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  • Nicole McCarter, ND

Balance Your Stress Series: Herbs and Nutrients


The last few weeks I’ve written about the effects of stress on your wellbeing and stress management techniques. This week I wanted to talk about different herbs, nutrients and supplements that are effective in supporting the HPA axis and increasing stress tolerance. With that being said, I want to make it clear that you can’t simply solve stress with supplements. Although supplementation is a vital part of recovery, and can even help prevent HPA axis issues during times of high stress, only taking supplements is not the answer. By not doing any thing to decrease stress levels or implement better lifestyle habits, recovery will be incredibly difficult and take significantly more time.

Natural Supplements for HPA Axis Health:

Herbs: I use a lot of herbs in my practice, and they are incredibly effective if used properly. I’ve always been amazed by the fact that the earth has provided us with all the resources we need to be healthy and vital from the food we eat to plants with medicinal properties.

Adaptogenic herbs are a class of herbs that support the body's ability to respond to stress and restore homeostasis, which means they bring stress hormones back into balance when too high or low. Some of them can be used as general stress support, while others shouldn’t be used unless you’ve had your adrenal health tested because some can lower or raise cortisol levels.

  • General adaptogens:

  • Holy basil (Ocimum Sanctum aka Tulsi) is an Ayurvedic herb that helps moderate stress and is helpful in treating anxiety (1). Tulsi tea is quite delicious and comes in large variety of flavors and found at most health food stores.

  • Rhodiola helps moderate the stress response and is useful in acute and chronic stress to improve mood (2) and energy. I love rhodiola - it's one of my go to adrenal supportive herbs.

  • Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus) increases the ability to withstand stressful conditions. It’s enhances athletic endurance and increases mental capacity.

  • For high cortisol:

  • Ashwaghanda (Withania Somnifera) is an Ayurvedic herb used to treat stress and anxiety, and has been shown to decrease serum cortisol levels (3). I’ve clinically found it helpful in treating anxiety, insomnia, high cortisol and high stress with normal cortisol. I typically avoid recommending ashwaghanda to patients with low cortisol.

  • Magnolia (Magnolia officinalis) has a calming affect by increasing the calming neurotransmitter GABA (4).

  • For low cortisol:

  • Licorice (glycyrrhiza glabra) root extract inhibits the enzyme that breaks down cortisol and has been found to increase serum cortisol levels (5). Avoid licorice if you have high blood pressure.

  • Panax ginseng is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Ginseng is a stimulating adaptogen and therefore should be used by those who are overstimulated or have active inflammation. It’s especially indicated for those who can no longer adapt to stress with mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.

Vitamins: Vitamins and minerals are essential for every biochemical pathway in our body that’s why it’s so important to eat a nutritious whole foods diet and avoid processed foods. In addition to proper nutrition there are a few key nutrients essential for HPA axis health that can be found in the diet and through supplementation.

  • B5 (pantothenic acid) is necessary for the adrenals to produce stress hormones. Although most people don’t have an issue getting enough B5 in the diet because it’s fairly prevalent, high levels of stress can increase the bodies need. B5 is found in liver, mushrooms, whole grains, dairy, legumes, meat, veggies, nuts and avocados. When taken as a supplement, a therapeutic dose is typically 100-500mg per day with doses up to 1,000mg per day

  • B6 (pyridoxine) is necessary for many different processes in the body, but most importantly in reference to stress for the production of neurotransmitters. B6 is found in organ meat, blueberries, molasses, dark leafy greens, and whole grains. When taken as as supplement, look for P5P or pyridoxine 5 phosphate which is the active form. A therapeutic dose is typically 25-200mg per day, but I recommend starting at 50mg.

  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is found in high concentrations in the adrenal glands and is also needed for neurotransmitter production. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, broccoli, bell peppers, acerola fruit, rosehips and camu-camu (try adding a tsp to a smoothie). When taken as a supplement, look for ascorbic acid. Therapeutic dose ranges from 500mg-2,000mg with doses as high as 10g, however high doses can cause diarrhea. I recommend 500-1,000mg per day.

Happy New Year! Let’s make 2017 your healthiest one yet...

#functionalmedicine #adrenalfatigue #hormones #HPAaxis

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