In this final installment of my adrenal stress series, let’s take a look at low cortisol and the end stages of adrenal fatigue.
Recall that in the first stages of adrenal stress the cortisol is upregulated and the patient presents with anxiety, irritability, nervousness, and an inability to cope with stress. When that condition goes on long enough, the adrenals eventually become very fatigued and cortisol drops off to below normal, and sometimes flat lines altogether. When that happens, severe and prolonged fatigue sets in, and along with it a whole host of other related maladies, such as low libido and reproductive problems, muscle aches and inflammation, low immunity, and allergic reactions, to name just a few.
Nutritionally, these patients need aggressive support in nourishing the adrenal glands directly with adrenal extract, B-vitamins, magnesium, etc, as discussed in previous posts. But the plant kingdom also offers some very powerful options for supporting the entire HPA axis in these patients.
Of note are four herbs in particular: Rhodiola, Cordyceps, ginseng, and Licorice.
Also known as “Arctic Root,” Rhodiola is a flowering plant that grows at high altitudes in regions of Eastern Europe and Asia. In Russia, rhodiola has been used for centuries to cope with the cold Siberian climate and stressful life, where it was valued for its purported ability to promote energy and stamina, enhance mental and physical performance, and prevent fatigue. Russian scientists conducted a great deal of anti-stress research on rhodiola, who categorized is as an adaptogen due to its ability to increase resistance to a variety of chemical, biological, and physical stressors. Based upon the impressive results of this research, rhodiola became widely used by Russian athletes and cosmonauts to help maintain energy levels, promote a healthy mood, and increase attention span and physical performance.
Cordyceps is one of the most valued medicinal plants in Chinese medicine, where it is traditionally used as an adaptogen to support vitality, as a lung and kidney tonic, and to stimulate libido. It has similar properties to those of ginseng, such that it is traditionally used to strengthen the body after exhaustion. The wide spectrum of activities of cordyceps in quite impressive, with observations of beneficial effects on the respiratory, renal, hepatic, cardiovascular, immunological, and nervous systems, as well as glucose and lipid metabolism.
Ginseng root is a highly valued tonic in traditional Chinese medicine, noted for its ability to stimulate mental and physical activity, enhance stamina and prevent fatigue, and increase resistance to stress. According to tradition, the individual who will benefit from ginseng is run down and has exhausted his/her reserves. Although the exact mechanisms have not been determined, animal and human studies suggest that ginseng may influence the activity of the HPA axis in multiple ways. These mechanisms may include 1) promoting the synthesis of corticosterones by increasing levels of cyclic adenosine monophosphate in the adrenal cortex, 2) influencing feedback mechanisms of stress hormone receptors, 3) stimulating adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) in the pituitary gland, 4) increasing HPA sensitivity to glucose corticoids, and 5) inhibiting cortisone-induced adrenal and thymic atrophy. Through these actions, ginseng appears to promote a healthy stress response by helping to balance HPA axis function.
Licorice is an herb with an unparalleled reputation for promoting health and longevity, and it has gained a reputation for strengthening the body during periods of stress. This perennial herb is native to southern Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean, and was used by ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. Currently, licorice is not only one of the most frequently used herbs in traditional Chinese medicine, but it is one of the most popular and widely used herbs in the world. Licorice is well known for its ability to influence adrenal hormone levels. The adrenocorticoid activity of licorice is associated with glycyrrhizic acid and glycyrretinic acid. These activities have ben reported to bind to both glucocorticoid and mineralcorticoid receptors, possibly displacing endogenous steroids and thus contributing to an increase in cortisol availability. Additionally, research suggests that glycyrrhizic acid and glycyrretinic acid increase the half life of cortisol by inhibiting its enzymatic breakdown in the kidneys and liver, thus it is an excellent choice for those with low cortisol production.
Licorice also demonstrates immunosupportive, immunomodulatory, hepatoprotective, and detoxifying qualities. In addition, licorice is traditionally and widely used to promote the health of and soothe mucous membranes of the respiratory and digestive systems.
While the best method of dealing with stress is to get out from under it, that is not always possible in the fast-paced Westernized culture. However, nutritional support of stress defense mechanisms is an excellent way to prevent and treat stress-related conditions.