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The Willow Journal

Healing with Adaptogens: The Thyroid/Adrenal Connection

Healing with Adaptogens: The Thyroid/Adrenal Connection

healing with adaptogens

If you do much reading on the internet or keep up with ‘medical’ news you’ve probably heard the outcry lately. The mainstream is just now getting the memo that women’s health is wildly diverse and drum roll please, little studied. Medical research has been a steady march through discoveries and cures and so many wonderful gains in knowledge, awareness and treatment. This is irrefutable certainly, but if you are a woman, and I’m guessing that many of you are, then have a seat. Almost exclusively, medical research is done on men and starts with the baseline idea that men and women are the same. That our bodies operate and process and receive input the same. That if it works for a man then us women are all good, too. Put another way, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Well, you probably won’t be surprised by the new data that largely finds this to be completely untrue. We are wildly different.


In medical terms, it would take more than a newsletter to break down the vast differences, but I think I can appeal to your intuition on this one. Women are wired differently. With only a brief glance over to our hormonal friends testosterone and estrogen, it becomes obvious that medically speaking, we need to divide and conquer….one size does not fit all. In this newsletter we are going to take a look at some of the influencing factors that make women’s health and wellness such a multi faceted and intricate issue and are going to start with the adrenals and thyroid. These two fit together hand in glove and their markers are intertwined. It will probably come as no surprise to you to learn that many of the issues that women face aren’t clearly seen or heard by the medical community. Symptoms may be vague or unclear and honestly, ill defined. Words like brain fog, low energy, cravings, sleep disturbances, blood sugar issues, moodiness, overwhelm, achiness, feeling ungrounded, mental exhaustion or fatigue are symptoms that aren’t life threatening but detract from quality of life significantly and over time, surely take a toll on our system.


The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck and is your chief gland of energy and metabolism. It’s like a master switch that fires up the genes and signals to cells to do their jobs. It is a fundamental mechanism in our body, as every cell in your body has thyroid hormone receptors. The adrenals are two small glands just above the kidneys. They are responsible for releasing calculated and small amounts of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, that trigger the fight or flight response that helps us deal with life-threatening situations. Because our modern day life is filled with constant triggers, they are often terribly overworked. People with hypothyroidism often have weak adrenal glands. The two glands work together to supply essential hormones and deliver them where they need to be throughout the body. If your adrenal glands aren’t producing enough cortisol and you have a thyroid problem it’s easy to see that you might be more than a little frayed.  


According to the medical community, hypothyroidism, or low thyroid function, is a silent epidemic. You might suffer for years with vague symptoms that no one identifies or recognizes. And here’s where it gets tricky. In so many cases, the problem isn’t actually the thyroid, but is an over arching case of the immune system not functioning properly. Yet doctors rarely test for antibodies that show the presence of autoimmunity. This places stress on the adrenals and can result in a compromised thyroid. Some estimate that 90% of diagnosed thyroid issues are actually Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune hypothyroid condition. In either situation, it makes sense to get the bottom of WHY our thyroid might be functioning poorly and start from there. The adrenals benefit from the same guidelines! A win/win!


The good news is that relief starts with dietary changes, not drugs! Some changes to your diet can create a radical change in the chemistry of your body without the need for pharmaceuticals. Because one of the primary symptoms of thyroid issues is brain fog and lethargy, similar and related, it’s natural to counter balance this with sugar and caffeine, for the needed jolt of energy. These non-nutritional choices have the opposite effect over time, causing the body to overuse the adrenals and taxing the thyroid. Cutting out caffeine, sugar, and other refined carbohydrates will make a huge difference. Alcohol falls into this category also, as it's chock full of sugars.


The thyroid utilizes protein and it’s good to make sure that you are getting plenty, as well as good fats like olive oil, avocado, butter, nut butters, coconut fats, etc, which we need for hormonal balance. Eliminating soy products is recommended. And lastly, but of the utmost importance, it’s time to cut gluten from your diet. Yes, it’s true and here’s one of the many reasons why. The molecular composition of thyroid tissue is almost identical to that of gluten. Another added benefit of cutting gluten that most don’t consider is that it’s typically replaced with healthier, more nutrient dense foods. It’s not a good idea to go out and buy ‘gluten free’ versions of all your favorite gluten filled foods, this isn’t what we mean! Rather, increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables to compensate for the loss of ‘bulk fibers’.

For some people casein, which is one of the primary proteins found in dairy can also mimic thyroid tissue. What a divine comedy! I wonder what we all did in a past life to deserve this!


Relax and Recharge! For both your thyroid and your adrenals it is HIGHLY recommended that you take up a practice that relaxes and soothes you. This might look different everyone but could include, yoga, meditation, walking, painting, dancing, or bird watching….if YOU find it calming, satisfying, and stress free then that’s what you’re looking for!


Good sleep is also crucial and if you struggle with sleep it’s time to really think about changes you can make to create a better environment for sleeping and perhaps look at some of our calming herbs, teas, and essential oils for relaxation. See below.


Herbs for healing: After you’ve begun to implement lifestyle changes it’s time to introduce herbs and adaptogens that support and feed the adrenals and the thyroid.

Adaptogens are a group of herbs that are known for their enhancement of adrenal function, immunity, physical and mental endurance. They can help balance your cortisol output when used consistently over time. Adaptogens are on the frontlines of herbal medicine and have long been used in both Chinese and Ayurvedic practices for immune support, longevity, fertility and stamina. Our modern world is full of stressors and adaptogens are a vital and sustaining way to naturally empower our system. Many of these herbs work on the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis often referred to as the HP axis. This master of all the glands, its effects trickles down to the entire endocrine system including the thyroid and the adrenals.


Common Adaptogenic Herbs

  • Rhodiola
  • Ashwagandha
  • Ginseng
  • Gotu Kola
  • Licorice Root
  • Eleutherococcus
  • Reishi Mushroom
  • Maca


1 Maca

Maca can improve hormones overall by acting on the adrenal glands and supporting healthy estrogen and testosterone levels. Maca is wonderful in a smoothie!

Maca is powerful! You may want to start with a small amount and see what works for your body.


2 Eleutherococcus

This herb is best consumed earlier in the day to improve energy and stamina. It can help reduce or eliminate fatigue and is supportive of the immune system. It has also been shown to improve memory.


3 Gotu Kola

When stress has been going on for a while or is ramping up, this is one herb I like to leverage.Gotu Kola, thought of as one of the more important herbs in Ayurvedic medicine is touted for feeding the brain and supporting collagen production is now thought to balance both hemispheres of the brain. Taken over time, it will brighten the world making colors more saturated and vibrant.


4 Ashwagandha

Ashwaganda is such an amazing herb! It puts a damper on cortisol production, bringing a sense of peace and calm. If you have experienced the feeling of being both fatigued and ‘key up’, it might be a good bed time remedy for you.  

Ashwagandha is also beneficial for thyroid health.


5 Holy Basil is another powerful adaptogen and is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine. It works on lowering stress hormones, maintaining heathy blood sugar levels, promotes longevity, is high in antioxidants and feeds the brain. Said to elevate our moods and give an overall sense of wellbeing, holy basil is an herbal bad ass.


6 Licorice: Licorice helps keep cortisol around longer, which is the main way it can increase energy and decrease inflammation.Licorice is not recommended for those with high blood pressure, so it is best to be under the care of a doctor before electing for this herb.

7 Reishi Mushroom: This little mushroom will keep colds at bay, make you feel more resilient to stress and build the strength of your adrenals.

It’s worth saying again and again that herbs work so very differently from pharmaceutical drugs and require a different and more sustained approach. Prescription drugs are heavy hitters. They are designed to quickly strong arm your symptoms while often times underlying causes are not addressed. Herbs work with your body in a supportive role with powerful natural properties that complement and enhance the compromised systems. Adaptogenic herbs work by naturally stimulating your body’s own mechanisms to realign you in health. When paired with healthier lifestyle choices, real healing happens. But change and healing takes time. If you try it for few weeks you will begin to feel a difference, but it truly takes months to fortify your system and undo what are sometimes a lifetime of bad habits or patterns.

When healing the adrenals and thyroids it’s a great idea to create a new lifestyle plan that supports you in a life that’s calmer, and more nourishing. Even if you are a busy woman, which we all are, give yourself time and opportunity to slow down a bit and recognize yourself. Thank your body for all that it does for you and treat it kindly. Feed it well, let it rest, and nourish it with natural and life giving herbs and adaptogens!