We put our adrenals through the ringer everyday - sometimes without even knowing it.
In normal situations, our bodies adapt nicely to stress. When the brain perceives stress, it triggers hormone production that activates “fight-or-flight” mode. The adrenals are the glands that release the stress hormone, cortisol, that helps up respond to threats. The threat goes away, and things go back to normal.
But what happens when you’re under chronic stress?
Our bodies steal hormones away from normal functions to divert them toward producing cortisol. It’s ultimately a priority game: grow beautiful hair vs. run from a bear and live? Our brains & bodies will choose survival every time.
When we’re under chronic stress, normal body functions get put on the back-burner so we can put all of our energy toward surviving.
No big deal, right? Here are some of those normal body functions: digestion, wound repair/recovery, tissue repair, hair/skin/nail growth, liver detox, gallbladder function, proper immune system regulation, blood and oxygen circulation, generation of neurotransmitters in the brain.... all activities our bodies need to thrive!
We're Amazingly Designed to Adapt to Stress...
This might sound incredibly broken, but it's actually amazing design! When the threat persists for a long time, however, our bodies will keep on working overtime to produce more cortisol, eventually depleting/halting production of the hormones we need in order to get enough cortisol for us to live. Let’s face it - we live in a world where stress means getting caught in traffic or being behind schedule, and not necessarily fighting/fleeing for our lives.
But, any of these modern-day experiences can throw us into survival mode long just enough to keep the stress and hormone response up for a prolonged period of time.
When our stress response is activated, production of hormones like DHEA and progesterone become imbalanced. Conditions associated with low DHEA and progesterone include autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia), depression, hypothyroidism, infertility, and anxiety, to name a few.
When Cortisol Is High For Too Long...
Real damage occurs: body tissues break down and we experience nutrient depletion (like glutamine, critical for maintaining a healthy gut lining) and compromised immune function. We chew through vitamin D much more quickly, liver function gets put on hold, and we might even store extra belly fat as a safety mechanism for survival. Poor wound healing, mood, and memory problems are also common.
Eventually, cortisol nearly runs out completely. But it’s not that the adrenals are “fatigued” and can't work anymore - that's an inaccurate label. Instead, the brain actually shuts down the adrenals' signal for more cortisol production to protect us from further damage.
If we haven’t listened up until this point, this is when our bodies are screaming even louder for a break.
This is the point where I imagine my body as a talking computer, saying, "Initiating shutdown sequence in 5... 4... 3... 2......." Motivation might wane, brain function may not be optimal, and we might feel depressed or lack of joy in things we used to love. Inflammation may also increase during this phase. In many cases, the fatigue is the most notable and crippling symptom. It is time for rest!
In all phases of chronic stress and adrenal stress….. things just don’t feel right.
Five Ways to Stress Your Adrenals
Mental & Emotional Stress
This is what we think of when we hear the word “stress.” Any emotion such as grief, fear, anger, or anxiety could be considered stress. Whenever we’re in new situations, feel helpfulness, or feel like we can’t control the outcome can also contribute to this type of stress.
Blood Sugar Swings
I like to call this the blood sugar rollercoaster, when blood sugar soars high and dips low. Whenever we eat high-carb / high-glycemic load foods, our bodies release a large amount of insulin to react and clear out that blood sugar high… which then results in an enormous blood sugar low. Doing this over and over again can add tremendous strain on the adrenals.
When researcher cause adrenal dysregulation in animals to study them further, the go-to strategy is sleep deprivation. Sleep is the magical time when tissues are repaired, and important growth hormones are generated. Sleep apnea can also contribute to non-restorative sleep.
Overtraining & Too Much Exercise
Take it from someone who used to run 10+ miles a day and race for up to 20 hours at a time: exercise can be a great thing, but under chronic stress, it can be a burden on the body and not a benefit. Cardio and endurance-focused exercise is most commonly associated with adrenal dysregulation (and intense exercise: even leaky gut!).
Harboring An Active Infection
If you’re like 95% of the population, you have Epstein-Barr, the mono virus. An activated virus adds to the stress on your adrenals while depleting other important nutrients. (Talk about a double-whammy: adrenal dysregulation and an active mono virus = extreme fatigue) Gut infections and critters like SIBO, yeast, or parasites also have the same effect.
Other lesser-known ways of stressing the adrenals also include: eating foods you’re intolerant or sensitive to, high toxic burden, and inflammation. All of these conditions require more cortisol to overcome.
Strategies for Adrenal Healing
There are some easy things you can do to give your poor adrenals everything they need to recover.
Nutrition & Eating:
Eat breakfast within one hour of waking up.
Stick to low glycemic load foods to avoid drastic blood sugar swings.
Dampen the effect of high glycemic foods by adding a protein or fat when consuming them.
Never get to the point of ‘hangry’ - by then, it’s already too late!
While you’re healing your adrenals, avoid coffee and alcohol, which amp up your adrenals
Boost adrenals with vitamins and minerals. Adrenals love vitamin C, B-vitamins, magnesium, and zinc. If your adrenals are under stress, your need for these vitamins will be greater!
Try some adaptogens, like maca, ashwagandha, or cordyceps. These supplements can help adapt - modulate - adrenal function up or down, depending on your unique needs. While known as some of the lowest-risk supplements available, always check with your doctor before beginning.
Get to bed by 10pm and keep a consistent sleep schedule.
Practice good sleep hygiene: darken your windows, turn off all electronics, and keep the room cool. Avoid eating within 2 hours of going to bed.
Swap your exercise routine: reduce cardio to 1 day per week, and sub for gentle yoga or walking. Though counterintuitive, I’ve seen people lose weight by making this one change! (Why does this happen? Think thyroid - adrenal stress = thyroid strain, since these two glands are BFFs.)
Be honest with yourself. You might have been able to pound it out 6 months ago, but meet yourself where you're at. Re-calibrate your successes. Today, maybe a 30-minute hike might be too strenuous... and that's ok.
Take a sick day: lay on the couch all day, watch movies, and do only the things you want to do (yes, it might take some advance planning). If you’re earning all of those vacation days…. why aren’t you using them? You’re not being lazy, you’re giving yourself the recovery you absolutely need. We’re not robots!
Detox. Toxins really put a big hit on your adrenals, which becomes a vicious cycle that could make you more toxic. Reduce your toxic load, and then use the mind-body connection to give your adrenals a break and turn back on normal body functions, like detox.
Eliminate, outsource, or automate as many tasks as you can. On busy weeks, I’m known to order pre-made Paleo meals or hire someone to buy my groceries for the week. I also use an app that kicks out recipes and an exact shopping list with quantities to reduce food waste. I use websites that allow me to post gigs when I need a service (like appliance repair, painting, etc.) & offer choices so I don't have to search. I’ve even discovered a service where someone comes to take my car in for repairs/service so I don’t have to!
Leverage the Mind to Direct the Body: Mind-Body Connection
What are some of the things or events that trigger feelings of stress or anxiety for you? Notice those. Determine what you can do about it, even if it’s just a matter of stepping back and shifting your mindset or attitude around it. Extra credit: Write about it - journal. There's something incredibly therapeutic about writing it down with pen and paper!
Rewrite your script.
Mindset is a huge factor in your stress levels, and there is strong evidence of a connection between beliefs & mindset, plus physical effects on the body. What negative beliefs do you have about yourself? What do you need to let go of? (Grief? Toxic people? Unfulfilled in your work? Relationships?) What things can you control? What would happen if you just let things happen?
A scientifically proven way to switch off the stress response, fight-or-flight mode, is to breathe. Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4, and exhale for 8. Close your eyes and repeat for up to 10 minutes. Shortcut for us Type A's who hate slowing down: go to a yoga class, where you'll be a captive audience!
First, close your eyes. Take one deep cleansing breath. Picture yourself at your happy place. Then, as you continue breathing normally, imagine light slowly washing over you from head to toe. As the light hits each part of your body, see if you can relax those muscles. Reach your toes, take one more deep breath, open your eyes…. and go on your day.
Can you believe it?! We’ve only just scratched the surface on how you can heal yourself from stress on your adrenals.
Want to learn more about the way to healthy adrenals? The 2017 Adrenal Reset Summit is going on right now, featuring dozens of the best-known functional medicine minds. It’s free!