By Jillian Bar‐av, MS, RH(AHG), CNS, LDN
Clinical Herbalist & Licenced Nutritionist
While we are still in the season of winter for a few more weeks, I want to take this opportunity to re‐mind people what your bodies already intuitively know. Winter is a time to rest. The days are short, the nights are long, and our bodies naturally want to spend more time sleeping than in the summer. Just as a root spends the winter underground storing up energy for spring growth, our adrenal glands need to rest over the winter so that when spring comes, we are full of energy to match the season. All too often in this modern world, we are out of touch with the rhythm of the seasons and we try to go full speed ahead all the time. That is a recipe for adrenal fatigue.
The adrenals are 2 small glands that sit above the kidneys. The adrenal cortex (outer part) is responsible for secreting cortisol, while the adrenal medulla (inner part) is responsible for secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine, commonly called adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones are excellent at mobilizing energy stores when there is a life‐threatening situation, but they were made for fight or flight situations followed by periods of recuperation. The problem with the stressfulness of modern life is that it does not end, and our bodies secrete these same hormones even though the situation is not life threatening. Without periods of rest and recuperation, the body is faced with the possible exhaustion of its ability to adapt. This can present in many different ways, such as fatigue, lowered immunity, anxiety, sleeplessness, or foggy‐thinking, and has been coined by some as “adrenal fatigue.”
In addition to finding ways to relax – taking a hot bath with calming bath salts, doing yoga, meditation, or prayer, walking in nature, and getting to sleep early, there are herbs that can actually support the way our bodies respond to stress. These herbs are called adaptogens, a term coined by Dr. Nicholas Lazarev in 1947 to describe agents that allow the body to counter adverse physical, chemical, or biological stressors by raising nonspecific resistance and thus allowing the organism to adapt.
Ashwagandha is one of my all time favorite adaptogenic herbs. It is well‐suited to people who have undergone significant stressful situations and now find themselves in a state of nervous exhaustion. It is calming, yet nutritive and building for someone who has become depleted or “run‐down.” The botanical name, Withania somnifera, points to its traditional use in Ayurvedic medicine to promote sleep. Somnifera comes from the same root as insomnia, and the root powder was traditionally warmed in milk and taken before bed to promote sleep.
The adaptogenic herb best suited for fatigue patterns is Eleuthero. It improves physical and mental performance and is energizing. The original research of this herb was performed on Russian astronauts who found that the herb increased endurance and physical performance. It also normalizes adrenal activity and moves adrenal function away from cortisol production towards DHEA production.
Another Ayurvedic adaptogenic herb is Holy Basil, also known as Tulsi. It is traditionally used for “mental fog” and to increase cerebral circulation and memory. Holy Basil was shown to prevent increases in cortisol secretion in mice exposed to acute and chronic noise, which indicates its antistress activity. Modern research has clearly shown that high cortisol levels are associated with blood sugar dysregulation and weight gain around the abdominal region. Holy Basil has been shown in 1 human study to significantly reduce blood sugar levels in a group of people with Type 2 diabetes. Holy Basil is a good choice for anyone living in the modern world, and can be especially helpful for people who need metabolic support.
Jillian is a practitioner here at the Center. Visit her page here.