Have you ever heard of your adrenal glands? If not, don’t worry. Most haven’t! They are 2 small, yet powerful glands that sit just above your kidneys and let me tell you, if anyone fits the saying “small but mighty”, it’s these guys. The adrenal glands control multiple functions in our body including your stress response, weight, blood sugar, blood pressure and even immunity. I told you..small and mighty.
Fight or Flight
Essentially the adrenal glands biggest claim to fame is the “fight or flight” response. This basically allows our bodies to mobilize all of its resources in order to deal with stress once it arises. It actually causes quite a beautiful and intricate physiological chain of reactions during acute times of stress. A hormone called cortisol is called upon immediately. This hormone allows us to think sharply, increase our energy and mobilizes blood sugar to fuel muscles. We breathe rapidly, our heart rate rises and we are ready for action! Once the danger or stress is resolved, this feedback sends a cascade of chemical processes that return everything back to normal. Insulin takes up all the extra blood sugar, our breathing rate and pulse decrease, and we feel relaxed again. Pretty neat right?
There is just one small problem. Who is ever only “acutely” stressed? Evolutionarily speaking, perhaps cavemen only had an issue or two, but us? We’re a bit more complex. Our adrenals do not just come into action now and then, they’re not a pair of weekend warriors. They are relentlessly and constantly trying to manage our hectic lives! We overwhelm and bombard them regularly. We really can be terrible hosts at times. Who wouldn’t get tired of this assault? Hint hint.. tired. Which leads us to discuss “adrenal fatigue”.
What Is Adrenal Fatigue?
Well as I’ve said, we are complicated beings. We have managed to create all kinds of stresses in our lives, and, unfortunately, our health pays the price, dearly. Initially what happens when our body becomes overwhelmed is that the adrenals go into overdrive in order to cope. During this time we pump out excessive amounts of blood sugar and insulin, eventually leading to insulin resistance and weight gain (the dreaded “spare tire”). To make matters worse we also get cravings for sugar, carbohydrates, fat and salt, in an attempt to provide the adrenal system the fuel it needs. Overtime, this unrelenting stress eventually causes these small organs to give out on us, an experience called adrenal fatigue. Our immune system plummets, we feel overwhelmed by daily stressors and intense exhaustion kicks in.
Most of us would fall somewhere on the spectrum between adrenal overdrive and fatigue. How can you blame us though? With the pressures of home, work, kids, money, and the dreaded pressure we internally place on ourselves, forget it! Its never ending! Which is why we need to listen to our bodies and figure out how to best preserve our health, while living our wonderfully busy lives.
A few commons signs one would experience in a state of adrenal overdrive or fatigue:
You feel more anxious or blue lately.
Your fuse is a bit shorter. Lashing out or irritable more often than you wish.
You can’t seem to kick that cold nearly as fast as you used to, or they’re coming on more frequently.
You’ve been gaining weight easier, especially in your mid-section.
You have trouble falling asleep, despite being tired. Yet when you do fall asleep you still feel unrefreshed in the morning. It’s as if you are “sleeping below the surface”, not diving into a deep nourishing rest.
Your energy “hits the wall” around 3-4pm daily. This is also when you really crave something sweet or a pick me up of caffeine, hint hint.
Your hormones seem out of control – fluctuating periods, fertility struggles, libido.. what libido?
Your memory and focus seem to be lacking.
You crave sugar, carbs, salt and fat… basically anything soft, dipped in chocolate is your thing.
Your digestive system has developed a mind of its own.
So if you’re thinking, “its like she knows me”..continue reading.
Testing and Assessment
Many times a naturopathic doctor can clinically make an assessment and provide some insight for you as to what is going on and the state of your adrenals. However, if you’re like me and want to know exactly what’s up, your ND can run a 24 hour salivary cortisol test which provides insight as to how your cortisol levels behave throughout the day. They also can add on a full hormone panel in order to shed even more light on the situation.
Natural Treatments for Adrenal Fatigue
I cannot stress this one enough. A lack of relaxation got you here in the first place. All the supplements, essential oils and fancy diets can’t pull you out if you do not learn to practice relaxation and give your adrenals a rest. I wouldn’t give you an Advil for a rock in your shoe, I’d take the rock out. We want to fix the problem, at the source. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, and active stress reduction send signals to your adrenals that “everything is ok, time to disarm”. This allows your system to recalibrate to a lower stress state.
Despite feeling wired, your “to-do” list, or the constant scroll of thoughts in your head, you need to rest! We have to retrain our bodies and practice proper sleep hygiene, which I will delve into deeper in another blog. But for now that means significantly limiting caffeine, avoiding screens close to bedtime, sleeping before 10:30 (after this time the adrenals send out a second surge of cortisol to keep you awake), and getting at least 7-8 hours nightly. Now, if you are still struggling with sleep (falling or staying), your naturopath can work with you to lower nighttime cortisol and enhance the quality of your sleep so that the healing can really begin.
Stabilize Your Blood Sugar
When our blood sugar drops, this rings out the alarms to the adrenals because your body is perceiving the situation as if you are starving – aka “danger”. Keeping our blood sugar stable prevents this from occurring.
Allowing your blood level to drop by skipping meals, living on coffee, and then gorging on sugary snacks once starved, significantly places burden on the adrenals. The best and most effective way to skirt this is to start each and every day with a high protein breakfast. And then follow that up with meals that consist of high protein, good fats, and vegetables for the remainder of the day.
Cut Back or Eliminate Caffeine
Trust me, this one pains me as much as it does you. However, it needs to be addressed when re-balancing your adrenals. Caffeine allows us to push beyond our natural limits and promotes the release of adrenaline, which in turn increases our cortisol production, leading to adrenal overdrive. Im not just playing some cruel joke. Taking coffee away from those who seemingly need it the most. But as we all can see, this just develops a vicious cycle of continuous crashing. Cutting back dramatically or eliminating it entirely is the only real way to overcome it. I promise, once the withdrawal is over (3-4 days), you will find yourself with more natural energy, not less!
Exercise – In Moderation
We all know that too much of a good thing doesn’t make it great. The same goes for excessive exercise. Although exercise is excellent for our body, mind and spirit – some of us could be getting too much of a good thing (I’m talking to you hard core runners and spinners). Over-exercising significantly aggravates adrenal fatigue and can, in fact, promote adrenal overdrive. This is why many marathon runners get sick easily or those who over-exercise have trouble losing weight. If you’re burning the candle at both ends and killing yourself in the gym, its time to tone it down in order to restore your energy.
Supplement the Adrenals
The adrenals soak up many nutrients on a daily basis, such as, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium. In addition to this, they also are very receptive to a class of herbs called adaptogens. Adaptogens are a category of herbs which support, nourish, heal and replenish the adrenals when they are overstimulated or fatigued. I’ve listed a couple of my favourites:
Rhodiola (mood imbalance; increases mental and physical stamina)
Ashwaganda (calming; promotes sleep; and excellent for auto-immunity)
Holy basil (immune boosting)
Please be advised that I would never promote self-perscribing or Dr. Google. If you find that this post sounds much like your life, seek the assistance or guidance from a qualified practitioner that is trained to treat conditions such as this. Schedule a visit with your naturopath! They can help you find the answers you’ve been seeking and most importantly, the solution.
Best wishes for your thriving health!