Adrenal glands don't make headlines, but they deserve some attention. Sitting on top of the kidneys, these little glands each weigh less than one-fifth of an ounce, but when they malfunction, the human body can't muster the energy it requires.
"The adrenal glands are essential for life in that they help us deal with any kind of challenge that comes up in the environment," says clinical herbalist Guido Masé, author of The Wild Medicine Solution. Such challenges can be physical, such as climbing stairs or running a marathon, or stressful life situations, such as an exam, an impossible deadline, or a traffic jam.
"In all of those situations," says Masé, "The adrenal glands play a really vital and important role."
How Do the Adrenal Glands Work?
Adrenal glands secrete two important hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. We feel the effects of adrenaline as a "rush" or "fight or flight" response, which can be exhilarating, frightening, or somewhere in between. It kicks in almost instantly, and can disappear in seconds or minutes.
Cortisol works more slowly, causes no discernible physical symptoms when it initially rises, and can remain elevated for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour or even longer. When there are repeated stressors in the environment, cortisol can remain chronically elevated, and that's when the trouble really starts.
Chronic Cortisol Problems
As part of its function of mobilizing physical resources, cortisol boosts the body's energy by raising blood sugar levels. It also suppresses the immune and inflammatory responses, so physical exertion produces less pain. For example, cortisol enhances runners' ability to complete marathons, but afterwards, studies show that they are more susceptible to respiratory infections.
"Chronic repeated stress may be connected to immune dysfunction, autoimmune disease, and chronically elevated blood sugar and therefore diabetes," says Masé. Eventually, the adrenal glands may no longer be able to produce enough cortisol. And chronic exhaustion sets in.
"Exercise is a great way to diffuse anxiety and the bad side of stress," he says. Any type of low-intensity physical activity lowers blood sugar and cortisol levels, enhancing your ability to deal with further stress. For example, if your boss suddenly drowns you with a new project, do a few push-ups or take a short walk, even if it's only down the hall.
Herbs for Healthy Adrenal Glands
Masé recommends using herbs in two ways:
For immediate relief: Drink a tea made with linden leaf, lemon balm, or chamomile, or a combination of the three. Brew for 2-3 minutes, and cover while brewing to prevent aroma from escaping. The volatile oils in these herbs calm the nervous system.
To control cortisol: The herbs below reduce levels of cortisol, mitigate rises in blood sugar, strengthen immune function, and spare your adrenal glands. Ideally, start taking these botanicals before facing stressful situations, such as tax season for accountants, a stressful meeting schedule, or in-laws visiting for the holidays. Each one offers some unique benefits.
1. Rhodiola root
The fastest-acting herb for stress, rhodiola also perks up mood and "get-up-and-go." Some people find that they have too much energy in the evening if they take it after 2 p.m.
2. Schisandra berry
Also helps to normalize digestion.
3. Ashwagandha root
Also improves sleep quality.
4. Siberian ginseng root
Also improves physical endurance, and is especially good for athletes.
Masé recommends trying one of these herbs at a time, to see how you react. Take one-half teaspoon of a tincture in a glass of water or juice, twice daily. If you combine them, take no more than one teaspoon of tincture, twice daily. In capsules of whole root or berry, take 1 gram of rhodiola root, twice daily, or 2 grams of any one of the others, twice daily. For extracts and herbal adrenal formulas, follow product directions, as potency varies.