Shocking title, I know. We'll get to that. Adaptogenic herbs, also called adaptogens, have become the cool kids on the health and wellness block. If you follow any well known nutrition Instagrammer or blogger you'll see fancy potions, lattes and treats swimming in seas of maca, reishi and ashwaganda.
"Ashwa-who?" Bless you.
Adaptogenic herbs are nothing new. They've been around for centuries in Eastern, Native American and African medicine practices. They have many uses, but pharmacologically an adaptogen is defined by these three criteria:
- The substance is relatively non-toxic.
- An adaptogen has a "non specific" activity and acts by increasing resistance to a broad spectrum of advert biological, chemical and physical factors.
- They tend to help regulate an organ function.
Basically, they are a series of herbs, roots, fungus, berries, seeds and other plant matter that help the body become more flexible and resilient to whatever ails you. They help you adapt so to speak.
Adaptogens are praised for improving immunity, decreasing stress, strengthening digestion, increasing energy and of course "fixing" hormonal imbalance. Sounds great right?
Truth is, they are great and they DO work (for some, because everyone's different). I am in no means discrediting their immense power to aid in one's healing journey. They've helped in mine. However they aren't the answer, they're just a bandaid. So many people, especially women, are jumping on the herbal bandwagon in hopes to heal their hormones. Yet I see so many women still struggling even while taking adaptogenic herbs. What no one is talking about is the lifestyle and diet factors that MUST be addressed and are a much bigger force behind hormonal disturbances. These bloggers, Instgrammers and health gurus are essentially making expensive, fancy potion drinks but not reaping the full benefits because these other areas aren't up to par. And they're conniving YOU to spend your hard earned money on substances that may never get to the root cause.
In order to achieve true hormonal "balance" (which actually doesn't exist because hormones are in constant fluctuation, but the real trouble is when they are not with in proportion or range) it takes nutritional, lifestyle and mental growth. While putting maca powder in your tea every morning could surely give you energy, wouldn't you like to experience vibrant energy with out the need to rely on a substance?
The good news! There are many ways to address the root cause of wonky hormones. So before you reach for a $5o mushroom powder, focus on these areas first.
This is truly where it all starts. I could dedicate a whole blog post on this topic related to hormones. The subject is that intricate and important. For the purpose of the post let's point out a key concept. For starters, you need to eat a nutrient dense diet rich in colorful veggies, fat and animal protein. These should be staples and fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes and grains come after fulfilling the protein, fat and veggie consumption. If your diet consists of things that come from a package, box or frozen food isle you just can't expect to be completely healthy. And if you're eating the shelf stable super market staples, then digestion is certainly not up to speed. In order to create hormones, we must be able to properly break down the protein, fat and minerals from our food. Protein and fat specifically act as building blocks to many essential hormones. If we have low stomach acid and decreased pancreatic enzymes then proteins will sit undigested in the stomach or small intestine, putrefying the proteins and fats rancidify. To continue, if there is a dysbiosis of gut bacteria (meaning more "bad" bacteria, an over growth of a particular organism or shortage of "good" bacteria strains) food can not be broken down to the microscopic level needed to transport to the cells. If you have any digestive issues chances are your food is not being broken down/ and or absorbed correctly. Fixing digestion sets the stage for proper hormonal production. This piece is just the tip of the iceberg, there is truly so many things that can go wrong in digestion that play a role in hormones. But like I said, that's another post. If you suspect digestive irregularities I recommend working with an NTP like myself or a Functional Medicine Doctor.
2. Blood Sugar Regulation
Another key piece of the puzzle, if not one of the BIGGEST pieces. Everyone has this misconception that blood sugar regulation involves going keto or low carb. This is true for some but not everyone. It's about the type of carbs, carb timing and your bodies ability to utilize carbohydrates for fuel. For some it can be as simple as cutting out all processsed carbohydrates and switching to whole foods or grain free. For others a low carb or carb timing approach may work better. If the blood stream is saturated with too much glucose for a long period of time (we're talking months-years) there is the potential to develop insulin resistance. Insulin resistance then causes an increase in cortisol levels and if left elevated over time (once again months or years), the body compromises production of other sex hormones and shuttles the materials to make cortisol instead. This reduction in Estrogen, Progesterone and DHEA can lead to an inversely high testosterone in women and eventually evolve into PCOS. PCOS is a game of blood sugar regulation and insulin resistance, not hormones. How can we prevent this? For starters test your blood glucose after meals, if you're hitting 110-120 or above 2 hours after meals and it takes the body over 4 hours to fall back into normal range, it may be time to decrease the carb load. Also, eat your carbs as a part of a balanced meal. Snacking of fruit, grains, chocolate cause blood sugar spikes because of the absence of protein and fat. If you're going to consume carbs, eat them in increments of 20-30 g with a meal of protein, fat and non starchy veggies. You can also experiment with carb timing. For example, many people have success with eating carbs after a moderate-high intensity workout because the body seems to be more insulin sensitive, which is great! The glucose will then be taken into the cell quickly and efficiently for fuel. Eating carbs at night before bed is also a good technique. Keep breakfast and lunch high in protein, fat and non starchy veggies then at dinner add in the higher carbohydrate foods. The body utilizes those carbs more effectively as we sleep, and can help with blood sugar regulation during our resting hours.
3. Emotional Stress
If your blood sugar and digestion are dialed in, time to check up on your stress levels. Emotional stress in particular not only elevates cortisol levels, but goes deeper penetrating the mind, soul and body. It truly disrupts us on all playing fields. You see, when we have an issue in the physical body it often translates to an imbalance within the mental body as well. The body and mind are one after all. So if the physical fixes provide no relief I advise you to look deeper. What are you unhappy with? Are you constantly on the go with minimal breaks? When was the last time you had a moment to yourself? Even if you don't think you're stressed, sometimes we have become so accustomed to that way of feeling it no longer registers consciously as stressful. Unfortunately, the physical body doesn't know the difference between being chased by a lion or being stuck in traffic. As a result we are stuck in a chronic stress response. Hormone fluctuations caused by stress will never be fixed if stressors aren't removed or dealt with in a much more positive manor. Plain and simple. We are energetic beings and must be in tune on all levels for optimal function.
This one should really be called liver congestion or sluggish liver, but I think you get the gist. I had a hard time placing this on a scale of importance. The liver is really, really important when it comes to hormones but I truly believe if you focus on blood sugar, digestion and emotional stress the liver could even itself out. The liver is a jack of all trades, doing a little bit here and a lot a bit there (except he's no jack at all). One trade involves regulating, manufacturing and directing hormones. This includes thyroid hormones, and I always recommend looking at the liver if someone suspects low thyroid. That being said we live in a very toxic world that is placing a constant burden on our liver to remove chemicals and excess hormones from our bodies. There are so many chances in a daily routine for the liver to become overwhelmed. We wake up and immediately breathe air that has been polluted by chem trails and fumes, drink water laced with fluoride, eat food covered in pesticides and meat fed GMO grains and antibiotics, wear synthetic makeup, put on heavy metal based deodorants, wear clothes that have been chemically treated after manufacturing, use plastics, touch BPA recipe paper, clean our homes with toxic substances and not to mention being vaccinated at birth with formaldehyde, ammonia and all the other shit they put in those things. We are exposed to an overwhelming amount of toxins that bombards the liver with more duties. This inhibits our liver to work on things like hormone metabolization. So it could go one of two ways: either the liver is supported by diet change and can function optimally, or your liver is still sluggish even with diet change due to external toxins and you need extra support. It's up to you and your practitioner to decipher which situation you fall under. But for basic advice: ditch the chemicals, buy organic, get a Berkey water filter and eat a shit ton of veggies.
To reiterate the purpose of this lengthy post, adaptogens won't fix your hormones. They may play a big role in their modulation and your bodies ability to handle stress, but won't do jack squat if those other areas are in check. Don't fall prey to all the Instagrammers and bloggers making $15 herbal drinks. If anything, I recommend working with an NTP like myself or a functional medicine practitioner to find the root cause of your problems.
Questions? Comment below. Would love to hear from you!