If you've ever been suddenly frightened, you know what an adrenaline surge feels like. This is a natural defense mechanism controlled by the adrenal glands. Unfortunately, chronic stress can trigger an abnormal adrenal response—either deficient or excessive hormone release. Often, the adrenals become “exhausted” as a result of the constant demands placed upon them. Symptoms include chronic fatigue and feeling “stressed out,” as well as reduced resistance to allergies and infections.
One of the best ways to support the adrenal glands is to deal with stress more effectively. Exercise and relaxation techniques are vital components of a healthy stress-management program.
Regular exercise leads to an increased ability to cope with stress and reduces the risk of stress-related diseases. Relaxation techniques counteract the negative impact of stress on the body by inducing its opposite reaction. Although you can relax by sleeping or reading a book, relaxation techniques are designed specifically to produce the “relaxation response.”
There are several helpful relaxation techniques, including meditation, prayer, self-hypnosis, and biofeedback. You may have to try a few methods first to find one that works for you. The important thing is to set aside at least 5–10 minutes each day to perform a relaxation technique.
A low-glycemic diet is the foundation of healthy adrenal glands. This includes avoiding refined sugars, especially those found in pastries, doughnuts, sodas, and other processed foods. These sugars are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar and upsetting blood sugar control. It's also important to limit carbohydrates and starches, including pasta and bread, to very small portions.
Fluctuations in blood sugar place unnecessary strain on adrenal function and are a common cause of excess cortisol production (a hallmark of adrenal fatigue). Elevated cortisol is not only associated with increased stress, but also sugar cravings and weight gain. And too much cortisol is linked to suboptimal immune system function, depression, muscle mass loss, osteoporosis, and brain atrophy, too.
When it comes to healthy adrenals, it's also important to eat foods that are rich in potassium and to avoid those high in sodium. Most Americans have a potassium-to-sodium (K:Na) ratio of less than 1:2—this means, most people ingest twice as much sodium as potassium. Nutrition researchers and experts recommend a ratio of greater than 5:1 to maintain health—and this may even be low.
A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can produce a K:Na ratio greater than 50:1, as most fruits and vegetables have a K:Na ratio of at least 100:1. Here are the average K:Na ratios for five fresh fruits and vegetables high in potassium:
To bolster adrenal function, shoot for at least 3–5 grams of potassium per day. Try to limit your sodium intake to no more than 1,500 mg per day.
Vitamins C and B6, zinc, magnesium, and pantothenic acid all play a vital role in helping the adrenal glands manufacture hormones. Supplement with a high-potency multivitamin/mineral formula that contains each of these nutrients.
Pantothenic acid, in particular, is important because a deficiency can cause adrenal atrophy, characterized by fatigue, headaches, sleep disturbances, nausea, and abdominal discomfort. Take at least 100 mg daily of a supplement. Whole grains, legumes, cauliflower, broccoli, salmon, and liver are good food sources.
Rich in the beneficial fats EPA and DHA, fish oils may also help support adrenal health by easing the body's response to mental stress, according to research. A standard dosage for fish oil is 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA daily, but if you are experiencing significant mental stress, try 3,000 mg of EPA and DHA daily.
Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) all have a beneficial effect on adrenal function and also enhance the body's resistance to stress. In fact, these herbs are often referred to as “adaptogens” because they help people adapt to (and cope with) stress.
Ginseng.In one double-blind study, nurses who switched from day to night duty rated themselves for competence, mood, and general well-being, and were given a test for mental and physical performance. The group given Chinese ginseng demonstrated higher scores in competence, mood, and mental and physical performance compared with those receiving placebos. The nurses taking the ginseng felt more alert, yet more tranquil, and were able to perform better than the nurses who were not taking it.
Chinese ginseng is thought to be more potent than the Siberian form, and is the better choice if you’re under a great deal of stress, recovering from an illness, or take corticosteroids such as prednisone. If you’re dealing with mild-to-moderate stress and haven’t experienced obvious adrenal impairment, Siberian ginseng may be a better option. Dosages are as follows:
Chinese or Korean Ginseng:
Rhodiola.This herb has traditionally been used to help combat fatigue and restore energy, and modern research has confirmed these benefits. Rhodiola seems to offer an advantage over other adaptogens in cases of acute stress because it is more powerful at promoting relaxation and alleviating anxiety. A single dose of rhodiola extract, taken prior to a stressful event, has been shown to prevent stress-induced disruptions in performance. At the same time, rhodiola has also shown positive results with long-term use. Therapeutic doses vary according to the herb's rosavin content (the target daily dosage is 3.6–7.2 mg of rosavin): 360–600 mg for 1% rosavin; 180–300 mg for 2% rosavin; and 100–200 mg for 3.6% rosavin.
Ashwagandha.A patented extract of the herb ashwagandha (Sensoril) has shown impressive results when it comes to relieving stress. It works by boosting the body’s resistance to stress and reducing physiological responses to stressful events. Take 125 mg of Sensoril, once or twice daily.
It’s no big secret that Americans, as a whole, consume too much caffeine. This popular stimulant increases both physical and mental energy, but that boost often comes at a price that includes poor sleep and over-burdened adrenal glands. So if you have symptoms of adrenal fatigue—e.g., tired for no reason, trouble waking up in the morning, cravings for salty and sweet foods—what should you do when it comes to caffeine?
Many health experts advise adrenal fatigue sufferers to cut caffeine completely from their diets—period, end of story. And that may indeed be the best medicine for some. But others may need a more “middle-of-the-road” approach when it comes to caffeine. One thing to consider: people in other cultures have been safely enjoying traditional caffeine-containing beverages, such as coffee, green tea, guarana, cola nut, and cocoa, for years. Why is this? In its natural form, caffeine is consumed along with plant compounds that tend to lessen some of the stimulant’s negative effects such as nervousness. For example, green tea is a source of both caffeine and L-theanine, an amino acid that helps counteract caffeine’s negative effects on the brain, such as nervousness and sleep interference. Experiment with moderate amounts of caffeine, and then reassess in a week or so (e.g., Are you sleeping well? Is your energy good?). Having said this, there are a few situations in which a caffeine-free diet is truly the only way to go. These include insomnia, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, fibrocystic breast disease, high blood pressure, and/or extreme sensitivity to caffeine.
Michael T. Murray, ND, is the author of more than 30 books, including The Complete Book of Juicing, Revised and Updated. He is regarded as one of the world’s top authorities on natural medicine. Visit him online at doctormurray.com.