James Wilson, a naturopath and nutritionist, coined the phrase adrenal fatigue in his book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Adrenal fatigue, sometimes called adrenal exhaustion, is a health disorder that can affect anyone who experiences persistent or severe emotional or physical stress.
When adrenal fatigue occurs, adrenal gland function decreases sharply. Some of the chief symptoms of adrenal fatigue are depression, fatigue and weight gain. It can also be a factor in other mental health disorders, including anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.
In addition to pantothenic acid (B5) and other vitamins, there are quite a few adaptogen herbs that can help improve adrenal function. Adaptogens are herbs that have a beneficial influence on the body’s adaptive response mechanism associated with stress. The following are herbs that have been shown to help with adrenal function.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) contains an organic compound called glycyrrhizin which raises the body’s level of cortisol by inhibiting its breakdown. Full strength unaltered licorice extract is known to resemble cortisol, one of the hormones controlled by the adrenals. Because of this action, licorice acts as an adrenal stimulant and assists adrenal production by mimicking the actions of cortisol. Moreover, research suggests that glycyrrhizin increases the half-life of circulating cortisol in the body by inhibiting its metabolism and breakdown.
In one study, glycyrrhizin was shown to slow the clearance of cortisol in patients with adrenocortical insufficiency. Licorice also contains isoflavans, which have estrogen-like activity, and are thus involved in the modulation of hormonal activity. A 2004 Israeli study revealed that the phytoestrogens in licorice were beneficial in treating mild to moderate depression in pre- and postmenopausal women.
Asian ginseng, also known as Panax ginseng, has been used in traditional Chinese doctors for centuries. Ginseng has a wide spectrum of effects that help the body deal with environmental stress as well as supporting the adrenal glands.
Asian ginseng improves adrenal function and increases blood pressure and energy. In one large placebo controlled study, the subjects taking Asian ginseng experienced a noticeable increase in energy and concentration over a 6 week period. Asian ginseng has been shown to have a strong anti-stress effect, reducing high cortisol levels and bringing the ratio of cortisol to DHEA into a more healthy balance.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) increases energy, stamina and overall mental and physical well-being. It reduces the effects of stress, enhances memory and cognitive function, and reduces the stress-related excesses of the nervous system.
Ashwagandha influences adrenal hormone activity by helping to support normal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) function. A study comparing ashwagandha and lorazepam, a benzodiazepine, found that Ashwagandha exhibited comparatively strong antidepressive effects.
In a study using rats, the stress-reducing effects of extracts of ashwagandha were compared with those of Asian ginseng. Both ashwagandha and Asian ginseng reduced the number and severity of chronic stress-induced ulcers and inhibited the adverse effects of chronic stress. Because ashwagandha produces anti-stress adaptogenic activity, it has substantial benefit in the treatment of adrenal fatigue.