The human body has two adrenal glands located on the top of each kidney. About the size and shape of a fortune cookie, their job is to produce hormones required for different functions, including balancing the body’s salt and water levels, stimulating glucose production, regulating metabolism and playing a role in puberty. The hormones are also responsible for all the physiological characteristics of stress response. “When we talk about adrenal health, we’re simply talking about stress management,” says Jennifer McLemore, L.Ac, an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist in Boulder, Colo. “Any stress we experience on the body and/or emotionally and psychologically will impact the adrenal glands.”
The adrenal glands produce our stress hormones—epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol—and it’s normal for the body to make a certain amount of these according to a natural rhythm, says McLemore. They spike in the morning to wake us up and get us going, then decline over the course of the day. But when we overwork this system, we don’t have as great or balanced a stress response, she says.
The key is to get educated and learn how to protect this delicate system before it gets taxed, advises McLemore. This will help us not only manage our stress response but also feel good. McLemore recommends beginning with balance. Get ample, restorative sleep; eat at consistent times; schedule regular downtimes; and practice screen management (our screen addiction puts us in a constant state of stress, she says). Also try these natural supplements, which McLemore says are all tied to an optimally functioning adrenal system.
Studies have found that a healthy stress response relies on vitamin C and that supplementation has a direct “braking effect” on the release of cortisol. This is especially important because the body can’t make this essential vitamin, creating an impaired stress response. Vitamin C deficiency is also widely associated with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Look for a food-based vitamin C, rather than a chemically processed one, says McLemore, with rose hips and bioflavonoids, and take 1,000 to 2,000 mg per day.
Magnesium deficiency is common in the U.S. and has been linked with increased stress and depression. A 2020 review paper found that stress depletes magnesium, creating a vicious cycle. Another study on athletes found that magnesium supplementation reduced cortisol levels before and after a strenuous rugby match. Magnesium is best taken at night to help support sleep, says McLemore. Take a moderate amount—300 to 400 mg—to avoid stomach discomfort, and consider the magnesium glycinate form, which McLemore says is particularly well-tolerated and well-absorbed.
Chronic stress depletes vitamin B6, but supplementation can help reduce stress. A 2018 randomized, single-blind clinical trial found that adults with “severe” or “extremely severe” stress had a greater improvement in their stress response by adding vitamin B6 to their magnesium intake. Another study found that taking vitamin B6 along with vitamins B12 and B9 was linked with a “cortisol awakening response,” a healthy increase in cortisol in the morning. Take 50 to 100 mg daily vitamin B6 in the pyridoxal 5 phosphate (p5p) form, which is most active, says McLemore.
Zinc is necessary for all bodily processes, not the least of which is the adrenal system. Animal models have shown that a zinc-deficient diet leads to elevated cortisol. Additionally, low zinc is associated with decreased information processing and increased impulsivity—two effects of stress—as well as risk of depression. Zinc absorption is blocked by antacids, anti-inflammatories and medications for diabetes. Take 30 to 50 mg daily with food, recommends McLemore.