kris ulland

Your Nutrition Partner

The purpose of your adrenal glands is to help your body cope with stresses and survive. It is their job to enable your body to deal with pressure from every possible source, ranging from injury and disease to work and relationship problems. Your resiliency, energy, endurance, in fact every aspect of your life all depend on your adrenals functioning properly.

The adrenals are small, triangular-shaped glands located on top of both kidneys. The hormones secreted by your adrenals influence all of the major physiological processes in your body. They closely affect the utilization of carbohydrates and fats, the conversion of fats and proteins into energy, the distribution of stored fat (especially around your waist and at the sides of your face), normal blood sugar regulation, and proper cardiovascular and gastrointestinal function.

After mid-life (menopause in women), the adrenal glands gradually become the major source of the sex hormones circulating throughout the body in both men and women. These hormones themselves have a whole host of physical, emotional and psychological effects, from the ability to build muscles to the tendency to gain weight.

Among the hormones released by the adrenals is cortisol. When under stress, we produce and release short bursts of cortisol into the bloodstream. Another hormone produced by the adrenals is adrenaline. Together these hormones are part of your “fight or flight” response. They increase your blood pressure and your heart rate.

The “adrenal fatigue theory” suggests that prolonged exposure to stress could drain the adrenals leading to a low cortisol state. Adrenal fatigue isn’t an accepted medical diagnosis. It is a lay term applied to a collection of nonspecific symptoms, such as body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances, digestive problems, brain fog, low energy, depressive mood, salt and sweet cravings, lightheadedness, among other symptoms.

The adrenals do not work alone. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the intertwining of the central nervous system and endocrine system.

A current hypothesis is that most adrenal fatigue cases are not really due to the adrenal glands’ reduced ability to make cortisol. More often than not, the problem can be traced back to dysfunction in the brain signaling portion of the HPA axis.

To identify HPA dysfunction, a comprehensive hormone panel is recommended. One of the best is the DUTCH test (Dried Urine test for Comprehensive Hormones), a complete hormone panel developed by Mark Newman, founder of Precision Analytical Laboratory in Oregon.

If you are stressed, a number of nutrients are known to support adrenal function, including magnesium, B vitamins, and vitamin C. Also, consider reducing your physical stress by getting enough sleep, not over-exercising, eating plenty of protein and avoiding stimulants, refined carbs and alcohol.

Certain adaptogens can also be useful if you’re struggling with persistent stress. Four of the more well-recognized adaptogens for adrenal support are ashwagandha, rhodiola, ginseng and tulsi. These help your body adapt to stress, in part by regulating hormones and improving your immune function.

Ashwagandha 

An herb native to Asia and India, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been a powerful tool in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years for:

  • Helping your body adapt to stress by balancing your immune system, metabolism and hormonal systems.
  • Protecting your brain from oxidative stress.
  • Supporting healthy levels of total lipids, cholesterol and triglycerides that are already in the normal range.

The root contains the highest concentration of the active ingredients and helps modulate hormone balances, including thyroid hormone, estrogen and progesterone, making it beneficial for women moving into menopause. The root also reduces cortisol levels, restores insulin sensitivity and helps to stabilize mood. In one study, patients diagnosed with moderate to severe anxiety who were treated with ashwagandha reported “significantly decreased” symptoms compared to those undergoing more conventional interventions.

In men, ashwagandha can help boost testosterone levels. While some adaptogens are stimulants, this is not the case with ashwagandha. It can give your morning exercise routine a boost, and when taken prior to bed it can help you get a good night’s sleep as well. I recommend using only 100 percent organic ashwagandha root, free of fillers, additives and excipients.

Rhodiola 

The perennial plant rhodiola rosea, sometimes called “golden root,” “roseroot” or “arctic root,” is another powerful adaptogen known to help your body adapt to physical, chemical and environmental stress. This plant has a long history of use in traditional folk medicine in Russia and Scandinavian countries. Among its many uses, rhodiola has been shown to:

  • Have potent anti-inflammatory activity.
  • Enhance nervous system health and cognitive function.
  • Modulate immune function (raising low immune function and reducing overactive function) and protect against viral infections.
  • Improve male and female sexual functioning, reproductive health and fertility.
  • Enhance athletic performance and shorten recovery time.

Importantly, rhodiola has been shown to be particularly beneficial for your nervous system, and has both antidepressant and anti-anxiety benefits.

Evidence suggests rhodiola can raise serotonin levels by as much as 30 percent. Research published in 2015 compared rhodiola to the antidepressant sertraline (Zoloft) concluded it’s a safer choice. According to psychiatrists who use rhodiola in their clinical practice, the plant extract is a “viable choice in many cases for the treatment of mild to moderate depression.” Rhodiola has even been shown to improve symptoms of burnout caused by work stress.

Siberian Ginseng

There are several different types of ginseng, and they are not interchangeable. Of the three major varieties, only two are actually ginseng:

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius): This tan, gnarled root contains ginsenosides, which are thought to be responsible for many of its medicinal properties.

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng): Sometimes referred to as Korean ginseng, Asian ginseng also contains ginsenosides, although in different proportions than American ginseng, and is considered an adaptogenic herb. 

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus): Siberian ginseng is not a true ginseng and does not contain ginsenosides. Its active components are called eleutherosides, which are thought to stimulate your immune system. Like American and Asian ginseng, however, Siberian ginseng is an adaptogen that’s traditionally been used to increase energy, stimulate the immune system and increase longevity.

Research has also shown Siberian ginseng has neuro-protective benefits, and there’s some evidence suggesting it can help prevent or slow down the loss of motor function associated with Parkinson’s. Siberian ginseng also has mild anti-depressive effects, and is useful for insomnia, behavioral and memory problems, and has been shown to improve exercise endurance by improving oxygen utilization in your body.

Tulsi

Tulsi is also known as holy basil and is said to purify the mind, body and spirit. There are numerous tulsi products available, including tulsi tablets, tea, powder and tulsi essential oil.

Tulsi tea is antioxidant-rich and contains hundreds of beneficial phytochemicals (non-nutritive plant compounds with protective and health promoting properties). Working together, these compounds have adaptogenic and immune-enhancing properties that combat stress, bolster your immune system and promote healthy metabolism, including helping your body maintain an optimal level of blood sugar.

Acorn Squash

Acorn squash is a type of winter squash that belongs to the Cucurbitaceaeor gourd family, which also includes pumpkin, butternut squash, and zucchini. It has inedible hard, thin skin and firm flesh. It is roughly egg-shaped with thick ridges like a ribbed acorn.  It is five to eight inches long, four to five inches across, and has a defined point at the bottom. The flesh is sweeter than summer squash. The growing period is longer than summer squash, giving the gourd plenty of time to develop its deep flavor.

Along with the standard green variety, you may also run across orange and white acorn squash. Although available in many areas year-round, prime season for acorn squash is early fall through winter. Squash is one of the easiest vegetables to digest and is low in calories.

Acorn squash is extremely nutrient-dense for its size, but also, it has a diverse range of nutrients. It is rich in dietary fiber and like most fruits and vegetables, it is very low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Acorn squash has significant levels of vitamin C, vitamin A, thiamin, pantothenic acid, and other B-family vitamins.

Acorn squash provides these minerals: potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron, copper, phosphorous, and calcium. Many of these minerals play integral parts in the development of new bones, as well as the regrowth and healing of the bone matter we already have.

Though they’re botanically classified as a fruit, they’re considered a starchy vegetable and can be used similarly to other high-carb vegetables, such as potatoes, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes.

Of all the squashes, acorn squash is the healthiest. It offers more folate, calcium, magnesium (nearly one-third of a day’s worth in one cup) and potassium than butternut, hubbard and spaghetti squash. Eat one cup of cooked acorn squash and you’ll get more potassium (896 milligrams) than if you ate two medium bananas (844 mg).

Acorn squash is a great source of vitamin C, which is one of the best ways to boost your immune system. Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, stimulates the production of white blood cells, which defend the body from pathogens and other unwanted germs/microbes. Vitamin C is also an important part of the body building muscle tissue, blood vessels, teeth, skin, and organs. Vitamin C also works as an antioxidant, helping to protect the body from serious conditions, like heart diseases.

Vitamin A is found in significant quantities in acorn squash. Foods high in beta-carotene reduce oxidative stress in the eyes, helping to prevent cataracts and macular degeneration.  Along with protecting the eyes, vitamin A also plays an important role in maintaining skin health.

The dietary fiber in acorn squash regulates our digestion by adding bulk to our bowel movements. Fiber regulates the levels of blood sugar in the body, helping to prevent the development of diabetes and maintaining stable glucose levels.

There is a high level of potassium in acorn squash. Potassium is a vasodilator, meaning that it relaxes blood vessels and arteries, reducing stress on the heart and lowering blood pressure. Potassium also helps to regulate the fluid balance in the cells and tissues.  Magnesium regulates the uptake of potassium, so the high content of magnesium in acorn squash makes these effects even stronger.

Acorn squash is very high in carbohydrates, and while there aren’t any simple sugars in acorn squash, as you would normally find in carbohydrates, they still fill the body up in terms of calories. Those on low-carb diets should keep portions small.

How to Buy

It’s difficult to judge an acorn squash by its outward appearance so you will need to test the vegetable by its weight and skin texture. It should feel heavy for its size with smooth, dull skin and absolutely no soft spots. Harvested when fully ripe, the average acorn squash weighs from one to three pounds; any larger and it might be dry and stringy. When comparing, be aware that a lighter weight acorn squash has lost moisture through the skin and will be drier.

Look for some partial orange on the skin as a sign of maturity. On the other hand, too much orange coloring on the skin indicates an overripe squash. A good balance between green and orange coloring is optimum. Shiny skin indicates it was picked before fully mature unless the producer has applied wax.

How to Store

Winter squash will last up to a month in a cool (50 to 55 F) dark cellar or storage area, but only about two weeks in the refrigerator. Ideally, only cut or cooked acorn squash should be refrigerated; they will suffer chill damage at temperatures below 50 F. Dry, hot air will cause loss of moisture, resulting in a shorter shelf life. Squash with a bit of the stem still intact will help slow down moisture loss.

Plan on using acorn squash within two weeks of purchase, since you never know how long it has already been in storage and under what conditions. Once cut, place raw pieces in an airtight glass container, refrigerate, and use within four days. Cooked acorn squash can be sealed and refrigerated up to four days.

Before freezing, acorn squash must be cooked. Cook squash and remove the pulp from the skin. You can leave it in chunks or mash it. Place in airtight containers and freeze up to 12 months.

How to Cook

To make acorn squash easier to cut, pierce the skin in a few spots, place it in a microwave oven, and heat on high for 2 minutes. Let stand for another few minutes before carving.

Use a sturdy knife to cut a squash in half, stem end to the point rather than across the diameter. To prevent the halves from rocking on a baking tray, cut a small slice off the bottom to create a flat surface for them to rest on. Remove the fibers and seeds from the center of the squash before steaming, broiling, or baking the halves.

To bake acorn squash, place the squash halves on a baking sheet. You can also bake acorn squash whole; be sure to pierce the skin with the tip of a sharp knife in multiple places first. The timing depends on the size, but generally, you can plan on an hour to an hour and a half, in a 350-400 F oven. The skin should yield to gentle pressure, and the flesh should be very tender. To brown the surface of a cut squash, roast it on high for the final 15 minutes of cooking.

To quickly microwave acorn squash, cut a whole squash in half, put it on a microwave-safe plate, and cook it for 13 minutes on high. Do not add water. Avoid boiling acorn squash because it damages both the flavor and the texture.

You can also eat acorn squash blossoms and toast the seeds for snacking just as you would pumpkin seeds.

Kale and Wild Rice Stuffed Acorn Squash

Adapted from Patricia Heaton's recipe

4 Servings

Ingredients

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 acorn squash, cut in half and seeded
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup wild rice
  • 1 shallot, chopped fine
  • 6 Tuscan kale leaves, ribs removed and leaves chopped fine
  • 1/4 cup of cranberries
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
  • 1/4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
  2. Rub a bit of oil inside the squash and season with salt and pepper. Place the acorn squash cut sides down on a baking sheet. Bake until tender, 35 to 40 minutes.
  3. In a medium saucepan, combine the rice, 1 3/4 cups of water, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the liquid is absorbed, about 40 minutes.
  4. Swirl a bit of oil in a medium skillet and heat it over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shallot and sauté until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the kale and sauté just until the leaves begin to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cooked rice, Dijon, and lemon zest and stir to mix well. Cook for 2 minutes more, adding some oil if the rice seems too dry. Stir in the parsley and walnuts.
  5. Remove the squash from the oven. Spoon the rice filling into each half and serve hot.

Resources

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