The Adrenals from A TCM Perspective

“A lot of us have heard about our adrenal glands, but what…


“A lot of us have heard about our adrenal glands, but what do they actually do?

The adrenals are two small glands that sit on top of each kidney. They are strongly connected to our nervous system and play a big role in the activation of one branch of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system, more commonly known as our ‘fight or flight’ response.

The adrenal glands produce hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline, aldosterone, DHEA, and small amounts of testosterone and progesterone. The functions of the adrenal glands have influence over the regulation of inflammation, blood sugar, the immune system, blood pressure, metabolism and the reproductive system.

In Chinese medicine, a lot of these functions are attributed to the Kidney organ system. Through the TCM lens, the Kidneys control growth, development, reproduction and aging. Taking care of our Kidney organ system helps to support these various aspects of life, whereas taxing our Kidney organ system can take a toll on these areas.

A common example being the Kidney systems influence over aging. In a nourished and supported Kidney system we won’t see premature signs of aging, if the Kidneys are taxed or depleted, we may see early greying of hair, early onset of fine lines and wrinkles, lower energy & vitality, and more susceptibility to illness.

This almost exactly replicates the same scenario with the adrenal glands, if we are producing too much cortisol for extended periods of time, we see signs of early aging and cellular damage.

Other signs/symptoms that our Kidney organ system and/or adrenals are out of balance can
● Frequently getting sick
● Fatigue/exhaustion
● Low libido
● Low back ache (kidney/adrenal area)
● Chronic health issues/chronic diseases
● Dark circles under the eyes
● Early greying of hair
● Frequent urination at night
● Cold hands and feet

Some common factors from a Chinese medicine perspective that can drain the Kidneys/adrenals include:

● Emotional strain: the emotion associated with the Kidney system is fear, anxiety and shock. An excess of these emotions can drain the Kidney organ system
● Chronic illness: long standing illnesses will often over time deplete the Kidney organ
● Overwork: too much yang “doing” time and not enough Yin rest time. We need to strive for that ultimate balance between the two. Far too commonly in the modern world we see people burning the candle at both ends and depleting themselves over time.

Co-incidentally, a lot of the things us Chinese medicine practitioners would recommend to help support the Kidney organ system, also help to support the adrenal glands.

Some common recommendations to help support Kidney and adrenal health include:

● Lower stress: I know this is easier said than done, but this is foundational to good health and longevity. Our bodies are designed to handle short bursts of stress, not long term low or high levels stress. Deep abdominal breathing, legs up the wall pose, less screen time, learning to say no, setting (and maintaining) boundaries all help to lower your overall stress and manage existing stress.
● Balance blood sugar: like lowering stress levels, this is also key to maintaining a healthy Kidney organ system and adrenal glands. The more unbalanced our blood sugar, the higher our cortisol and inflammation. Avoid skipping meals and eat regularly throughout the day, focusing on nutritious foods that fuel your body. Snack if you need to. Make it easy for your body to run off fuel from food rather than fuel from adrenaline + cortisol from your adrenals.
● Focus on sleep: night time is the Yin part of the day in Chinese medicine (day time being the Yang part of the day). Our Yin gets refuelled and nourished at night time if we are asleep. Being asleep being the operative word here. Our Yin is not beingnourished if we are regularly going to sleep at 1am. Aim to be in bed by 10pm (at least, ideally you’re already asleep!). The more quality hours before 12am the better. Create a supportive night time routine to help you wind down for sleep. Cortisol naturally decreases as the sun sets and melatonin increases to help set the scene for a restful, and restorative sleep. If we resist this urge to go to sleep, cortisol remains
elevated. Have a bath (or a foot bath if you don’t have a full bath), spray some magnesium on your feet, drink a cup of tea, read a book, stretch, knit, do what you have to do to send clear signals to your body that you are preparing to sleep! Avoiding electronic screens before bed is important. Have a time in the evening that is a hard finish for social media and screens. Allow your body to wind down and rest. Having a regular bedtime is also supportive for the Kidneys and adrenals.
● Check in with your exercise: movement is important if you’re wanting to support your adrenal health, but the type of movement and exercise is even more important. If you’re highly stressed, smashing out some high intensity gym sessions 5-7 days per week is likely adding to your stress load, rather than reducing it. Incorporate restorative movement into your routine like walking, yoga, pilates, swimming and dance.”

Written by TCM Dr. Lauren Curtain.

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