energy recovery, adrenal fatigue, adrenal healing, adrenal recovery, functional medicine

Energy Recovery 101: Root Cause Solutions for Healing Your Adrenals, Part Two

Root Cause Solutions for Healing Your Adrenals

Part Two: Heal Your Adrenals, Recover Your Energy

A Holistic Framework for Energy Recovery: What We Need for Optimal Energy Production in a Nutshell

  1. Targeted energy nutrients: from food–supports all aspects of chemical energy production and protection of cells and tissues from free radicals (the high energy byproducts of energy production).
  2. Hydration: assists with circulation of blood and body fluid elements and participates in the chemistry of energy production.
  3. Breath: inhalation supplies oxygen; exhalation removes carbon dioxide; breathing modulates nervous system control.
  4. Sleep: allows for restoration and repair; facilitates circulation.
  5. Circulation of blood, lymph and tissue fluid: brings in water and nutrients; remove toxins; maintains adequate blood pressure to perfuse tissues and cells.
  6. Detoxification by liver, gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, breath, skin: removes toxins and irritants that hinder energy production.
  7. Healthy gut and microbiome: provide nutrition, eliminate toxins and balance immunity (excessive inflammation will hinder energy production).
  8. Movement: aids in circulation of blood and body fluids, “optimal” levels lead to decreased oxidative stress (cleans up after energy production) and reduces inflammation (modulates this hindrance of energy production).
  9. Oxygen and energy nutrition: conduct the chemistry of energy production.
  10. Thyroid glands and thyroid hormones: thermostatic regulators that support cellular work sustained by energy; places increased demand on energy resources.
  11. Adrenal glands and hormones: support the availability of fuel (carbon fragments from glucose and fatty acids) for energy production; sustain blood pressure and circulation to deliver them.

Our Point of Stress and Energy Control: The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

During times of acute or severe stress, the demand for energy and action may be urgent and immediate. This is when the brain calls in the branch of the ANS that we call the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). We all know the SNS and how it feels, perhaps all too well. When activated, the SNS releases adrenaline into our system, which calls us to immediate action, “fight or flight.” The effects of adrenaline are to raise our heart and respiratory rates, raise blood levels of glucose, slow our digestion, and inspire us to use our superpowers to engage or retreat, fast. We may experience anxiety or have a sense of butterflies in our stomach. It’s all designed to make energy available instantly to support fast action.

It is important that we have a way to pull back from the intensity of the SNS. The opposing action of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is important for this. The PNS, represented by the Vagus nerve, residing in the central core of the body, calms and soothes. When activated, the heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, breathing becomes deeper and more prolonged, the body begins to relax and let go. The mind clears and calms as the crisis is behind us now.

We can consciously engage the PNS to support our efforts to relax and reduce the stress response. We can do this in a number of ways. Each of these ways pull us into the present moment. If the SNS is about the future—protection from potential harm that may come—the PNS is about the present moment, feeling safe and unworried about exactly where we are. The simplest way to activate the PNS is to take slow deep belly breaths. The downward excursion of the diaphragm when we take in a deep breath stimulates the Vagus nerve, leading to PNS activation, and blockade of the stimulating effects of the SNS. Powerful research on the effects of deep breathing in meditation verifies the positive effects on both the body and the mind.

Other ways to engage the PNS include: meditation, yoga, movement such as walking or other forms of exercise, being in Nature, guided imagery using a calming theme, expressing gratitude, stimulating energy in the heart center, sleep and rest, hugs, laughter, connection with others, warm, calming foods and drink.

The Self-Care Fundamentals for Adrenal Recovery

First, Work With the Body:

  1. By breathing deeply. In the face of challenge and stress we must breathe. When we’re stressed, many of us fold forward, making our breathing shallow. When we open up our bodies to receive deep conscious breathing, we shift our physiologies in profound ways. Deep breathing stimulates PNS, which serves as a counterbalance to our stress hormones. It calms us and brings us more into the present moment, a place from which we can act upon our challenges with greater wisdom and awareness. When we cultivate a practice of deep breathing, such as with meditation, those deep conscious breaths become more second nature for us. Further, when we adopt an open hearted posture, we increase the power of our presence through hormonal shifts (increased testosterone, decreased cortisol) and mind shifts (increased confidence, personal strength, and resilience.) Deep breathing optimizes the in-flow of life and energy-sustaining oxygen.
  2. By eating a diet that is nutrient-rich and low in irritants and pro-inflammatory foods. Follow the Liftoff Foundational Nutrient-Dense Food Plan, or the more intensive Gut-Immune Restoration Intensive Nutrition (GRIN) food plan (free access to food plan with email sign up on home page). These food plans will provide the nutrients needed to power energy production, heal the adrenals, support detoxification and restore healthy gut function, including support for a robust microbiome.
  3. By hydrating well. drink clean, pure water. Most of us need two quarts per day, more for coffee or tea drinkers and for those who sweat a lot through high activity.
  4. By sleeping well. don’t skimp here. There is nothing more profoundly stressful as chronic sleep deprivation and, conversely, nothing as healing to the adrenals as sleeping well and long enough. Sleep is the ultimate re-set and repair at the deepest level. Good sleep is a non-negotiable part of all healing. How much is enough? You probably can get a sense this based on the number of hours you sleep when left uninterrupted. The average optimal sleep duration for adults is 9.5 hours.
  5. By moving your body wisely. Movement calms the nervous system and regulates stress hormones. Cross-crawling activities such as walking, running, and swimming help with problem solving. Yoga is a great way to combine movement with breath work and positive affirmations.

 Work with the Mind and Emotions: Unload the mental and emotional stressors that challenge the adrenals.

  1. By changing your relationship with stress. Understand it as the wise teacher rather than the enemy. To decipher the wisdom of the body when feeling stressed, remember that the body’s response to a challenge is neutral and non-judging. What your body is telling you about the situation in front of you is true. First, listen closely. Don’t kill the messenger. Trust the wisdom of your body and that it’s only purpose is to support you. What is the message? What is the intuitive guidance of your body trying to tell you about the situation.
  2. By softening your expectations for yourself and others, allowing room for improvisation and the unexpected. It’s good to soften when we feel stressed: soften our thoughts, soften our expectations, soften our stories. Just soften. Even as we brace our minds and bodies for the impending catastrophe lurking just ahead, soften. When we breathe and soften we begin to remove the prickly edges from our experiences. This puts us more in the flow of our lives.
  3. By mobilizing your support team of friends, family members, or healthcare professionals. We can communicate to others about how we feel and mobilize our support team. Soak in and feel nourished by having someone listen and support us. Remember, we are wired for human connection. Part of the stress response (via the hormone, oxytocin) is to move us closer to others. We can’t always do this alone. We need the support of friends, family, or trusted consultants who understand us and want to support what is best for us. We need to surround ourselves with people who celebrate who we are and where we are headed and don’t feel jealous or threatened by our positive change.
  4. By creating an action plan to address your life challenges: We all need a plan to specifically address the stressful situation, if that is necessary. Writing the plan down gives us the opportunity to contemplate our action steps.
  5. By simplifying your life: There are many times when we can slow things down and reduce distraction. Put cell phones away, stop trying to multitask (studies confirm that our brains can’t do it well anyway.) Disconnect from news and email. The world can wait while we become better versions of ourselves. And declutter: a cluttered personal environment adds to a cluttered mind. Get rid of those piles of stuff, organize, and minimize.
  6. By avoiding negative stories about your life. This is hard but necessary. The more time we spend on our negative interpretations of the events of our lives, the stronger those neural networks become that support that way of thinking, and the more stressed we remain. We want to dismantle our old, negative way of thinking and open space for new understanding, for what is possible.
  7. By releasing strong emotions in health ways. When we have strong emotions about stressful events, we must relieve them in productive ways. Before acting out about the stress-producing situation, it can be helpful to take time out and use our resilience tools: go for a walk, have a cry, state positive affirmations about courage and support. Taking an active time out allows our inner wisdom to fully declare itself, and mobilize our resources toward a solution.
  8. By naming the stress: Name it and claim it. When we feel stressed about something, it is important to acknowledge it and name it out loud. “I am feeling stressed, I am anxious about giving that talk, I feel overwhelmed by this project.” Naming it grounds it instantly. It gives us an anchor and a purpose. It allows us to start strategizing our way toward resolution, to call in our reinforcements. Writing about what stresses us is a way to expand our awareness about how we truly feel, and open the door to greater clarity about what needs to be done.
  9. By creating an action plan. We all need a plan to specifically address the stressful situation, if that is necessary. Writing the plan down gives us the opportunity to contemplate our action steps.
  10. By affirming your resilience (even if you don’t believe it). In other words, practice resilience. We can use positive affirmations about stress to further change how we think about it. Practicing affirmations helps us to expand the neural networks that support our desired state of being. I like to have my favorite affirmations written down and ready to pull out in a pinch: I am undaunted. I am fully supported by the Universe. I am courageous. I am courageous. I possess all of the resources to handle my life’s challenges successfully. I am Divinely guided and protected.
  11. By practicing courage: Research shows that people who open themselves up to others by sharing their true feelings, even when it feels uncomfortable, are happier and more resilient than those who hold it all in. It can feel very risky to expose our inner selves in this way, but the rewards are huge. Avoiding connection is risky—our levels of stress skyrocket and we tend to experience stress as negative.
  12. By laughing: Cultivate humor in the face of stress. It allows us to instantly diffuse the negative impact of stress on our bodies and minds. I love how author Anne Lamott describes laughter as “carbonated holiness.” Laughter is a sure indication that we don’t take ourselves too seriously and allows us to punch through negative aspects of stress, getting us closer to the transformation we need to move through difficult times.
  13. By forgiving: Yes, we can work to forgive everyone and everything. Nothing burns out the adrenals as profoundly as holding onto past hurts. Remember, forgiveness is not about pretending nothing happened. All kinds of things have happened to all of us. Unfortunate things, tragic things. But our attachment to those events and the ways we believe they define us and our current lives, strangles us, stresses us, and puts a strong foothold on the possibilities for our lives. We must free ourselves from the past, whatever it takes.

The Wise Use of Supplements to Support Adrenal Recovery

Adrenal supplements support the foundational aspects of adrenal recovery as we discussed above, but are not a substitute. Sustainable healing of the adrenals at the root-cause level requires vigilance to the fundamentals of self-care. No adrenal supplement in the world will help you recover your energy and vitality to its full potential (or at all) if you continue to sleep poorly or if your food plan doesn’t support your basic needs for energy recovery and adrenal function.


Most of these will come from the plants in your diet, however, the body challenged by chronic illness or other drains on energy and adrenal reserve, may demand more than food can supply. Here are my favorites:

*High quality mixed fruit and vegetable powder (Paleo Greens by Designs for Health): 1-2 teaspoons mixed in water daily.

*N-acetyl cysteine (precursor to Glutathione): 600-1000 mg twice daily.

*Liposomal Glutathione: 1-2 teaspoons 1-2 times daily (depending on need; Researched Nutritionals).

*Liposomal Alpha-lipoic acid: liver from pasture raised animals is a great source, however, for those who don’t like liver, take as a supplement: 2 teaspoons twice daily (Researched Nutritionals).

*A high quality multivitamin-mineral supplement with vitamins A, C and E: 3 twice daily (Designs for Health).

*Extra vitamin C: 1000 mg twice daily (Metagenics).

Anti-inflammatory nutrients

Many of these will be in your diet as well, but there are some powerhouse anti-inflammatory supplements that will help protect your precious adrenals and mitochondria.

*Curcumin extract: 400 mg of a 95% curcuminoids product; take 2-3 tmes daily.

*Combination of several powerhouse anti-inflammatory plant extracts: Curcumin, Ginger, Boswellia, plant enzymes: take 2-4 capsules 3-4 times daily (My favorite is Inflammatone by Designs for Health)

Vitamins and Minerals

*A high quality Multi-vitamin-mineral supplement: 3 twice daily (Designs for Health).

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is very hard to get in sufficient quantities in the diet and most of us need to supplement to optimize blood levels. I dose based on blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D (goal: 50-70 pg/dl for most individuals). This translates to about 5000-10,000 IU of vitamin D3 for most people.

Adrenal Support Herbs

For Adrenal dysfunction with fatigue

*Asian or Panax Ginseng root: standardized to 8% ginsenosides, 400 mg 1-2 times daily.

*Rhodiola root extract: standardized to 1% salidroside and 3% rosavins, 100 mg 1-2 times daily.

For Adrenal dysfunction with low cortisol levels

*Ashwaganda root: 15:1 extract containing withanolides: 50 mg 1-2 times daily.

*Licorice root extract: standardized to 25% glycyrrhizic acid, 300 mg 1-2 times daily. Caution should be taken for those known to have high blood pressure and blood pressure should be routinely monitored throughout therapy.

For adrenal dysfunction in conditions of persistent stress to support resilience:

Adrenal Glandulars: Whole adrenal and adrenal cortex glandular from organic pasture raised beef sources: 200-300 mg daily.

How to Test for Adrenal Function

While it can be perfectly obvious that someone’s adrenal function needs support based on their symptoms, testing can be very useful to show individuals what is actually happening on a biological level. That this isn’t just hype. Alterations in adrenal function can profoundly effect the quality of our lives.

I like to do measurements of saliva cortical and DHEA over the course of an entire day so we can look not only at the actual levels, but the pattern of change in those levels from the time of awakening to bedtime. Looking at this pattern helps us to understand more precisely where the problem lies, how to treat it most appropriately for the given individual, and how aggressive our intervention needs to be. Some people need simple changes in lifestyle to remove stress and nourish adrenals, while others need intensive adrenal resuscitation with nutrients, herbs, and other modalities.

It is also important to look at adrenal hormone levels in the context of the larger hormonal system and general health of the individual. I always do adrenal testing along with checking other hormones, including thyroid and sex hormones, comprehensive nutrition testing, and markers for inflammation. Your trusted Functional Medicine practitioner can help you with comprehensive energy testing that is appropriate for you.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *