If you’re the type of person that needs a few cups of coffee to get you through the day, adrenal support supplements may help. But are they safe and accepted by mainstream medicine?
Do you feel like only a crane can lift you out of bed in the morning? Is coffee your defibrillator; a lifeline that without it, you’d be useless, not to mention, an irritable, cranky mess?
And no matter how many kale smoothies you drink and salads you eat, you just can’t seem to lose weight.
If you can relate, some natural health and wellness professionals might tell you that you have a condition, “adrenal fatigue.”
A chiropractor, naturopath or other alternative therapist might also suggest testing to confirm their diagnosis of adrenal fatigue. And to remedy the condition, they may recommend adrenal support supplements.
But are these supplements safe? Are they effective. Furthermore, are they even necessary?
Before answering these questions, let’s take a look at the possible connection between chronic fatigue (and other symptoms that the natural health community views as signs of adrenal fatigue) and the adrenal glands.
What is adrenal fatigue?
Sitting on top of the kidneys are your two almond-shaped adrenal glands. (Although, to be more exact, this radiology resource says the right adrenal gland looks like a pyramid. The left one has more of a crescent shape).
The adrenals are part of the endocrine system. This system consists of glands. These glands secrete hormones. And these hormones travel through the blood. Eventually, hormones reach distant organs.
You’re probably familiar with at least one hormone your adrenals secrete: adrenaline (epinephrine). Another stress hormone the adrenals secrete is cortisol.
These two “stress hormones” (along with aldosterone, noradrenaline). These stress hormones are necessary for life. However, too much of anything can damage your health.
In theory, adrenal fatigue occurs when there is chronic stress. Constantly concerned about bills? Getting in fights frequently with your spouse? Have a soul-crushing commute to work? Boss getting on your case? All these stressors produce a flood of cortisol in the bloodstream.
Adrenal fatigue symptoms
When your adrenal glands constantly secrete stress hormones, the theory goes, a laundry list of adverse symptoms may occur. This includes sluggish thyroid, weight gain, especially around the abdominal area, irregular menstrual cycles, a weaker immune system. (A complete list of adrenal fatigue symptoms can be found here.)
Adrenal support supplements
There are different types of adrenal support supplements:
- Adrenal extracts
- Adaptogenic herbs
Most adrenal extracts contain parts of the adrenal glands of cows (also pigs or other animals). The theory behind adrenal extracts can be summed up like this: like strengthens like.
Consider the analogy with bone broth, which contains collagen protein of animals. By consuming it, your own collagen regenerates and gets stronger. The assumption with adrenal extracts is that by consuming animal adrenals, your own adrenals will strengthen.
Are extracts of a cow’s adrenal gland one of the best adrenal support supplements? Not according to America’s favorite bushy-bearded medical authority, Dr. Andrew Weil.
Weil says on his website, “I urge you to avoid taking adrenal glandular products and any supplements that contain adrenal glandular tissue.” At best, says Weil, these are unnecessary. And at worst? They can disrupt the body’s delicate hormonal balance.
Dr. Weil is not alone is not only discrediting adrenal extracts, but the whole theory of adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue, according to the mainstream medical community at large is not a real condition. On the other hand, adrenal insufficiency is.
Adrenal fatigue vs adrenal insufficiency
Adrenal insufficiency is medical condition. It occurs when the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones. It’s caused by either damage to the adrenal glands or a dysfunctioning pituitary gland.
The pituitary is a tiny gland in the brain. It tells the adrenals to produce cortisol. Thus, if someone has a tumor, for example, on the pituitary, it interferes with cortisol production.
A doctor diagnoses adrenal insufficiency with a blood test. Medication treat the condition.
On the other hand, natural health professionals assess whether someone has adrenal fatigue most often through a saliva test. The patient or person with supposed adrenal fatigue spits into a vial a few times during the day.
Cortisol levels fluctuate through the day. In a healthy individual, cortisol levels are highest in the morning and gradually taper for the rest of the day.
However, if a saliva test reveals that a person’s cortisol levels remain high or drop steeply, the practitioner may diagnose the test results as adrenal fatigue. In the saliva test, other hormone levels, such as DHEA, are analyzed.
But according to Hormone.org, if you take adrenal hormone supplements when you don’t need them, it can be dangerous to your health. In fact, the organization says, your adrenal glands may stop working. Ultimately, they’re unable to make the hormones you need when you are under physical stress.
Adrenal support supplements: why adrenal extracts may not be safe
Getting back to adrenal extracts, you may want to avoid them. Dr. Weil and The Endocrine Society warn that taking adrenal extracts and then stopping them suddenly can put you at risk of developing life-threatening illness.
Moreover, says Weil, there’s no meaningful research that concludes they work. And furthermore, he adds, modern adrenal extracts are don’t actually contain significant levels of adrenal hormones. Therefore, not only may they jeopardize your health, they might not even be effective.
Instead of taking adrenal extracts, Dr. Weil recommends adaptogenic herbs. (He also suggests relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga.)
Adrenal support herbs
Adaptogens are also not readily accepted by the mainstream medical community. However, more medical doctors such as Dr. Weil are recognizing the benefits of adaptogens for chronic stress. This makes adaptogenic herbs (adaptogens) perhaps the best adrenal support supplements.
What are adaptogenic herbs? Herbalists define adaptogens if they contain three characteristics. First, they are nontoxic. Many herbs, although natural, can in fact be toxic. Adaptogens because of their near-universal safety, can be taken for long periods of time.
The second characteristic of adaptogens: they produce a nonspecific resistance to stress on the cellular level. This means that it doesn’t matter what form of stress you’re undergoing. Extreme workout. Financial stress. Emotional stress. No matter what stress, adaptogenic herbs respond to stress inside the cells.
And the main response to stress by adaptogens is controlling how much cortisol and other stress hormones are released.
This leads to the third characteristic of adaptogens. By controlling the secretion of stress hormones, they help normalize the various interconnected systems of the body. In other words, they promote homeostasis.
Adrenal support supplements: how adaptogens work
Before understanding how adaptogens work, here’s how stress hormones are released. FIrst, your hypothalamus gland releases CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone). Consider CRH a fire alarm. It goes off when a stressor is recognized (like getting cut off in traffic).
Next, CRH travels to the pituitary gland. Here, ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) gets released. And then, the adrenal gland cortex secretes cortisol.
In theory, with chronic stress, your body becomes exhausted from constantly releasing CRH and ACTH. Adaptogens work by limiting the release of CRH and ACTH.
Unlike medications, adaptogens don’t have a singular purpose. Take blood-pressure lowering drugs, for example. All they do is lower blood pressure.
However, adaptogens have a “nonspecific physiological response.” This means they do lots of different things. For example, adaptogenic herbs can stimulate organs that aren’t working very well. But they can also help calm down organs that are hyper functioning.
Adrenal support supplements: best adaptogenic herbs
Eleuthero, aka Siberian ginseng was the first herb identified as an adaptogen. Soviet researchers realized eleuthero energy-boosting properties, even when subjects were placed under extreme stress.
Some evidence suggests rhodiola enhances physical performance. It may also alleviate mental fatigue.
Reishi, a medicinal mushroom, research shows, boosts immunity. In addition, it can help relax muscles, improve sleep quality, and manage pain.
There are several other adaptogenic herbs. But you don’t need to buy several of them. In fact, the best adrenal support supplements might be a blend of adaptogens, not singular ones. That’s because adaptogens work synergistically.
Although these herbs all have the three characteristics above, they do have different functions. And when adaptogens are combined, those functions may be enhanced.
One example of an adaptogenic formula is Dragon Herbs Super Adaptogen Dietary Supplement. Formulated by Ron Teeguarden, widely recognized as one of the foremost herbalists in America, this supplement contains several adaptogens. (However, Teeguarden would be wise to expand his products’ descriptions on Amazon; it’s woefully scant.)
Vitamins for adrenal fatigue
In addition to adaptogenic herbs, you can also take vitamins for adrenal support. Some of the best adrenal support supplements might be compounds you already take.
For example, a B vitamin complex (including B5, B6 and B12) may help support your adrenals. And although not technically a vitamin, zinc (a mineral), may also help. Many people are deficient in zinc.
Keep in mind that mainstream medicine does not recognize adrenal fatigue. And even if you get a diagnosis from a natural health professional that you have adrenal fatigue, your regular doctor may not support this diagnosis. Nor will your physician likely recommend you take adaptogens or other adrenal support supplements.