortisol and really can help bring a sense of calm. People often enjoy this at bedtime, especially if they have that “wired and tired” vibe going on.
It has also been shown to reduce heavy bleeding during menses and in some cases, research has shown it may be able to eliminate uterine fibroids with long term use.
I love this herb for new moms because it can help support them while they are in the early days of night feedings.
It’s a nightshade, so there are some people who are sensitive to it. In Alice’s case, she experienced more joint pain when she took Ashwagandha. It was no coincidence that when she introduced nightshades after her elimination diet that she found potatoes also produced joint pain. While it is very rare to see this sensitivity, it is something we should all be aware of.
These mushrooms are nourishing to the adrenals and helps support their overall function. They’ve been shown to improve liver function (hello hormone balance!), and have been thought of traditionally as a natural aphrodisiac.
Licorice helps keep cortisol around longer, which is the main way it can increase energy and decrease inflammation.
Licorice is not recommended for those with high blood pressure, so it is best to be under the care of a doctor before electing for this herb.
7 Reishi Mushroom
This little mushroom will keep colds at bay, make you feel more resilient to stress and build the strength of your adrenals.
You can also drink Reishi all on its own. Learn more here.
Lifestyle Therapies to Try with Your Adaptogenic Herbs:
- 3 minutes meditation at the beginning and end of your day
- Sleeping in a dark room for 8-10 hours nightly
- Morning dew walking
- B vitamins, Vitamin C, magnesium
- Alternating nostril breathing to start your day
- Melatonin 15-60 minutes before you go to bed
- Hormone Balance Support to protect estrogen and progesterone balance
Alice found great relief integrating adaptogens and lifestyle therapies. Within a couple of months she’d forgotten all about her yelling episodes and was reporting a happier home life! She was taking more off her plate and excelling at work.
After resolving her SIBO, her Hashimoto’s antibodies greatly reduced and her thyroid labs were showing no need for a medication! Alice was on her game like never before!
Have you tried adaptogenic herbs? What was your experience? Leave us a comment below.
Abbas SS, Bhalla M, Singh N. Proc workshop on essential medicines, adverse drug reactions and therapeutic drug monitoring. Lucknow: Scientific Convention Centre; 2005. A clinical study of Organic Ashwagandha in some cases of uterine tumors (fibroids) and dermatofibrosarcoma; pp. 143–144.
Azmathulla S, Hule A, Naik SR. Evaluation of adaptogenic activity profile of herbal preparation. Indian J Exp Biol. 2006 Jul;44(7):574-9.
Bhardwaj N, Katyal P, Sharma AK. Suppression of inflammatory and allergic responses by pharmacologically potent fungus Ganoderma lucidum.Recent Pat Inflamm Allergy Drug Discov. 2014;8(2):104-17. Review.
Chan, SW. Panax ginseng, Rhodiola rosea and Schisandra chinensis. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2012 Mar; 63
Epstein MT, Espiner EA, Donald RA, Hughes H, Cowles RJ, Lun S. Licorice raises urinary cortisol in man. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1978 Aug;47(2):397-400.
Gonzales GF, Villaorduña L, Gasco M, Rubio J, Gonzales C. Maca (Lepidium meyenii Walp), a review of its biological properties.Rev Peru Med Exp Salud Publica. 2014;31(1):100-10
Hughes KA, Manolopoulos KN, Iqbal J, Cruden NL, Stimson RH, Reynolds RM, Newby DE, Andrew R, Karpe F, Walker BR. Recycling between cortisol and cortisone in human splanchnic, subcutaneous adipose, and skeletal muscle tissues in vivo. Diabetes. 2012 Jun;61(6):1357-64.
Methlie P, Husebye EE, Hustad S, Lien EA, Lovas K. Grapefruit juice and licorice increase cortisol availability in patients with Addison’s disease. Eur J Endocrinol. 2011 Nov;165(5):761-9.
Meissner HO, Mscisz A, Reich-Bilinska H, Mrozikiewicz P, Bobkiewicz-Kozlowska T, Kedzia B, Lowicka A, Barchia I. Hormone-Balancing Effect of Pre-Gelatinized Organic Maca (Lepidium peruvianum Chacon): (III) Clinical responses of early-postmenopausal women to Maca in double blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled, crossover configuration, outpatient study. Int J Biomed Sci. 2006 Dec;2(4):375-94.
Nocerino E, Amato M, Izzo AA. The aphrodisiac and adaptogenic properties of ginseng. Fitoterapia. 2000 Aug; 71 Suppl 1:S1-5.
Singh N, Bhalla M, de Jager P, Gilca M. An overview on ashwagandha: a Rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2011;8 (5 Suppl): 208-13.
Xu YJ, Han CJ, Xu SJ, Xing Yu, Jiang GZ, and Nan CH. Effects of Acanthopanax senticosus on learning and memory in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease and protection against free radical injury to brain tissue. Neural Regeneration Research 3 (2008): 2.