So. The struggle is real – you feel like you’re doing everything ‘right’ to heal your adrenal fatigue, but still feel like you’re not seeing any improvements in your chronic fatigue and adrenal symptoms. You’re sleeping 8+ hours a night, have stopped doing high intensity exercise or chronic cardio, have started managing your stress, and are even eating a healing diet high in vegetables, healthy fats, protein, and fiber – without any added sugars or processed/other inflammatory foods. But you can barely peel yourself out of bed in the morning, struggle with energy throughout the day, and then still have trouble falling asleep at night. So what gives? It may be time to tackle your adrenal fatigue from a different angle – Should you use Adaptogens for Adrenal Fatigue?
What the heck are adaptogens and immunomodulators?
Adaptogens are a class of herbs that are natural compounds known as immunomodulators, which have been used for thousands of years in traditional eastern medicine (traditional Chinese and Russian medicine, Ayurvedic medicine). In a nutshell, they meet your body where it is, whether it’s high, for example an overactive immune system, or low, in the case of chronic fatigue, and help bring it back to balance. Sometimes your immune system is working too hard (think an autoimmune flare, chronic inflammation, or very high cortisol when your body is in constant fight-or-flight mode), and sometimes your body isn’t sending the signals that the immune system needs to fire (as in the case of adrenal fatigue and very low cortisol outputs). Immunomodulators and adaptogens help bring the body back to homeostasis (balance) by guiding the body’s messenger signals (in the case of adrenal fatigue, on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal-Thyroid axis) to either boost certain activity or calm it down.
Medicinal mushrooms may not be adaptogens per se (and no, MOM, we’re not talking about tripping out on shrooms here), but they have powerful adaptogenic, antioxidant, and immune-enhancing properties that make them extremely therapeutic for multiple health conditions, like adrenal fatigue, chronic stress, and autoimmune and other inflammatory conditions.
To be an adaptogen, a compound must meet three criteria:
- It must be SAFE (non-toxic and non-habit forming)
- It must be NON-SPECIFIC (meaning it can help multiple functions in the body, phyically, mentally, and biological)
- It must BALANCE the body (it’s not specifically a stimulant or sedative, but balancing and can work both ways)
Let’s learn how to use adaptogens to boost your immunity, mental and physical performance, and to increase your capacity to manage stress (probably the most important for adrenal fatigue!)
Which adaptogens are most commonly used for chronic/adrenal fatigue and stress management?
First off, I *highly* recommend working with a trained Naturopath, Nutritionist, or Herbalist for appropriate dosages and choosing which adaptogens to work with based on your unique situation. DO NOT take these all at once – some are primarily stimulating, and some are primarily going to depress the immune system, so they will cancel each other out, or may produce unanticipated side effects.
Ashwagandha is an herb traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine that studies have shown helps regulate the immune system, can increase your body’s ability to deal with stress, relieve anxiety, improve insulin sensitivity, help with sleep, balance thyroid hormones, and help the body lower cortisol levels in times of high stress. This also means if your cortisol is already LOW, ashwagandha may not be the best choice. In my clinical practice I’ve also had good results with people using ashwagandha to help with IBS-D symptoms (which is most likely related to the anxiety piece!)
General recommended dosage: 500mg 1-2x daily.
Reishi mushrooms boost immunity by increasing the activity of your natural killer cells, can lower your stress response and sense of overwhelm, increase sleep quality, and help restore hormonal balance. Like the other medicinal mushrooms, they are a strong anti-inflammatory agent and can enhance mental clarity. Reishi mushrooms contain beta-glucans (watch out, buzzword coming soon), that are fuel for your colonocytes (cells of the large intestine) and teach the natural killer cells/cytokines how and when to mount an appropriate immune response that isn’t overwhelming for the body. They also contain plant fibers that can act as hormone precursors in the body, and triterpenes, which modulate the body’s allergic/immunogenic response, meaning these little guys can also be really helpful in leaky gut as well. (Check out Reishi teas and superfood blends!)
Chaga mushrooms are one of the best sources of antioxidants, meaning they fight and reduce inflammation, and can also boost the immune system by increasing the body’s production of immune cells (T-lymphocytes and interleuken 6), which work to make sure the body is protected from foreign pathogens and viruses. Studies have also shown that Chaga can improve athletic endurance by increasing the glycogen content of muscles while decreasing the amount of lactic acid that accumulated in the bloodstream (which means more fuel, but less fatigue and soreness)! *note: Chaga may make the immune system MORE active, so it is most likely counter-indicated in autoimmune flare-ups and in certain AI diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. (Check out Chaga teas!)
Note: pairing reishi with vitamin C-rich foods makes it more bioavailable (more absorbable to the body)
Cordyceps are an energizing adaptogen (like maca, above,) and are known to enhance immunity, energy, and have powerful antioxidant properties (they fight off free radicals). They can help mediate autoimmune conditions and flare-ups, excess inflammation and tissue damage, all the while speeding up the recovery process. Studies have also shown they can improve athletic performance by providing natural relief for muscle aches, soreness, and pain, fight fatigue by boosting the body’s supply of ATP; Cordyceps contain adenosine, which is a necessary building block of ATP, one of the body’s primary energy sources during exercise. (Check out coffees AND hot chocolate mixes with Cordyceps!)
Rhodiola Rosea can help mitigate the effects of both physical and mental stress by reducing fatigue, anxiety, and oxidative stress (aka inflammation) via lowering cortisol and increases levels of stress-resistant proteins (stress-activated protein kinases). It has also been shown to increase libido, increase mood and mental alertness.
Maca can help balance hormones (especially estrogen in women, modulating the effects of PMS, PCOS and menopause), and boost the immune system via glutathione and SOD (superoxide disumutase), libido, fertility, energy, stamina, and mood. It also has a good dosage of plant-based minerals and nutrients which help its absorption in the body, like fiber, protein, calcium and magnesium, can help regulate blood glucose and cholesterol levels with the help of its glutathione-containing properties. Note: more studies need to be done on the safety of maca for pregnant and nursing women before it can be a safe recommendation.
Licorice Root is primarily a stimulant – it can help enhance immunity, energy, and endurance, and can extend the half-life of your body’s cortisol. (Which means it may not be a good choice if you have already HIGH cortisol) But, it can also be very healing and nourishing – Licorice is a very mucilaginous herb (meaning it produces mucus in the digestive tract), which can be extremely healing in cases of inflammation or leaky gut. *Therapeutic doses must be used under medical supervision because it may increase blood pressure.*
How can I incorporate these adaptogens into my healing protocol?
As you know, I’m a very “real food first” kind of person. So rather than start out with a bunch of supplements or adaptogens in pill form, I’d rather take them in conjunction with real foods. My favorite way to get them? Through the adaptogen-rich Mushroom Elixrs like Cordyceps Coffee and Reishi Hot Chocolate (or reishi teas) from Four Sigmatic, a Maca-rich coffee substitute, or green juice with Ashwagandha. This is a great way to start small and gage your reaction to these adaptogens before trying them out in supplement form.
BUT wait a minute, Dana. I thought you’ve said multiple times that I need to cut OUT coffee if I have adrenal fatigue. TRUE, but hold your horses. These mushroom coffees are a fantastic way to wean yourself off caffeine for complete adrenal recovery, as they only have about half the caffeine (50mg/serving) of a normal cup of coffee. Further, the adaptogenic properties of the mushrooms help modulate the body’s response to caffeine – aka no crash, no shakiness, and better focus. I’ve used these both on myself and clients for weaning off caffeine (or for days when I just need a little boost) and I absolutely LOVE THEM – both the Cordyceps Coffee and Lion’s Mane Coffee.
All these adaptogens and herbs won’t make much of a difference if you’re not already taking care of the diet, lifestyle, sleep, and stress pieces to try and heal your adrenal dysfunction or chronic fatigue/stress. Adaptogens will help you build up resilience to stress, and with these other dietary and lifestyle changes, may help enhance your healing process.
Remember: START SLOW and LOW (dosage) and listen to your body.
Not all these adaptogens will work for everyone, and it will really depend on your body’s current state and needs, which will change over time. It’s also important not to rely on these adaptogens the same way people rely on coffee, as a bandaid for their symptoms of exhaustion. We need to work on the root causes of why we have these symptoms in the first place, rather than relying on external remedies to put a bandaid on the problem.
Products mentioned in this article:
These are adaptogens that I personally have used on myself under supervision of an ND or in my clinical practice. Others to look up: Holy Basil, Ginseng, Astralagus Root. This article contains affiliate links, meaning I will receive a small commission to support my work if you choose to buy through those links (at no extra cost to you). Thank you for supporting Real Food with Dana!