Hormones & metabolism

Our modern lifestyles, with their high stress, bad dietary choices, environmental toxins and endocrine-disrupting chemicals are causing an increase in hormonal disorders of the pancreas (metabolic syndrome and diabetes), thyroid (hypo- and hyper-thyroidism) and adrenal glands (adrenal fatigue or adrenal depletion).

The hormones produced by these three glands work in conjunction with each other in the body so if one pathway is out of whack, it will affect other pathways along with it. For example, an insulin-resistant (diabetic) patient will have problems losing weight if their thyroid gland is not working properly, and chronic stress or high cortisol levels can contribute to both insulin resistance and poor thyroid function.

Adaptogens are the herbalists’ go-to herbs for hormone dysfunction. Rhodiola, Withania, Siberian and Korean ginseng, Schisandra and even Echinacea are thought to increase the body’s resilience to stress by initiating small stress-mimicking effects in the body (called ‘hormesis’), thereby improving endocrine and immune function. Other herbs can be used to improve liver detoxification, control blood sugar levels and calm the nervous system.

 

Metabolic syndrome & type 2 diabetes

Metabolic syndrome is a condition where cells have become resistant to insulin, the hormone that lowers blood glucose, due to overconsumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates over time, which causes the pancreas to produce too much insulin for too long and leads to cells becoming resistant to the hormone. It is the precursor to type 2 diabetes, and has also been linked to breast and prostate cancer, PCOS, Alzheimer’s disease, gout and NASH (non-alcoholic steatorrhoeic hepatitis).

In terms of herbal treatment, both metabolic syndrome and diabetes are treated according to the same principles – exercise, diet, herbs and nutrients all help to lower blood sugar levels, reduce weight, manage stress and improve insulin sensitivity. Herbs alone work on a huge number of different aspects – helping with weight loss, normalising blood sugar, decreasing inflammation, supporting liver function, reducing the negative effects of stress on the body and promoting good circulation to protect against the damage to blood vessels that can happen with high blood sugar levels.

Herbs that can be used include Gymnema sylvestris, Galega officinalis, Milk thistle, ginseng, fenugreek, Coleus, liquorice, ginkgo, globe artichoke, Gotu kola, rosemary, withania, rhodiola, eleutherococcus and schisandra. Bitter herbs like gentian, wormwood and barberry could also help to normalise blood sugar levels and improve insulin resistance, partly through their ability to stimulate the release of stomach acid and improve upper digestive function.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):

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diabetes2

Thyroid disease

The thyroid gland, in the neck just below the voice box, is rather like the thermostat of the body – it is very sensitive to change and responds to our metabolic needs by dialling up or down as necessary. Thyroid disease is generally as a result of long-term physiological stress putting too much demand on the thyroid over time. Therefore, it is important to consider why disease has developed in each person, identify the most likely causes and make appropriate changes to diet & lifestyle habits alongside herbal or conventional treatment.

There are different types of thyroid disease that cause the gland to overwork and become either hyperactive (hyperthyroid) or underactive (hypothyroid). Herbal medicine can play a role in the management of both these conditions, especially when an autoimmune element is involved. Herbs for the management of hyperthyroidism may include Lycopus spp., lemon balm, motherwort, Siberian ginseng, Hemidesmus, astragalus and echinacea. For clinical and subclinical hypothyroidism, herbs like bladderwrack, withania, Coleus forskohlii and ginger are used.

Many foods, nutrients and lifestyle habits directly affect thyroid function – iodine, selenium, vitamin D, zinc and vitamin A are all important nutrients for thyroid function, whereas raw cruciferous vegetables depress it. Many more herbs are also used to support the proper function of the liver and gut, both essential for nutrient metabolism and thyroid recovery. The thyroid gland has such complex effects on the body that each person will show different signs and symptoms, which is why herbs are always prescribed on the basis of the consultation taking into account the individual and their needs.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):

thyroid1

thyroid2

Adrenal fatigue

Although adrenal fatigue, or adrenal depletion, is not recognised as a medical condition, it is a very common collection of symptoms and one that often drives people to seek help from herbalists. It is thought of as a precursor to the chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia syndromes, and the classic symptom is constant tiredness – being “tired all the time”. Other symptoms may include excessive sleep, inability to cope with stress, irritability, anxiety, low libido, low back pain, recurrent colds and flu, sweet cravings and sensitivity to cold and heat.

Our adrenal glands are two very important little glands that sit on top of each kidney. When we experience stress, first of all the adrenal glands release the hormone adrenaline, which primes the body to “fight or flight” – our heart rate goes up, pupils dilate, blood flow is diverted from major organs to the brain and limbs, and concentration is sharpened. This is meant to be a short-term response, and dies down when the stress is gone. However, if we experience constant stress, the adrenals start to produce the hormone cortisol, which prolongs the stress response. Over time, the adrenals can become overworked and depleted, cortisol production slows (or the body becomes resistant to its effects) and the person becomes gradually unable to cope with the same level of stress.

Herbal treatment involves herbs that restore the adrenal glands, reduce the effects of stress on the body, support immune function and the nervous system, and protect against cortisol resistance. These include, among others, liquorice, Rehmannia glutinosa, Withania, Siberian ginseng, Rhodiola, skullcap, lemon balm, Echinacea and astragalus. Sleep and good quality exercise (not too strenuous) is very important for people with adrenal depletion, and diet of course plays a huge role in maintaining a healthy stress response. All these aspects of adrenal health are addressed in a herbal treatment plan, along with other lifestyle considerations and stress reduction practices.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):

adrenalfatigue

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