The adrenal glands are responsible for our “fight or flight” response to stress. When stress is prolonged and the adrenals are forced to work overtime, they can become exhausted, leading to what is commonly called adrenal fatigue or adrenal weakness.
Hans Selye, a Canadian endocrinologist, was the first to identify the three stages of adrenal gland exhaustion. He described the different stages of stress we may go through, known as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS), and how the body responds in each of these three stages. Selye identified these changes as a typical response anyone might have to stress and described the stages as alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
He went on to measure one’s tolerance to stress when faced with a difficult situation, calling it one’s “resistance to stress,” which depicts one’s ability to be relaxed and composed when faced with repeated difficult situations without becoming hopeless or helpless
The Three Stages of Stress
Stage 1: Alarm, which is an initial drop in resistance to stress.
The alarm reaction stage refers to the initial symptoms the body experiences when under stress, causing your heart rate to increase and your adrenal glands to release cortisol, giving you a boost of adrenaline and energy to run from the danger.
Stage 2: Resistance, where there is an average resistance to stress.
In this stage, after the initial shock of a stressful event and having a fight-or-flight response, the body begins to repair itself, releasing less amounts of cortisol, allowing your heart rate and blood pressure to go back down to normal. During this recovery stage the body is still on high alert just in case another stress comes your way. If the stressors are resolved, then the body continues to repair itself until your hormone levels, heart rate, and blood pressure go back to the prestress state.
However, if the stressful situations continue unabated and your body remains on high alert, it has to adapt and now learn how to live with this constant high stress level. This can cause your body to go through changes to attempt to cope with the unending stress pattern, and you continue to release the stress hormone cortisol, causing your blood pressure to remain elevated. During this stage you will feel irritability, frustration, and poor concentration. If this period continues for too long without any decreases in the severity of the stress, it can lead to the exhaustion stage.
Most of the patients I see with adrenal gland exhaustion describe several months, if not years, of “burning the candle at both ends” or describe themselves as “high energy.” They barrel through the days long into the wee hours of the night, accomplishing task after task with unbounded energy, not realizing that they are abusing their adrenal glands and setting the stage for the burnout that invariably follows.
Stage 3: Exhaustion, where resistance to stress is lost.
This final stage is the result of prolonged and chronic stress, draining your physical, emotional, and mental resources to the point where your body no longer has the resources to combat stress. You may feel hopeless, like you want to give up, as you no longer have any strength to fight the battle. This is the stage where you will feel fatigue, burnout, depression, anxiety, and an overall decreased tolerance to stress.
Selye’s book, The Stress of Life, first published in 1956, laid the foundation for mind-body medicine. He was a three-time Nobel Prize nominee for his work documenting the role of stress hormones on the body.
The list of symptoms that result from exhausted adrenals is almost identical to those for hypothyroidism:
• Slowed metabolism
• Feeling cold often
• Decreased immunity
• Brain fog
• Belly fat accumulation
• Low blood pressure, dizziness when standing, low blood sugar in between meals
• Salt cravings
• Feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope with stress
• Sensitivity to light
The majority of the patients I see suffer from adrenal gland exhaustion, yet modern medicine has no treatment for it. There are some integrative doctors who put their patients on low levels of cortisone for a year or more to help the adrenal glands “kick back in.” This approach is catastrophic. I’ve seen scores of people struggling to regain their adrenal gland function as they try to wean off the cortisone.
I offer a serious warning: this approach only makes matters worse. Many of the patients I’ve seen who completed this therapy were hospitalized and could not regain their adrenal function because their adrenal glands had shut down; with the prescribed hormones flooding the body, there was no need for their adrenals to function. Trying to reawaken the glands after a year or more on these hormones is nearly impossible.
The best way to regenerate the adrenal glands is to obtain proper rest. We do have some specific herbs, dietary routines, and other techniques to support the adrenal glands, but rest is the primary treatment. And as a precautionary note: when you are involved in the unending throes of stress, try to rest as much as you can during this time to prevent yourself from going through the three stages until your adrenal glands are totally exhausted and you are confined to bedrest. Following the guidelines as described below will help you get through prolonged stress, avoiding the burnout that might otherwise occur.
Rest and Recuperation for the Adrenals and Thyroid
The ancient doctors of Ayurveda recommended proper diet and proper bedtime as the foundations for perfect health, and they noted that, in fact, most imbalances in the physiology begin with improper diet and late bedtime. They recommended going to bed no later than 10 p.m. The adrenal glands, in particular, need rest in the hours before midnight in order to heal. Thus, you could get eight hours of sleep, going to bed at 2 a.m. and waking up at 10 a.m., and still feel exhausted.
Even if you are tired, we recommend avoiding stimulants such as caffeine. They only push the adrenal glands more, weakening them in the long run. The same holds true for white table sugar.
To support both the thyroid and the adrenals, follow a vata-pacifying diet consisting of warm, cooked foods that incorporate good-quality fruits and vegetables, dairy products, fats, and proteins.
Use ghee (clarified butter) in your cooking to provide the cholesterol your adrenal glands need to make their hormones. If you are not lactose intolerant, drink warm milk to calm vata, allowing the endocrine system to heal. In fact, I think hot boiled milk is perhaps the most calming food you can consume, because tryptophan is produced when you boil milk. Tryptophan forms serotonin, a neurotransmitter that controls anxiety, happiness, and mood. Serotonin also produces a deep and restful sleep.
Ayurvedic Herbs to Balance the Adrenal and Thyroid Glands
The Ayurvedic herbs listed below help to balance the adrenal and thyroid glands, contributing to the overall health and well-being of the body and mind.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
In Sanskrit, the name ashwagandha means “the smell of a horse,” in reference to the fact that the herb imparts the vigor and strength of a stallion. It is frequently referred to as “Indian ginseng” because of its rejuvenating effects on the endocrine system (thyroid, adrenals, reproductive glands). It is famous for balancing thyroid hormones.
Hundreds of studies have shown the healing benefits of this herb. It boosts the immune system, helps combat the effects of stress, improves learning and memory, improves reaction time, reduces anxiety and depression without causing drowsiness, helps reduce the degeneration of brain cells, stabilizes blood sugar, lowers cholesterol, enhances sexual potency for both men and women, improves the quality of sperm, and possesses anti-inflammatory and antimalarial qualities.
Because it can contribute to deeper sleep, ashwagandha can rejuvenate the entire endocrine system. Remember, the glandular system has a very difficult time recharging when the nervous system is wound up. Thus a good night’s sleep is imperative for proper endocrine functioning.
Ashwagandha also calms the nervous and endocrine system, pacifying our stress response. It can both prevent and heal severe chronic fatigue, not by pushing the glandular system to create more energy, but because it can actually prevent the fight-or-flight response by promoting feelings of calm even amidst stress. Because of this property, it is widely used for both hyper- and hypothyroidism (and hyper- and hypoadrenia).
Ashwagandha is considered the primary adaptogenic herb used in Ayurveda to protect the glandular system from the effects of prolonged stress.
Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum)
Next to ashwagandha, tulsi is perhaps the second most frequently prescribed adaptogenic herb. It is considered one of the most sacred plants in India and is known as “the queen of the herbs” due to its restorative and spiritual properties. Virtually every family home in India grows tulsi in an earthenware pot. In ancient times as tulsi traveled westward toward Europe it became known to Christians as “sacred” or “holy” basil and became included in offerings and worship rituals, looked upon as a gift of Christ.
Holy basil helps your body adapt to stressors of any kind, such as chemical, physical, infectious, and emotional. It increases endurance and has been shown in human and animal studies to reduce stress, sexual problems, sleep problems, forgetfulness, and exhaustion. People who take holy basil report less anxiety, stress, and depression. It is used for adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism, unbalanced blood sugar, and anxiety.
Because it is antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory it is also used to prevent infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
Overall, it is one of the best remedies to enhance the body’s ability to maintain balance in a stressful world.
Shilajit, also known as mineral pitch, known in India as the “destroyer of weakness.” For example, shilajit can stop the abnormal buildup of tau proteins that triggers brain cell damage, supporting memory and preventing Alzheimer’s.
Researchers have determined that shilajit acts at the cellular level to improve ATP production at its source, inside the mitochondria. The ATP molecule is the unit of currency for cellular energy; it is the means by which cells store and transport energy. If the mitochondria are malfunctioning, your cells cannot produce enough energy, making it difficult for your body to perform its normal tasks. Shilajit has been shown to prevent mitochondrial dysfunction, allowing you to experience abundant energy throughout the day. In one recent study, after undergoing tremendous amounts of exercise, mice that were not given shilajit depleted their energy twice as fast compared to the group that were given it.
Shilajit is known as a yoga vahi, which means that it can drag other nutrients into cells, enhancing their absorption. This is because the fulvic acid molecule is so small that it is able to penetrate cells and reach the mitochondria. In fact, fulvic acid is known as a “nutrient booster” because it can help us absorb and use many nutrients, such as probiotics, antioxidants, electrolytes, fatty acids, and minerals. One study showed that coenzyme Q10 (which boosts energy in the heart, liver, and kidneys) gained 29 percent better delivery into cells when combined with shilajit, thus enhancing stamina and performance and protecting the heart against free radicals.
Patrang (Caesalpinia sappan)
Patrang is an extremely versatile herb that can be used to rebalance the adrenals, thyroid, or ovaries. It is indicated for both hyperactivity (when the glands are releasing too many hormones due to high levels of stress) and hypoactivity (when the glands are now exhausted and can’t release enough of their hormones) of any of these glands and can be used at any age, even in young children.
[Editor's Note: Additional Ayurvedic herbs are covered in the book.]
©2019 by Marianne Teitelbaum. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Healing Arts Press,
a division of Inner Traditions Intl. www.InnerTraditions.com
Healing the Thyroid with Ayurveda: Natural Treatments for Hashimoto’s, Hypothyroidism, and Hyperthyroidism
by Marianne Teitelbaum, D.C.
A comprehensive guide to addressing the growing epidemic of thyroid disease from the perspective of the Ayurvedic tradition • Details the author’s successful treatment protocols for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, hypothyroidism, and hyperthyroidism developed over more than 30 years of Ayurvedic practice • Explores the underlying causes of thyroid malfunction, the thyroid’s connections to the liver and gall bladder, and the importance of early detection • Also includes treatments for common symptoms of thyroid disease, such as insomnia, depression, fatigue, and osteoporosis, as well as for weight loss and hair growth. (Also available as an ebook/Kindle edition.)
About the Author
Marianne Teitelbaum, D.C., graduated summa cum laude from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1984. She has studied with several Ayurvedic doctors, including Stuart Rothenberg, M.D., and Vaidya Rama Kant Mishra. The recipient of the Prana Ayushudi Award in 2013, she lectures and writes extensively about Ayurvedic treatments for all diseases. She has a thriving private practice and lives outside of Philadelphia.