Are you familiar with the saying “burn out”? If you are, chances are your adrenals have taken a pretty hard hit over the years. If you aren’t sure what this is, keep on reading and find out if it might be something you have suffered from in the past or are currently dealing with.
What are Adrenal Glands?
Let’s start with learning about our adrenal glands. These guys are so important to our overall health. The adrenals are in charge of secreting cortisol and other hormones during times of high stress. They allow for the proper release of these hormones so our body is able to adapt to whatever stressful event or environment it is in. When we start to expose our bodies to a constant, high stress environment our body starts to put itself into overdrive and we get stuck in the “Fight or Flight stage”. We live in a society where staying busy has become a hobby, and relaxing has become a word of the past. So even when we feel a cold coming on, we decide we can push through it and make it through another work week. And for those who are parents, business owners, working multiple jobs or just have too many responsibilities, this flight or fight stage goes to a whole new level. What’s happening to us when we continue to push through while running on empty? We get burnt out, or run down.
What happens with Adrenal Fatigue:
Now, everyone experiences burn out differently. Some people may stay in a high functioning state, where they are literally running on empty but feel like they still have the energy to do so. Others will deal with the low energy, fatigue, mental exhaustion, decreased mood and so many other symptoms. These are both signs that your adrenals are not functioning at their optimal level.
Another issue that can arise with adrenal fatigue is poor sleep. If adrenals aren’t managing cortisol (our stress hormone) properly, its normal daily cycle gets thrown off.
Here we see what a normal cortisol curve looks like (blue) and what an irregular one might look like (orange). So, cortisol should have a spike in the morning to get you going for the day, and drop as the day goes on so we feel tired at night and go to sleep. When cortisol is not being managed, we might end up with an irregular curve. We wake up with low cortisol, therefore feel tired, and at night it increases which causes us to feel awake and not be able to fall asleep. So not only does cortisol manage our stress, it also manages our sleeping patterns.
Could the adrenals possibly be in charge of more body functions??? The answer is yes. Another common concern for people is chronic pain and/or inflammation. If the body is in pain, the adrenals will release cortisol into the blood where it can modify the pain and inflammation pathways to reduce the symptoms. So when our cortisol stores run low because we are constantly using it up for prolonged stress and pain in the body, inflammation is going to increase as cortisol isn’t able to do it’s job properly anymore.
One more! Immune function is related to adrenal function. I’ll make this one short and sweet. If our adrenals aren’t functioning, cortisol isn’t being secreted properly and we have constant inflammation, our immune system is not going to be able to function properly either. We get run down, we get sick. When we are operating at that higher level on empty, when we actually take a day to lay in bed, we get sick. It’s all connected, our body works as a well oiled system and we need to keep giving it the fuel it needs.
Okay, so I thought of another important one, this is the last one I promise. Weight control, the biggest cause of stress for so many people. Whether it’s an inability to gain weight or an inability to lose weight. Trying everything from changing your diet, to incorporating an intense exercise routine might be great steps to losing weight, but if our adrenals aren’t working, that weight loss is going to be so much harder to achieve. It comes down to hormones, and our body holding onto any fuel that is there and storing it for later use. It slows down our metabolism. Everything you are working towards is being hindered by the fact that your adrenals just aren’t allowing your body to lose the weight because it doesn’t want to let it go. I’ll leave it at that.
How do we treat this?
So, are adrenals one of the most important systems to focus on? Absolutely. As a new Naturopathic Doctor, I am still learning everyday, and I learn from every patient. What I have found recently is that most patients have some form of possible adrenal fatigue. If we start with the basics and get the adrenals functioning properly again, our body has the ability to adapt to the stress and pain, and is able to work through it. We also see an increase in mood, energy, sleep, digestion, hormonal balance and so much more.
Food for Thought
Diet is a major contributor to chronic inflammation leading to adrenal fatigue. Diet is a tough one to sell for a lot of people, and telling someone to change this is sometimes the hardest thing to do. So, education around diet and how we can work together to fix this is a big part of the treatment. Food sensitivities are a big one. If, for example, you are sensitive to dairy products (not allergic, just sensitive), over time this creates chronic inflammation in the body. As mentioned, chronic inflammation can lead to adrenal fatigue. Simply put, food sensitivities might be the first route to take. I am not one for forcing people to totally change their diet, but if it is going to make you feel better, I think it should sometimes have to be priority! The other major issue is organic vs. non-organic. Why? Non-organic foods cause hormonal imbalance. The chemicals and pesticides on these foods, can be known hormone disruptors. Stay tuned for another blog post all about hormones, where I will dive deeper into this topic. For now, visit www.ewg.org and learn about the clean 15 and dirty dozen and lots more!
By using herbal medicine we can give the adrenals the love that they need. Many different botanicals are used, usually in combination to tackle the adrenals. These herbs are grouped into a category known as “Adaptogens”, as in, they help the body adapt to stress. Some common herbs that we use are:
- Eleuthrococcus (Siberian Ginseng)
- Glycyrrhiza (Licorice)
Supplementation may also be necessary to help get our adrenals functioning and help support our immune system along the way. We often recommend Vitamin C, Vitamin D, a B complex, or a B5 supplement.
Last, not definitely not least, stress management. We need to find ways to, not necessarily “cope”, but to understand when and why we are stressed. Stepping away from the stressful environment, taking a day to yourself, going for a long walk outside are all small ways to manage our stress. EXERCISE is important in stress management, but if we are in a burn out phase, we need to conserve what fuel we do have. Therefore, I usually would suggest to limit the exercise while building up your adrenal glands. If you need to exercise, do some light cardio outside, or in the gym but don’t overdo it.
Meditation is another great tool to use. Meditation allows us to become aware of our bodies and our breath, and use this to put our bodies in a relaxed state. Try out one of these apps tonight and do a 3 or 5 minute meditation and notice how you feel: Calm (my favourite), Insight Timer, Headspace. Or simply go on YouTube and type in 3 to 5 minute guided body scan meditation and give it a try.
So to summarize this, stress leads to unbalanced cortisol which causes weight gain, fatigue, mood changes (depression, anxiety), increase or decreased appetite, hormonal imbalance, poor sleep patterns, and decreased immune function. These are just SOME of the common symptoms that arise when our adrenals are tired.
If you feel like maybe you are dealing with one or all of the above concerns, come talk to a Naturopathic Doctor and find out how we get you back to being yourself again! Click here to book an appointment.