Depending on who you ask, the symptoms of fatigue, brain fog, lack of energy, weight fluctuations, decreased appetite, and more—often described as “adrenal fatigue”—may or may not be a real thing. The incredible frustration of this opinion is a topic for another post, but in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to offer some perspective from Ayurveda on this very common complaint in our modern times.
What are the Adrenals?
Your adrenals are glands that live near your kidneys and coordinate with the rest of your endocrine system to produce hormones, which are the chemical conductors of all the functions of your body. Hormones are complex, but we can divide them into two categories using Ayurvedic terms—langhana, or lightening/stress hormones, and bhrmana, or grounding/nourishing hormones. We need both, but stress hormones are generally prioritized by the body to keep us alive. As such, if we’re using up all the stress hormones on a daily basis for emails, social media, and pandemics, we’re going to start to turn to the reserves of bhrmana hormones to make up the difference.
There are situations where a biological abnormality prevents one or more of the structures of the body from properly producing, sending, or interpreting hormones, in which case you’ll need some medical intervention to address it. Another cause of adrenal fatigue is our dear friend, stress. When our nervous system feels threatened and produces stress hormones to keep us alive and alert, the complicated dance of hormones throughout the body gets altered. Over a long period of time, everyone starts doing their own dance moves and your body’s resources can’t be used properly to maintain and repair itself. This results in the fatigue, digestive disorders, immune disorders, and other symptoms in the “adrenal fatigue” camp that are hard to pin down with a neat diagnosis and Rx.
Restore the Adrenals by Balancing Vata
From an Ayurvedic perspective, this situation would be described as a vata imbalance—excess air and space elements that result in erratic, blocked, insufficient or excess movement in the body. Vata is easily disturbed by change, stress, and the mind in general, so using practices that support embodiment and mindfulness can bring vata back to its home and keep it running smoothly.
In my own experience with adrenal fatigue, these rituals have made a world of difference. Since we’re all different, though, you should consult with a practitioner or medical provider to discuss what might work best for you, especially when it comes to herbs—do not begin an herbal protocol if you’re on medication or have an existing condition.
It’s one of the most accessible, and free forms of self-care and nutrition there is, and yet so many of us overlook the power of consistent and high-quality sleep. Sleep is not always so easy to come by, but setting up bedtime habits can support the conditions for rest and digest mode to kick on and fight or flight to power down. I’ve been simply sleeping more these days, and treat my bedroom like a sanctuary. Earth-friendly textiles also keep me cool and feeling at peace with how I dress myself and my bed for sleep—because the fabrics you live your life in are another kind of food.
What and how we eat affects every part of our lives. Choosing a variety of plant foods (~30/week, which includes spices/herbs), local and seasonal when possible, can help create a robust and diverse gut microbiome, which can support mental health through the gut-brain axis. Eating mindfully (without stress or multitasking) will also support focused digestion and elimination so we get all the nutrients we want from our healthy food.
Ayurveda sees herbs as potent forms of medicine, which can support digestion if it’s impaired as well as deliver plant-based healing to the systems of the body. Adaptogens are a classic family of herbs used to support stress in a non-specific way. I recently discovered this Shilajit tincture for muscle recovery and general energy support from Pure Himalayan Shilajit, which is a source of trace minerals that’s made from resins buried deep in the earth for eons (probably the coolest herb I’ve ever taken!). Other Ayurvedic herbal allies for adrenal fatigue include ashwagandha, brahmi/gotu kola, moringa, and mucuna. When taking herbs, try to consume them in a way that you can taste them, rather than a pill, so your senses benefit from the medicine, too.
Ayurveda describes a daily routine called dinacharya that offers a regular check in with the sense organs, through which we take in “food” all day long. While most of the cleansing happens in the morning, I like to do a little boost at night to support sleep. I use essential oils in a diffuser next to my bed, and lately have been loving the Root Chakra blend from Mountain Rose Herbs. A head and foot massage with Brahmi oil, and nasal oiling with Nasya oil from Banyan Botanicals also help to keep the channels of the head, where vata can bounce around, clear, lubricated, and grounded.
Whenever vata is at play, turning toward foods and activities that offer a sense of grounding, connection, and faith are always going to be your best bet.
Share your favorite ways to rest & digest in the comments!