You probably don’t think about your adrenal glands — the two walnut-sized endocrine glands on top of each kidney — often, but they play an incredibly important role in your health, nonetheless.
Your adrenal glands secrete nearly 50 hormones, including adrenalin, cortisol, estrogen and testosterone, which help to regulate your body’s response to stress, among other things. The problem is that in today’s 24/7 lifestyle, many of us are under stress virtually all the time, and in a nutshell this means our adrenals rarely get a break.
Over time, this exposure to chronic stress often wears your adrenals out, leading to adrenal fatigue — a collection of symptoms that results when your adrenals are no longer functioning optimally.
Why Chronic Stress and Burnout Can Devastate Your Adrenals
One of your adrenal glands primary roles is to help your body produce the “fight or flight” response to meet the demands of stress, both physical and emotional. For instance, when you experience stress, your adrenals release adrenaline, which increases your blood pressure and heart rate to keep you alert, and cortisol, which gives you a burst of energy and increased immunity.
This fight or flight response essentially primes your body to either fight your stressor head-on or quickly escape it, by turning on the physiologic mechanisms you need for optimal energy and alertness (even your digestion slows during this process so you can devote all your energy to your survival).
This is a life-saving biological process when used for short-term stressors (such as running from an attacker), but most of us feel stress on a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute, basis. This means your body rarely gets a chance to revert back to its natural state, and instead exists in a perpetual fight-or-flight mode, which wreaks havoc on your adrenal glands and your overall health.
The Problem with High Cortisol Levels
Cortisol, commonly known as the “stress hormone,” raises your blood pressure and blood sugar levels for energy, reduces your response to pain, boosts your short-term memory, increases your immune function, and even draws calcium from your bones so your muscles can use it to respond to stress.1 This is beneficial for survival if you’re faced with a threat, but is only intended to be a short-term response.
If your adrenals are healthy, your cortisol levels should be elevated in the morning, then steadily lower throughout the day and drop even lower in the evening while you sleep.
Exposure to chronic stress unfortunately means that your adrenals are releasing cortisol far too often, and as a result people with adrenal fatigue have high levels of cortisol circulating in their bodies all the time, creating a perfect storm for disease to develop.
Chronically high cortisol levels have, in fact, been linked to:
- High blood pressure
- Lowered immunity and inflammation
- Decreased bone density and muscle tissue
- Increased blood sugar and insulin resistance, along with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes
- Increased abdominal fat
- Problems with mental function
It’s important to understand that stress can take on many forms in the modern-day world. Obvious stressors, such as a divorce or loss of your job, will certainly create a demand on your adrenal function, but so will other demands, such as surgery or illness, worry, anxiety, lack of sleep, poor diet, overwork, financial trouble and much, much more.
Are You Suffering From Adrenal Fatigue?
Adrenal problems are not always recognized by conventional medicine, unless they progress to life-threatening conditions like Cushing’s syndrome (an overproduction of cortisol) or Addison’s disease (an underproduction of cortisol). With adrenal fatigue, your adrenal glands are still functioning, just not enough to maintain the proper balance your body depends on.
As its name implies, people with adrenal fatigue often feel tired, but the characteristic that stands out is that they feel tired for no reason. You may go to sleep early, get a good night’s sleep and yet you still feel exhausted in the morning. Other signs of adrenal fatigue include:2
- Feeling rundown or burned out
- Cravings for salty and sweet foods
- Difficulty recovering from illness, exercise or stress
- Energy tends to increase in the evening, after 6 pm
- Difficulty concentrating
- Trouble waking up in the morning
- Decreased sex drive
How to Recover and Support Your Adrenal Health
With proper care, you can promote your adrenal health, and the first step to doing so is to address your stress levels. You may need to cut back on work or personal obligations, let go of negative emotions like guilt or anger, or work through relationship troubles. The key is to identify your stressors and seek to eliminate them, while also engaging in stress-relief activities like gentle exercises (yoga, tai chi), meditation, massage, or simply taking time to relax and put your feet up.
Additionally, you can support healthy adrenal function by:
- Resting when you’re tired and getting proper sleep
- Eating a healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables to provide plenty of B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and vitamin C. A high-quality multi-vitamin may also be useful to help fill in any nutritional gaps.
- Eliminating caffeine and alcohol, both of which can be draining on your adrenals
- Considering supplements that support adrenal health and function, such as:
- Minerals like calcium and magnesium
- Vitamin C
- B vitamins
- Select herbs that support adrenal gland function and stress management
- Detoxifying. In many cultures, including Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, detoxification has been practiced for centuries to rid your body of toxins and promote the body’s own inherent healing potential. You can find seven natural detoxification strategies here.
It’s important to remember that once you restore your adrenal health — a process that can takes months or even years, depending on the severity — you need to maintain a lower stress, healthy lifestyle, or you risk working your adrenals to the point of exhaustion once again. Quite simply, slow down, give yourself permission to relax, and have fun spending time doing whatever it is you love doing … this is the recipe for not only a happy life, but also healthy adrenals.
1.Life Extension, Reducing the Risks of High Cortisol, September 2011