You may have seen adrenal gland support products touted as “adrenal tonics” and remedies for “adrenal exhaustion.” Not all of them are based on a solid understanding of the adrenal glands, though, so here’s a quick primer to help you sort facts from fads.
The adrenal glands are located just above the kidneys. Each has two parts: the medulla (the inner part) and the cortex (the outer part). In stressful situations, the medulla releases hormones into the bloodstream to prepare the body for fight or flight by increasing the heart rate, raising blood pressure and stimulating breathing.
Long-term stress can exhaust this system. Herbs called adaptogens — including eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) — directly support the medulla. Bitter herbs such as gentian (Gentiana lutea) and nervines such as oats (Avena sativa) or St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) provide more general support.
The cortex secretes different hormones. Herbal remedies can affect the cortex in a variety of ways. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a general stimulant. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a common adrenal tonic but in large doses can lead to potassium depletion, although this is a rare occurrence.
Source: Hoffmann, David. An Elder’s Herbal. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1993.
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