Are you exhausted at the same time that your nervous system is revved up? Do you:
- Rely on caffeine as a pick-me-up in the morning, and/or sleep aids at night? – Struggle to get out of bed in the morning, but are wired in the evening when you should be winding down?
- Regularly have bouts of insomnia around 3-4am?
- Often feel stressed or anxious?
- Find it difficult to relax without assistance?
If so, you are not alone! But just the same, if these are common experiences for you, it may be time to give your adrenal glands a little extra care.
The adrenals are a pair of endocrine glands perched atop each kidney. They produce a number of hormones that do much more than regulate stress. They are also responsible for balancing blood sugar levels between meals, modulating the immune system, and regulating the hormonal wake-sleep cycle.
When it comes to stress, our bodies classically have a staged response to life’s demands. Acutely, such as in the face of something like a job interview or in response to a near-miss accident, we respond to immediate stress with extra alertness or alarm. A number of hormones are triggered to increase quickly, including adrenaline, cortisol, DHEA and insulin, allowing access to resources that permit quick reactions. If this type of event is infrequent and is not overly traumatic, we recover readily and move on. This represents a balanced adrenal state.
However it’s pretty typical for our modern lives to involve nearly constant management of a steady stream or low-grade stressors. If you find yourself perpetually in active mode, experiencing most days as a continuous flow of stress, then you may be in the “wired” stage of adrenal response. This may be experienced as frequent anxiety, scattered or racing thoughts, overwhelm with tasks and the sense that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything on your list, or carb cravings in the evening. This represents a state of adrenal imbalance and should be regarded as a warning signal from your body to recharge.
With the experience of stress (both real and perceived) on a chronic basis, our hormonal response will become overloaded. Cortisol levels remain elevated or dysrhythmic while our DHEA decreases and we feel more fatigue—we become simultaneously tired and wired. Such continuous tapping of resources begins to take a toll on other body systems, and may experience symptoms such as salt cravings, digestive issues, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, depression, irregular sleep patterns, belly fat, facial puffiness or joint aches. Because the adrenal hormones play so many roles in the body, symptoms of imbalance can seem quite varied. Often times people resort to stimulants such as caffeine or sugar to keep themselves going through this period of low reserves. A depleted state leaves us more susceptible to colds and allergies. Eventually, the thyroid gland will become affected, too.
If this sounds familiar to you, please take it as a sign that it’s time to intervene and take better care. Unrelenting stress will eventually strain our hormonal balance to the point of exhaustion.
Here are some helpful interventions to consider:
Rhythm: Maintaining regularity in your daily schedule of waking, meal times, exercise and sleep will facilitate the development of a harmonious rhythm to your body systems and functions. When adrenal glands are out of sync with your body’s needs, they tend to not produce enough cortisol in the morning and instead produce too much near the end of the day. Because cortisol is closely tied to glycogen regulation, this low adrenal hormones can lead to low blood sugar. Eating protein within an hour of rising helps to balance blood sugars and support the adrenal glands. Waiting too long to eat or starting your day with coffee on an empty stomach sets the stress pathways in motion and easily sets the tone for a day of hormonal imbalance.
Resources: Be sure you’re consuming the necessary building blocks for hormonal support as part of your daily nutrition. These include essential fatty acids, magnesium, antioxidants such as vitamin C and selenium, vitamin D3, and B-complex. In particular, B5, B6 and B12 play important roles in the HPA axis. It’s also important to avoid stimulants in order to promote healing. Bear in mind that alcohol falls into this category as well, because once the sedative effect wears off, you’re left with an exaggerated rise in cortisol.
Gut health: It’s possible your adrenals have been working overtime in an attempt to calm inflammation that is being caused by some chronic irritant or toxic exposure. This may include molds, parasites, bacteria or candida. Good gut health can go a long way toward enhancing the beneficial bacteria in the microbiome that will out-compete the unfriendly ones. In addition, maintaining a healthy mucosal membrane acts as a protective barrier between our inner terrain and the transient food stuffs in our GI tract.
Support: Acupuncture is a great way to clear stress hormones from the system and open a segue for the parasympathetic nervous system to activate and allow for deeper healing of the body’s glandular systems. If extra support is needed, apoptogenic herbs may be right for you. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help us be more resilient in the face of physical, emotional and environmental stressors. They have stress-protective effects that target the HPA axis. This helps to normalize our response to stressors, and can either calm or energize the nervous system, depending on what our body needs.
A few examples are:
- Golden root (Rhodiola rosea) neuroprotective; reduces mental fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, supports blood sugar
- Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) neuroprotective action on the HPA axis, reduces anxiety, anti-inflammatory
- Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) also known as Siberian ginseng, improves stamina and supports recovery from experiences of acute stress; best for temporary use – Schisandra (Shisandra chinensis) stimulating and balancing tonic effect; perks up chronic fatigue, improves mood
- Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) promotes resilience; lowers cortisol and modulates blood sugars in the face of stress; neuroprotective
Movement: Moderate daily exercise is almost universal in its general health benefits and regulation of body systems. However if you are under a lot of stress, it’s probably best to skip the high intensity activities that can further tax the body’s stress hormones. Take time to disengage from duties and include some low-imapctpleasure or play in your day.
Continuously pushing the stress pathways can become an addictive and vicious cycle that throws hormones out of whack, creates systemic inflammation in the body, and ultimately exhausts the adrenal glands. Do what you can to take care, and be patient as it can potentially take up to a year to heal and restore yourself, depending on the duration and severity of your experience.
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