Have you heard of the adrenal glands? They are 2 tiny little organs that sit on top of your kidneys and control quite a few actions in your body including your stress response, weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, and immune system. The adrenal glands are really quite incredible in that, as a species, they are our primary survival organs.
Fight or Flight: The Role of the Adrenals
The adrenal glands control our fight or flight mechanism. When we are in danger, or think we are (think: worried your boss is going to fire you, worried about money, worried about your kids, your marriage…), they mobilize all of our resources to fight or get away from that danger.
Historically, as humans, the immediate dangers we faced were typically short-lived. We had to, for example, run away from a saber-toothed tiger that was chasing us. When this system got activated, we pumped out a hormone called cortisol, which made our thinking sharp, gave us energy, and mobilized blood sugar to fuel our muscles. We breathed faster, our heart rate went up, and we got into high-energy action. Once we were safely out of harm’s way, the chemical process resolved and we went back to normal. Insulin, another hormone pumped out in the fight or flight response, mopped that extra mobilized blood sugar back into your cells, your breathing and heart rates went back to normal, and all was once again well in your world.
You‘ve probably seen vivid examples of the fight or flight mechanism on the Nature Channel. Think of watching gazelles around a watering hole. They are calmly drinking when along comes a lion. Suddenly the chase is on and there’s all kinds of action. Once the lion catches a weak or sick or elderly gazelle, what do the other gazelles do? Go right back to calmly drinking at the watering hole as if nothing happened. This is a clear representation of what our nervous systems do!
What Is Adrenal Fatigue?
Now imagine if lions were constantly chasing those gazelles. Eventually the gazelles would wear out and collapse. In nature, constant stress is rare. But in the human world – well, we’ve managed to create all kinds of constant stresses for ourselves! And our health pays the price – first because of adrenal overdrive, and then because of adrenal burnout, or “adrenal fatigue.” One of the many consequences of constant adrenal overdrive is that we pump out too much blood sugar and insulin, eventually becoming insulin resistant and gaining weight – especially around our middle. We also get cravings for fat, sugar, and salt (translate: chocolate covered pretzels and ice cream!), the fuel our adrenal system needs to make this whole reaction work each time.
The adrenal glands act as shock absorbers to our system – they help us bounce back from life’s many stressors. When we’re under too much stress, or unrelenting stress, eventually the adrenals get tired of working overtime. Then we experience something called adrenal fatigue – we get really tired, can’t fight off colds as well, and are less resilient to life’s bumps.
10 Common Signs that You Might be Suffering from Adrenal Stress
The reality is that most of us are under a lot of stress a lot of the time. Home pressures, work pressures, money pressures, kid pressures, and all those inner pressures we put on ourselves to be perfect – eat the perfect diet, do our yoga or workout, excel at work, be the best mom on the block. It’s never ending. Most of us are somewhere on the spectrum between adrenal overdrive or suppression.
Here are the 10 most common signs that tell you that you’re experiencing either adrenal overdrive or adrenal fatigue:
- You’re having trouble falling asleep even when you’re tired (“tired and wired”) and even when you do sleep, you’re not rested when you wake.
- You get irritable or angry really quickly or more often than you want to.
- You’re craving sugar/carbs, fat, salt – or all of the above!
- You get tired around 3-4 most afternoons, and that’s when you really want something sweet or some extra caffeine.
- You’ve been gaining weight, perhaps noticing a spare tire growing around your middle.
- You feel anxious or blue.
- You’re getting sick more often than you used to.
- Your hormones are all over the place, you’re having fertility problems, and perhaps your libido is nowhere to be found.
- You’re memory and focus are not what you think they should be.
- Your digestive system is a mess.
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Is There a Test for Adrenal Stress?
While there are tests that a functional or integrative doctor can do for adrenal fatigue, if you’re experiencing a few of the above symptoms, you can actually start to treat yourself without special testing. If you do want to get tested, you can ask your doctor to check a salivary or serum cortisol. The best testing looks at a 24-hour range so you can see where your peaks and dips of cortisol occur through the day, which can give your doctor some clues as to what might be going on to trigger these. Some tests, for example, the Adrenal Stress Index, also include DHEA, progesterone, insulin, and fecal sIgA, which look at the effects of adrenal stress on other hormones, blood sugar regulation, and whether your gut is being stressed.
Natural Treatment for Adrenal Stress
Make relaxation a way of life.
Believe it or not, the best treatment for adrenal stress is not supplements or herbs or fancy diet strategies – it is simply learning to practice relaxation. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, and active stress reduction help to let your adrenals know that you are safe – and this allows your system to recalibrate to a lower stress state, including pumping out fewer stress hormones. If you have already progressed from adrenal overdrive into adrenal fatigue, relaxation techniques can help your adrenals to heal and restore themselves.
Practice “sleep hygiene.”
While you might be feeling wired, especially if you are in adrenal overdrive or if adrenal fatigue led you to a 4 pm cup of coffee, your body actually needs 7-8 hours of sleep each night to restore your body and for your adrenals to have time to rebound. See here for complete details on improving your sleep and sleep hygiene techniques.
Keep your blood sugar steady.
When your blood sugar drops, it tells your body you are starving – and this is perceived as danger by your adrenal system. Keeping your blood sugar steady lets your adrenals know you are not in survival mode and that they do not have to go into action. Allowing your blood sugar to dip by skipping meals, living on coffee, and then spiking it up with sugary foods when you’re famished, taxes your adrenals. The most important step to blood sugar balance is starting your day – every day – with a high protein breakfast, and then eating a diet high in protein, good quality fats, and vegetables regularly throughout the day. Don’t let yourself get hypoglycemic and avoid sugary foods that give you a blood sugar spike.
Cut back on caffeine.
Caffeine allows us to push past our natural energy limits and triggers some of the same adrenal chemicals (adrenaline, for example) that get fired up when we’re under stress, leading to increased cortisol production and adrenal overdrive. I know it’s hard to cut back on caffeine when you’re exhausted and hitting that 4 pm slump, but cutting back (or completely cutting it out) is the only way to break that vicious cycle. I can promise you that after you get through caffeine withdrawal (takes a few days, drink a lot of water to avoid headaches!) you will actually have more natural energy, not less!
Exercise – but not TOO much!
Exercise is so healthy for the body and the spirit – but many women, particularly hard core runners and spinners, are getting too much of a good thing. Over-exercising actually contributes to adrenal fatigue, which is why many runners find that they get sick easily and why many over-exercisers have trouble losing weight. So if you’re burning your candle at both ends in your life, and you’re over-exercising, cutting back can help to restore your energy.
Take the right supplements for adrenal support.
A daily multivitamin with B-complex and magnesium as well as a class of herbs called adaptogens are just what this doctor orders for patients with adrenal fatigue! For a multivitamin, I recommend any good quality, food-based one. My personal favorite is Rainbow Light’s Women’s One Daily because it is only 1 tablet/day. The only problem is that it contains folic acid rather than methylfolate, so those with the MTHFR gene polymorphism will need to take a different product. In my practice, for those women we use PhyotMulti by Metagenics.
Adaptogens are a special category of herbs that specifically support, nourish, heal, and replenish the adrenals – whether you have adrenal overdrive or adrenal fatigue. Some of my favorites for women are Ashwagandha (calming, helps with muscle aches, promotes sleep), Rhodiola (especially if you also have anxiety), and Holy Basil (especially immune boosting). To read more about adaptogens, head over to Adaptogens: Herbs for Beating Stress, Fighting Fatigue, and Banishing Cravings.
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