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Our two adrenal glands are located on top of each kidney. From this perch, they not only have access to a rich blood supply, but are also close to the site of fluid and mineral balance in the body. This makes sense given their role: they participate in the stress response, of course, but are also involved in modulating electrolyte and water balance in our bloodstream. The hormones secreted by our adrenal glands connect to our experience of occasional stress, from the short-acting jolt of adrenaline to the longer-term influence of cortisol. It is easier to notice the effects of adrenaline (heart racing, clammy hands, increased vigilance), but the more subtle activity of cortisol from the adrenals ends up having more profound effects on energy, recovery, and mood.
As was first observed in athletes, a balanced response to activity often goes hand-in-hand with a balanced stress response. Recovering more slowly from vigorous exercise or feeling more fatigue and discomfort after a big hike can be a reminder to support the stress response function of our adrenal system. This ability to recover and feel ready again is connected to healthy sleep patterns, too. When the stress response and recovery functions of our adrenal system are solid, hormone secretion rises in the pre-dawn hours, helping to boost our energy and mood right before we wake up. As a result, we wake feeling ready to go! But this isn’t always the case, and we might feel a bit more sluggish in the morning as a result--perhaps in part - because we haven’t yet recovered from the stress of yesterday. Even mild, occasional stress can affect the stress response function of our adrenal system into late evening, when we should be thinking about sleep. This can make it harder to get to sleep, and our crucial overnight recovery time is disrupted--further depleting our reserves. It’s the classic “wired and tired” picture.
To support our stress response function, we often work with herbs that affect perception of stress. This “upstream” strategy buffers the stress response somewhat, encouraging a balanced, healthy response and supporting good recovery.
For good energy, healthy sleep patterns, and a balanced stress response, we turn to herbal adaptogens and nervines.*
Adaptogens have broad-ranging effects. In general, we can think of adaptogenic herbs as allies that buffer our overall stress response function by supporting the physiology in a range of ways, . For example, herbs like rhodiola and eleuthero have this buffering effect on the stress response function of the adrenal system, and can also provide our physiology with phytochemistry that supports the activity of brain pathways devoted to alertness and attention. The net result: we feel more alert, but at the same maintain a balanced response in the face of occasional stress. *
Other adaptogens are more calming in nature: they still help set an “upper limit” on the overall stress response, but may also help us shift more easily into the “rest-and-digest” function of our physiology (the counterpoint to the “fight-or-flight” stress response). By supporting more effective recovery during times of rest, adaptogens such as ashwagandha and schisandra allow the body to bounce back and we can really notice this during the day: a balanced mood and energy level follows. It’s interesting to note that these herbs won’t ever make you “sleepy” directly: their effects help get us into a more restful place during the evening and nighttime hours, setting the stage for normal recovery and sleep.*
Finally, nervine herbs--ranging from skullcap, to oats, linden, lemon balm, chamomile, and rose, to name a few--rebalance internal tension helping to support a calm, even response to the occasional stresses and challenges of everyday life. While they are gentle and mild in their actions--certainly not full-on sedatives--this could be seen as an advantage. They can be used throughout the day to help keep stress and occasional anxiety at bay without making us feel sleepy at work. You can see how they make an excellent complement to the adaptogens: by decreasing our perception of stress, nervines spare the stress response function of our adrenal system from being invoked for every little annoyance that crosses our path. Save the stress response for what really counts! And with adaptogens on board, make sure that, even when that response occurs, it stays healthy and balanced, and recovery can happen well. One plant--tulsi, or holy basil--is one of my favorites because its rich aromatic profile has a gentle nervine effect, and the herb also supports a healthy response to stress. It’s the best of both worlds, which is probably why tulsi is so revered in the Ayurvedic medical system.*
When you put it all together, using adaptogens and nervines to help support healthy energy, mood, and recovery becomes fairly intuitive. First, learn to recognize the signs of shifts in the stress response function of our adrenal system: feeling unrefreshed in the morning and “wired but tired” in the evening; noticing still normal, but slightly longer recovery times after vigorous workouts. Next, develop a relationship to adaptogens that support healthy alertness, like rhodiola and eleuthero, during the morning hours. I often recommend one dose on waking, and another right before lunch. This will help support healthy adrenal stress response function when you need it most, while also making sure that the response to occasional stress stays balanced. Additionally, especially if sleep patterns are being affected once in a while, consider some more calming, restorative adaptogens, like ashwagandha or tulsi, in the afternoon and evening hours. Finally, have a good nervine formula on hand to try during the day, especially if you feel simple nervous tension or irritability. Their gently supportive, soothing actions will insulate the adrenals from the stress of the little things in life. But if you support excellent adrenal health, you’ll find yourself turning to these nervines less and less: a great sign that tonic herbalism has worked its magic yet again.*
Updated September 2021
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