Most discussions on PCOS emphasize the role of insulin and androgens. Yet, there’s another hormone that deserves just as much attention (if not more): cortisol.
Cortisol and the adrenal glands (where cortisol is made) can create a ripple effect that worsens PCOS fast.
That’s why this post is all about the role of cortisol and the adrenals in PCOS, as well as how to use adrenal-friendly adaptogens, for PCOS.
Now, if you’re not familiar with adaptogens (or adaptogenic herbs) they’re a unique set of herbs, roots and mushrooms that help the body adapt to stress.
And when you support your natural stress response, you create stability in the body.
This stability then makes it easier for everything else to function more harmoniously.
And you’ll discover in this post, stress is one thing that can make the body completely unstable.
The good news is, once you become aware of the stress-adrenals-PCOS connection, you can use adaptogenic herbs to support your recovery.
So, let’s go ahead and start by looking at how stress affects PCOS symptoms.
Note: this post contains affiliate links and I earn a commission (at no additional cost to you) if you use them to make a purchase.
STRESS, THE ADRENALS AND PCOS: HOW ADAPTOGENS CAN HELP
In my previous post on how to improve PCOS symptoms naturally I discussed the fact that multiple factors contribute to PCOS.
I won’t go over everything I already covered in that post, but here’s a summary of the 3 main underlying causes of PCOS:
- triggered by diet and lifestyle.
- causes the ovaries to make more testosterone, inhibits ovulation and delays maturation of eggs.
High androgen levels
- a side effect of insulin resistance as we saw above.
- triggered by toxins (such as pesticides, which interfere with the natural conversion of androgens to estrogen).
- Caused by emotional, chemical or physical stress.
- Triggers the adrenals to release more cortisol
This last point about inflammation is super important.
Not only does chemical stress (such as unhealthy food, toxic cosmetics, etc.) cause inflammation, but so does emotional stress!
Emotional stress is already at an all-time high these days.
But when you have PCOS, you have even more stress weighing on you as you fight to regain control of your health.
Question is, how does stress actually change your hormonal chemistry?
Well, here’s a summary:
- The adrenals release hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine in response to stress.
- Elevated cortisol leads to increased prolactin (which is sometimes higher in PCOS patients) and more androgen production.
- High androgen levels means, estrogen and progesterone are now out of sync.
- With estrogen and progesterone out of sync, your menstrual cycle also falls out of sync.
- Once your cycle is off balance, you can experience anovulation (i.e. no ovulation) which leads to difficulty conceiving.
- In addition to all this, high cortisol also means higher blood sugar, lower insulin production and eventually, insulin resistance…all of which can contribute to increased fat storage and overeating.
Remember, the points listed above are just a summary of what happens in the body once we’re under chronic stress.
So, to turn things around we need to:
- reduce exposure to stressors and follow a diet/lifestyle that fights off this crazy cascade of events (see guidelines in this post on the 7 steps for natural PCOS relief).
- use remedies like adaptogens for PCOS support.
6 ADAPTOGENS TO USE FOR PCOS RELIEF
1. Holy Basil
Research shows that holy basil (aka Tulsi) regulates blood sugar and insulin, and basically protects us from the side effects of a stress-filled lifestyle.
In addition, holy basil fights inflammation and pain just as effectively as ibuprofen and aspirin.
This can be quite handy when facing menstrual cramps, which can worsen with PCOS.
Furthermore, holy basil is also known for protecting the liver from free radical damage.
This is an important benefit because the liver detoxifies the body and is majorly important for getting rid of toxins that cause hormonal imbalances.
And if all that wasn’t enough, holy basil contains eugenol and linoleic acid that give it anti-inflammatory and cortisol-lowering properties.
When it comes to lowering blood sugar, ginseng is beneficial for both diabetics and non-diabetics.
This is due to ginseng’s ability to boost insulin production and enhance tissue absorption of glucose.
And as with all adaptogenic herbs ginseng also lowers inflammation and supports a healthy stress response.
It’s also worth noting that korean red ginseng has been found to increase estradiol, while also reducing FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone) (source).
These hormones play a role in ovulation and healthy menstrual cycles.
This makes ginseng (and the korean red, in particular) an adaptogen for PCOS that is worth considering.
3. Rhodiola Rosea
Think of rhodiola as your personal shield from the effects of stress.
Known to grow mainly in arctic parts of Europe, Asia and North America, rhodiola acts on the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis.
The HPA is the pathway that regulates our response to stress.
And once that pathway is off balance, everything else falls off balance.
In addition, rhodiola boosts energy and has even been shown to restore missing periods.
4. Schisandra Berries
Also known as the five flavored fruit, schisandra berries are very beneficial for the liver.
Not only is the liver in charge of detoxing, but it also plays a role in regulating blood sugar levels.
In addition,, schisandra is rich in antioxidants and has been shown to have both anti-obesity and anti-diabetic properties.
Historically, maca has been used as a fertility treatment and that’s still one of its most common uses today.
As a member of the cruciferous vegetable family (think kale, cabbage and broccoli) maca also regulates estrogen levels (source).
Since estrogen levels have a direct impact on progesterone, this can improve your estrogen-progesterone ratio, leading to healthier menstrual cycles.
Similar to ginseng, ashwagandha also lowers blood sugar in both healthy and diabetic populations.
In addition, chronically stressed adults who supplement with ashwagandha have been found to have significantly lower cortisol levels.
Last but not least, this popular root adaptogen also fights inflammation, boosts energy and improves brain function.
ADAPTOGENS AND PCOS: HOW TO GET STARTED
You can find many adaptogens at local health stores or online in the form of:
Here are some ideas on how to add them to your PCOS diet.
1. Blend Into Energy Balls
When made with the right ingredients, energy balls can be a delicious pcos snack.
And you can easily sneak in some adaptogenic herbs into the recipes (especially maca, which has a lovely flavor!).
For tips and recipes to try, check out these hormone-friendly energy ball recipes.
2. Add to PCOS Smoothies
If you’re not already using smoothies in your diet, you should.
They’re quick, nutritious and great for detoxing the body.
In addition you can easily throw in some of your adaptogenic herbs (if you’re using them in powder form).
3. Take As A Supplement
You can’t beat the ease and convenience of taking a supplement capsule.
No cooking or prior preparation required!
And while you can buy each adaptogen individually, you’re better off using a blend.
You see, when you buy each adaptogen separately, there’s a greater chance of taking the wrong doses, leading to other side effects.
Blends eliminate the guesswork. Plus, given all the factors involved in PCOS, using a blend is a smart way to address various problems at once.
As for which brand to use, I wholeheartedly recommend Gaia brand’s Adrenal Health blend..
This is my go-to brand for most supplements and in particular, adaptogens.
Gaia’s been in the herb/adaptogen space for decades and they use high quality, clean ingredients.
This particular adrenal formula contains:
- holy basil
While there are other brands that pack more adaptogens in one formula, more doesn’t necessarily mean better or faster results.
Getting results from adaptogens is about combining the right ones together. And if you’re not working with an herbalist who can guide you, then use a blend from a reputable herb brand.
RELATED QUESTIONS ABOUT PCOS ADAPTOGENS
Does St John’s Wort help with PCOS?
St. John’s Wort can help PCOS because it is a nervine (i.e. it supports the nervous system). By supporting the nervous system, St. John’s Worth can help reduce the negative effects of stress (that contribute to inflammation and hormonal imbalance).
For more on St. John’s Wort read this post on herbs for hormone balance.
Why is dairy bad for PCOS?
One of the main reasons why dairy is bad for PCOS is because it comes from animals that have been given growth hormones and antibiotics.
These two things throw off your hormonal and gut health. Therefore, it’s best to avoid consumption of dairy.
If you do choose to consume dairy, make sure it’s organic (so that you avoid the hormones and antibiotics). When consumed in small amounts, organic dairy may not be as problematic as the conventional kind.
How can I lose weight when I have PCOS?
In order to lose weight with PCOS it’s important to balance cortisol, insulin, estrogen and androgen levels.
In addition, supporting your liver is essential for eliminating the toxins that are contributing to weight gain.
Furthermore, eating anti-inflammatory foods will make it easier for your hormones to naturally regulate themselves and will improve your menstrual cycle.
For a detailed overview of support your hormones, check out this this 7-step guide for natural PCOS relief.
Is ginger good for PCOS?
Yes ginger has been proven to be helpful for various aspects of PCOS, especially fertility. In fact, one study has shown that ginger is just as effective as the fertility drug, clomid (and without the side effects).
In addition, ginger helps to reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar, support weight loss and more.
For more on this topic read this post on how to use ginger for pcos.
Before we wrap up this discussion on adatogens and pcos, there’s one final thing to keep in mind.
Adaptogens are not a forever supplement.
Use them for about 3 months and then evaluate how you feel.
You can take a break for a couple of weeks and use them again if necessary.
It’s generally recommended that you only use adaptogens for a short while. And if you’ve been using them for six months straight, definitely take a 1 month break.
These are potent herbs and they work best when used in conjunction with other lifestyle and dietary changes.
If you have any questions or feedback about this post, feel free to drop a comment below 🙂