Adrenals - the basics:
Adrenal health is often discussed in naturopathic medical visits. Most people are familiar with adrenals: the small, walnut-sized fat gland that sit on top of your kidneys (in your mid-low back area), generally thought to support the body in times of stress.
Adrenal glands perform a variety of functions including appropriate stress response, controlling inflammation, maintaining and regulate healthy blood pressure, and supporting healthy blood glucose levels. A number of hormones are secreted from the adrenal glands: cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, aldosterone, and sex hormones like testosterone, DHEA, progesterone, and estradiol. Although not the primary source of sex hormones, the adrenals become more important with age, as the gonads (ovaries and testes) slow in their production of hormones.
Hans Selye's General Adaptation Model
Adrenal support is traditionally thought of for helping the body adapt to stressors (both real and perceived). The traditional stress adaptation model was developed by Hans Selye in 1936. His model discussed 3 phases of stress adaptation:
alarm phase (cortisol elevates, and the perceived energy levels increase)
resistance phase (cortisol remains elevated, the tired but wired phase)
exhaustion phase (cortisol is depleted and energy levels are low, fatigue sets in)
The take-home message: the body cannot withstand long-term/chronic stress without profound effects on the adrenal glands and neuro-immunophysiology.
A New Adaptation Model
In very recent years, Alexander Panossian PhD, has revamped the adaptation model to include what happens when adaptogens are employed. He proposes that adaptogens bring the body into heterostasis vs homeostasis, that is, adaptogens bring the body into a healthier, more functional state in general, regardless of stress (1).
Panossian suggests prophylactic use of adaptogens for assistance not only in stress adaptation, but also in "chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative cognitive impairment, metabolic disorders, cancer, and other aging-related diseases" (4). That's right. Adaptogens as agents to prevent and slow the effects of aging. Adaptogens appear to function in a variety of ways, protecting proteins within cells, decreasing inflammatory transcription factors, and upregulating cellular messengers that protect DNA, improve longevity, decrease inflammation, and decrease obesity.
So what are adaptogens?
The word "adaptogens" refers to plants/herbs that assist the body in the stress-response. Adaptogens have a variety of actions and work in the body in different ways. Adaptogens have a long history of use in traditional medicines across the globe (e.g. China, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Mongolia, North and South American indigenous peoples). It is essential to know that adaptogens are NOT vitamins and minerals, rather they are botanical (or plant) extracts and include:
Schisandra chinensis (schisandra berries)
Withania somnifera (ashwagandha root)
Rhodiola rosacea (rhodiola root)
Eleutherococcus senticosus (siberian ginseng root)
Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice root)
Note that each adaptogen has a very specific Latin name, and uses a specific part of the plant. If you get poor quality adaptogen supplements, you risk getting extracts from the wrong plant, or the wrong part of the plant. Consult your naturopathic doctor, to ensure you're getting the best adaptogen for you.
Once again, science is catching up with traditional medicines. Once again, naturopathic medicine is awe-some! If you want my free guide to healthier adrenals, sign up here.
Fun fact: Did you know some of the early research on adaptogens was done on Russian athletes? They were finding ways of improving performance when the athlete was physically and mentally fatigued (rhodiola anyone?).
1. Panossian, Alexander, and Georg Wikman. "Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress—protective activity." Pharmaceuticals 3.1 (2010): 188-224.
2. Selye, Hans. "Stress and the general adaptation syndrome." British medical journal 1.4667 (1950): 1383.
3. Jackson, Mark. "Evaluating the role of Hans Selye in the modern history of stress." Stress, shock, and adaptation in the Twentieth Century (2014).
4. Panossian, Alexander. "Understanding adaptogenic activity: specificity of the pharmacological action of adaptogens and other phytochemicals." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1401.1 (2017): 49-64.
5. Li, Yonghong, et al. "Rhodiola rosea L.: an herb with anti-stress, anti-aging, and immunostimulating properties for cancer chemoprevention." Current pharmacology reports 3.6 (2017): 384-395.