We lead busy lives juggling between family responsibilities, job demands, emails, social media and a constant “to do list”. Add trouble sleeping at night and we wind up in a vicious cycle of being tired and wired. Many of us expend more energy than we have and rely on coffee, energy drinks and bars, or a sugary treat to keep us awake and alert. Being in overdrive all the time negatively affects our mental, emotional and physical health. Our bodies constantly adapt and adjust to stress, which is a normal and healthy process. The issue is when we are constantly exposed to stress and unable to manage it, putting strain on our whole system, especially our adrenal glands.
The adrenals are vital to our well-being. They have an important role in producing hormones that are necessary during times of stress. The adrenal glands are tiny pyramids about the shape of a walnut that sit on top of the kidneys. These glands produce neurotransmitters such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, hormones that regulate our metabolism and how we adapt to stress by producing cortisol. The adrenal glands also regulate blood sugar, affect our cardiovascular system by controlling blood pressure, and have an effect on our immune health.
When we are stressed, the brain communicates to the pituitary gland to release a hormone called ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone). ACTH then acts on the adrenals to release cortisol. There are three stages of the stress response: alarm phase (acute stress), resistance phase (chronic stress) and exhaustion phase (burnout). The alarm phase is also known as the “fight or flight” response where cortisol levels rise quickly. For example, if a bear is coming towards us, our heart immediately races and our eyes grow wider; we start to run away because cortisol and epinephrine are released.
If the stress is applied over a long period of time, the alarm phase plateaus; this is called the resistance phase. In the resistance phase, levels of cortisol and epinephrine stay elevated, which results in weight gain, an increased risk of infections, and can lead to depression and high blood pressure. If chronic stress is not resolved, this can lead to the exhaustion phase with the adrenals unable to keep up. The exhaustion phase gives rise to conditions such as low blood sugar, hypothyroidism, low motivation and anxiety.
Adrenal fatigue is the suboptimal functioning of the adrenal gland. When the body is under stress, a number of hormones are secreted; if the stress becomes too severe, the adrenals cannot respond the way they need to. Some symptoms of adrenal fatigue include lack of energy—such as morning fatigue or mid-afternoon slump—trouble sleeping, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, difficulty concentrating, consistently feeling sick, weight gain and mild depression.
There are several ways to measure cortisol levels. This can be done through saliva, blood and urine. Salivary cortisol can be taken four times during a 24-hour period (morning, noon, afternoon and midnight) to find the cortisol rhythm. Blood draws are collected two times in one day at 8am and 4pm. Cortisol levels are highest in the morning before waking up and gradually decrease throughout the day. The thyroid gland and adrenals work closely together and checking thyroid function is also helpful.
If tests show signs of low adrenal function, here some are ways to boost the adrenals for healthy functioning:
- Eat a clean diet with good quality proteins and oils, vegetables and fruits. Organic foods, when available and affordable, are also helpful.
- Avoid processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugars and alcohol.
- Exercise daily to keep energy levels up or stress reduction methods through yoga, meditation and deep breathing.
- Get adequate sleep and exercise proper sleep hygiene (i.e., shut down electronics such as televisions, smartphones and laptops) two hours before bed and get to sleep by 10pm each night.
- Adaptogenic herbs, such as ashwagandha, Siberian ginseng, and rhodiola, can help a body respond to stress.
- B vitamins can help with energy production.
- Acupuncture can be beneficial in calming the mind and stimulating key energy areas.