Many of us live high-stress, multitasking lifestyles that leave us frequently tired, relying on caffeine to get through hectic days and sometimes feeling like we’re running on empty. In the U.S., we work longer hours with less vacation than people in nearly any other modern nation; and many of us leave the vacation days we do have unused. Continual stress can cause undue strain on our bodies’ hormone regulation systems—including our adrenal glands.
Understanding Our Adrenals
Our bodies strive to maintain health and balance. The adrenal glands, two tiny glands that sit on top of our kidneys, help our bodies maintain homeostasis. The adrenal glands help keep our bodies in good working order and retain their ability to heal and stay vital. Our adrenal glands are involved in how our blood vessels contract or relax and maintain the right balance of salt and water in our blood to increase or decrease blood pressure. They also help regulate cardiovascular function.
For the adrenal system, it’s all about balance. The adrenals are our bodies’ inner expression of Newton’s third law of motion, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In the case of our adrenals, for every hormone that creates a reaction in the body, there is a hormone that shuts down that reaction. A common example of this is the hormone adrenaline. When we are driving in traffic and someone cuts us off, we experience a surge of adrenaline. This adrenaline focuses all of the body’s attention on preparing to respond quickly, sending blood to our muscles and brain, and increasing our heart rate. This is all so our bodies can respond and get us out of danger. Once we have left that idiot in the rearview mirror, we produce hormones to bring respiration back under control, slow the heart rate, relax the blood vessels and drop our blood pressure in order to return us to a resting state.
This quick response, when needed occasionally, does little more than give our adrenals a good workout. Unfortunately, when we don’t give our bodies enough time at peace, these stressful episodes can pile on top of each other, keeping our adrenals constantly at work. Most Americans have drafted our adrenals into daily battle, fighting for balance with the nervous, endocrine, digestive, circulatory and immune systems with very few breaks. By making some basic lifestyle adjustments, we may help our adrenals maintain healthy functioning and thus improve our overall health and well-being.
If we eat lunch while under the stress of the newest deadline from the boss, our adrenal glands respond to the stress by using cortisol to suppress digestion in order to divert energy where it’s needed to maintain critical systems. This is part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. Digestion is a low priority when we need our legs to move quickly, so blood pressure, energy supply, even the sugars in our blood and the brain’s use of those sugars all adjust to respond to the stressor.
If this pattern continues long-term, digestion may be chronically impaired. Poor digestion is linked with a host of ailments, among them gallbladder problems, liver congestion, hormonal imbalances and allergies. With the liver congested, carbohydrates may not be processed properly and our insulin levels can run amok. Many diseases, including diabetes, have been linked to this starting point as inflammation builds out of control.
One way to promote adrenal health is to maintain even blood sugar levels. To do this, we should first consider what we eat: High-fructose corn syrup, refined sugars and flours, fruit juices, caffeine, alcohol and hydrogenated oils all cause swings in blood sugar levels. Proteins are key to keeping blood sugar levels stable. Meals and snacks that include protein, as well as healthful fats and whole carbohydrate sources such as vegetables, legumes and whole grains, help maintain more stable blood sugar levels. Skipping meals can also cause unwanted fluctuations in blood sugar. To get digestion back on track, we can also focus on purposeful eating. Eat food slowly and chew it thoroughly in order to break it down into smaller pieces and provide more surface area for digestive enzymes to use to reach the nutrition trapped inside.
Supplements may also aid digestion. In my experience, some of the best options are bitters formulas, most often taken before meals; dandelion leaf or root, eating or taken as a tea or tincture; and triphala, an herbal formula commonly used in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medicinal system. My favorite ways to aid digestion are to drink bone broth most days (find a recipe for bone broth) and to eat a pinch of traditionally fermented food at every meal. Many people are familiar with probiotics and take them in a pill or eat them in their yogurt. Too few of us are aware that living probiotics can be simply and inexpensively added to the diet by eating fruits or vegetables that have been fermented without the use of a vinegar brine (read more about fermented foods).
Taming Our Minds
When our bodies think we’re under attack (because we’re experiencing stress), our adrenals respond as if we were under a physical threat. The adrenal glands are intended to respond to any perceived threat, whether a physical reality or just a convincing thought. In either case, our bodies respond with a surge in the stress hormone cortisol. Excessive cortisol is linked with a number of health issues: This is where the well-known fat deposit around the middle comes into play. When our cortisol levels become unbalanced, our bodies can create belly fat as an insurance plan—our bodies believe we are living in stressful times, thus hold onto fat to protect us. The cortisol moves fat from healthier areas such as the butt and hips to the abdomen, which has more cortisol receptors. Thus, relatively healthy peripheral fat becomes dangerous visceral fat, which surrounds the organs and is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and more.
My husband tends to get spun up whenever he reads the latest political drama, usually reading the news on his laptop late at night. He has my response pretty well memorized and I’ll pass it along here: If you aren’t going to get up and do something with that anger, you need to let it go. We are not designed to bottle up our emotions; we are intended to use them as fuel for movement. If you find yourself repeatedly feeling a strong emotion and not using the energy it provides, it’s an unnecessary strain on your adrenals. If you’re especially happy, get up and dance. If you’re very angry, start a campaign, gather people together for change or get out and exercise. Your health depends on it.
The adrenals are designed to keep our systems from tipping into instability. Unfortunately, we can’t live in a bubble of bliss, so our focus should be on avoiding unnecessary situations that will cause the adrenals to fight for equilibrium. This can mean simple things such as dressing warmly in the winter to support the work of warming the body; minimizing the toxin loads in our bodies by avoiding processed foods, tobacco, excessive sugar, refined grains and alcohol; or choosing not to engage in meaningless hot-headed debates.
Many of us live with stressful situations that may be difficult to alter. In that case, we can make choices to help support ourselves. Adaptogenic herbs and foods (shiitake mushrooms are a great example) help protect the body by encouraging a healthy stress response. We can also support the nervous system by enjoying herbal teas such as oats, catnip and lemon balm. Getting out into nature, practicing yoga and meditating are also good medicines for our nervous system. Purposeful body movement can go a long way toward helping us avoid the downsides of inevitable stress situations and allowing us to modify our reaction to them. Continued practice of these techniques can also strengthen our resolve to walk away from stressful situations that no longer serve our needs.
Are You Fatigued?
You might have heard the phrase “adrenal fatigue syndrome.” Although some alternative health advocates believe that overworked adrenals can be signaled by symptoms including tiredness; trouble waking up; salt and sugar cravings; and a strong reliance on caffeine, mainstream medical professionals may not consider it as an official medical diagnosis. No scientific facts support the theory that long-term stress drains the adrenals. However, long-term stress is certainly known to cause a number of ill health effects, and doctors believe hormone disruptions can lead to these symptoms. If you are experiencing long-term fatigue, it’s important to visit your health-care professional to rule out the wide range of illnesses that might cause your symptoms. However, for healthy people experiencing day-to-day fatigue, a lifestyle makeover might help you perk up and feel better—adrenal fatigue syndrome or not.
Adrenal Health at a Glance
Use these six tips to decrease stress on your vital adrenal system.
Don’t stew: Learn to sort through the things you spend time worrying about. If you can do something about it, it might be worth your time to expend energy creating a change in the situation. If you can’t, get up and move your body. Let it go!
Vitamin C with bioflavonoids: Vitamin C is required to create and regulate hormones. Bump up your intake of vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus (including the white rind), elderberries, rose hips, peppers, kale, strawberries, aronia berries and hawthorn berries.
Magnesium: This nutrient helps us manage stress and anxiety, reducing the need for fight-or-flight behavior. Spirulina, nuts, dark green leafy vegetables and bone broth are excellent additions to support healthy adrenals. Magnesium should be paired with calcium if you supplement.
Adaptogenic herbs: Adaptogens are a class of herbs believed to help our bodies cope with stress, whether physical or emotional. Common adaptogens to combat adrenal stress include astragalus and ashwagandha.
Focus on digestion: Eat slowly and avoid drinking large amounts of liquid with meals so you don’t dilute your digestive juices. Take your time and enjoy your food. Don’t skip meals. Eat whole foods that are traditionally prepared to keep your digestive fire lit.
Rest and relaxation: Take time for R&R! Sleep and conscious rest can be the best medicine.
Some supplements claim to be made specifically to improve adrenal health and might include extracts or “concentrates” of adrenal or other glands. These supplements are not recommended by health professionals and may end up harming your adrenals. As always, the best advice for improved health is eating a balanced diet, reducing stress, and getting enough exercise and sleep. Safe, adaptogenic herbs such as ginseng and rhodiola can help manage stress response in a healthful way. Be wary of any “miracle pills.”
Dawn Combs is the owner of Mockingbird Meadows Herbal Health Farm in central Ohio and the director of their Eclectic Herbal Institute. The farm is nationally known for its line of herbal honey spreads. Dawn is the author of Heal Local: 20 Essential Herbs for Do-It-Yourself Home Healthcare and Conceiving Healthy Babies: An Herbal Guide to Support Preconception, Pregnancy and Lactation.