Remember when your heart was pounding out of your chest, your palms became sweaty and you felt nauseated before a big exam or speech in school? If anything traumatic has ever happened in your life, do you remember being physically and mentally exhausted in the aftermath? How about dizzy after having the flu or in between meals? All of these examples highlight the adrenal system.
The adrenals are part of our intricate endocrine system that releases hormones throughout the day, all working together to help our bodies run efficiently. In fact the whole system is a giant feedback loop that is exquisitely controlled. Unfortunately, it can get overwhelmed.
The hypothalamus in the brain stimulates the pituitary which then activates the adrenal cortex to produce hydrocortisone, cortisone, aldosterone and sex hormones like estrogen, or testosterone (although these are mostly produced in the actual sex organs). These regulate metabolism, cardiac function, blood pressure support, inflammation, immune system support and the ability to fight off infections, sexuality, and much more.
For example, one of the most important things that cortisol, released by adrenal cortex, does is to control immunity (IgA) in your gut. Hence, if you’re stressed, the immune response in your gut suffers, increased gut wall permeability occurs and good bacteria gives way to bad bacteria, causing immune dysregulation.
But that’s not all… The adrenal glands also have an adrenal medulla (the inside part of the gland) which is responsible for the famous fight of flight syndrome that occurs when adrenaline or epinephrine/norepinephrine, is released. It is regulated by the sympathetic nervous system and can be quieted by some simple Eastern medicine techniques.
What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?
Over time, with stresses of continued negative thinking, perfectionism, physical or emotional trauma, anger, grief, a processed diet full of sugar like the Standard American Diet, interrupted sleep patterns, daily stress, and chronic diseases the adrenals become taxed. If the adrenals are constantly stimulated under stress (which served its purposes in evolutionary times if we were being chased by a bear), they become drained like a bank account, and operate at chronic low levels which affect immunity, behavior, sleep, energy, and blood pressure levels.
What Are Some Signs Of Adrenal Fatigue?
Asthma, allergies, respiratory issues
Dark circles under the eyes
Extreme exercise exhaustion
Loss of muscle tone
Low blood pressure/dizziness
Low blood sugar
Numbness in your fingers / Poor circulation
Morning fatigue or trouble waking up
Cravings for sugar/salt
What Else Can You Look For To Identify Adrenal Fatigue?
As mentioned above, the adrenal cortex also produces aldosterone, which works with the kidney to regulate our fluid and electrolyte excretion. When the adrenals become fatigued and drained, less aldosterone is produced and large amounts of important minerals can be lost in our urine. Individuals with depleted endocrine systems often report frequent urination, which is attributed to aging, but may actually be caused by depleted adrenals.
This means that people with chronic adrenal fatigue effectively lose the ability to balance the levels of electrolytes like sodium, potassium and magnesium in their blood. (Just to show how critical this is, remember blood tests are only able to measure 1% of the total stores of magnesium as only 1% is free in the blood. The other 99% is bound by protein and unmeasurable. Most of us are deficient and magnesium has a turn in nearly every physiologic reaction in the body.) In turn, this often leads to cravings for foods which will replace the sodium that we have lost. If you crave salty or sweet, especially late at night, this is a sure sign that the adrenals are stressed as the cortisol levels are reversed. This causes low levels in the morning leading to morning drowsiness combined with abnormal spikes at night that can lead to insomnia.
The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis controls so many functions of daily life that if it is dysregulated, the system will eventually show physical signs that manifest as disease. Unfortunately, one of the main ways it can manifest disease is through the thyroid. Hypothyroidism is more and more common in western countries. High cortisol levels, which occur with chronic stress that continually activates the adrenals, down regulate the thyroid gland. Therefore it is of utmost importance to heal the stress in your life and to follow guidelines to improve adrenal support in order to protect the thyroid and other glandular organs.
How do we heal the adrenals? Easier said than done in an overworked, Capitalistic society. Excessive stress is not ideal for overall physical well being.
Here are some tips to keep yourself in a zen state of mind and to down-regulate the stimulation of the adrenals and sympathetic system. It literally does start in your brain!
- Eat fermented foods that boost beneficial gut bacteria which equal increased immunity. Examples include kimchi, kombucha, or kefir.
- Cut out white refined sugar and artificial sweeteners as well as simple carbs, which continue to stimulate insulin surges and can stress the body.
- No caffeine! Zip. Caffeine burns the adrenals out like a champ and leaves you with afternoon exhaustion and cravings for more.
- Hydrate yourself liberally. As those with chronic adrenal fatigue urinate more due to less aldosterone production, drink up!
- Go to bed before 10, the liver and adrenals work to rid yourself of toxins and housekeep at night. Staying awake and eating during these times can be counterproductive. Get 7-8 hours/night.
- Regulate meal times so the body expects food at certain times and knows when to perform and when to relax. Do not eat after 8pm.
- Try Ashwaganda formulas, Tulsi or Holy basil, valerian root or kava root for relaxation at night. Many herbal root teas have a calming effect.
- To help replace magnesium, try Epsom salt baths, foods with a naturally high magnesium content like nuts. Topical magnesium oil is also beneficial.
- B vitamins, Zinc, & vitamin C (highest source of vitamin C being Amla or Indian gooseberry) help support bodily functions and drive synthesis of other essential building blocks.
- If you aren’t vegan or vegetarian, multiple research studies have shown eating chicken liver, ghee, bone broth and foods high in DHA can also support adrenal health. If you are plant based, there’s plenty of other ways listed above to regulate adrenal health like blue green algae/seaweed.
- Daily meditation and Ujjayi breathing helps to stimulate the vagal nerve which can lead to relaxation. To accomplish Ujjayi Pranayama breathing, simply constrict the back of your throat so that the breath has textured sound.
- To satisfy salty cravings, try a handful of nuts or use Himalayan sea salt.
For severe adrenal burnout, be patient as healing with these techniques can take nearly a year. The amount of time that damage has been done to our bodies is approximately how long it will take to heal the body.
1. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine: The Adrenal System
3. Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome by James L. Wilson, MD, DC, PhD