By Christal Blanchard, ND
Do you ever wonder why some people can run faster, jump higher, lift heavier, train longer and can do so, day after day, injury-free? Do they know something you don’t? The Russians certainly did. In fact, during the Cold War, the Russians kept many secrets from us, including those that helped many of their Olympic athletes, soldiers, politicians and cosmonauts perform better than ever. Their secret weapon was not of mass destruction, but of a class of herbs, called adaptogens. One adaptogen in particular proved to be so effective in improving performance that they felt it necessary to keep it from us for as long as they could. Let’s discuss the role of adaptogens and why they have become one of the most important tools in the modern world of sport.
Adaptogens, as the name indicates, helps you to “adapt” to your situation. Whether you are an athlete or just a busy mom, at some point you will find yourself feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, requiring some help in managing both the physical and mental/emotional demands of life. Their role is in supporting the adrenal glands, small organs that sit above the kidneys, designed to release specific hormones like cortisol in response to stress. Stress today is completely different than stress 1,000 years ago, but the physiological response to any stress is still the same. In order to “survive,” your body finds ways to enhance your vision, reflexes, strength, stamina and mental focus. It can do so only with healthy adrenal glands, which in the world today is becoming more difficult to sustain. Take the athlete for example, who is never just an athlete. The student athlete is worrying about exams, maintaining their average, sports performance, relationships, career decisions, etc. It’s also the adult or the parent athlete who is worrying about finances, raising kids, taking care of their elderly parents, job security, managing relationships, etc. The adrenals can only handle so much stress and when overworked both physically and mentally, performance is negatively affected and this can also lead to many stress-related conditions such as obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma to name a few. You can see why the Russians made it mandatory for Olympic athletes to take care of their adrenals by regularly taking adaptogens in order for them to prevent injury and recover quickly from illness during the Olympic games.
Besides adaptogens, the first thing to consider however in order to prevent adrenal fatigue/hypoadrenia is proper rest in between training. When overtraining, your adrenal glands are recruited to increase cortisol and since the demand on the adrenal system is too high, it causes them to become unresponsive in the long term. Symptoms you may notice include: muscle breakdown/fat accumulation; decreased hormone levels, particularly testosterone; poor wound healing; pain/arthritis; fatigue – worse between 3 to 4 p.m.; decreased motivation and productivity; difficulty making decisions; low confidence; cravings for salt since the adrenals help to balance electrolytes; cravings for carbs, sugar, caffeine; anything to give you a quick energy boost; depression/anxiety; less enjoyment of life; and light headed when standing too quickly.
If you do suspect adrenal fatigue, there are a few physical exams that can be performed in your doctor’s office as well as lab tests such as measuring salivary cortisol at four different times during the day. Once you’ve established that your adrenals require support, connect with a professional who can guide you to restoring your adrenals back to health. Leaving the adrenals unattended and ignoring the clues can lead to serious complications over time. To better understand what I mean, think of the various forms of synthetic cortisol frequently prescribed by medical doctors (i.e hydrocortisone, cortisone, prednisone, etc.) for various conditions like allergies, skin conditions, ulcerative colitis, arthritis, asthma, etc. These medications work so well that sometimes they are prescribed for unknown causes to decrease inflammation and restore balance. Long-term use leads to unpleasant side-effects and is not ideal.
If you want to get ahead of your health (and ahead of your opponent), you may want to talk to your health care practitioner and consider an adaptogen such as ginseng, cordyceps, licorice root, ashwaganda, etc. The most well-rounded adaptogenic with a high safety record, tons of research and a favorite amongst the Russians, is Rhodiola. Particulary for the athlete, it improves oxygen utilization, balances cortisol levels, helps the body adapt to high physical stress by increasing stamina and endurance, reduces lactic acid, improves fat breakdown and muscle synthesis, improves energy levels and improves mental focus. I also notice people requiring less caffeine while taking this supplement.
The importance of cortisol and our adrenal glands is not a new discovery. Other tools to support the adrenals are proper nutrition, supplementation and mental strategies.
Christal Blanchard is a Naturopathic Doctor in Sudbury and Toronto. She has a special focus in women’s health, digestive disorders and pain management.