Keep Calm and Balance Your Adrenals.
Would you believe me if I said two small glands called “the Adrenals” play a larger role in the way we handle stress? Would you bet that these small glands are the key to balancing a stressful situation? Well, they certainly are. Located just above the kidneys at our backs, the two triangular glands are actually in charge of balancing all of our hormones. And when the adrenals are out of balance, this means all other hormones are out of balance too. Not a pretty picture. How do the adrenals get out of balance? Well, the answer is stress! These “stress” glands are basically the control center for the sympathetic nervous system that makes up our stress response. This system is also apart of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for digestion, respiration, and heart function.
There is no doubt, when stress is present in the body, all major systems are at risk. Chronic stress, or when the body has experienced a prolonged amount of stress for an ongoing time period, is unhealthy for the body and can actually result in adrenal fatigue (i.e. exhaustion). Let’s examine what adrenal fatigue is by looking at the process, as well as the signs and symptoms. Then, we will look at support and testing for adrenal function, key macro and micro nutrients for healthy adrenal glands and lastly, dietary and lifestyle recommendations for balancing stress and preventing adrenal fatigue. (Bauman, 2015)
The adrenals, also called the “fight or flight” glands, are made up of two parts: the medulla (the inner core) and the cortex (the outer layer). The medulla releases two hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine, directly into the blood. The cortex makes cortisol, DHEA, and aldosterone, which have an effect on the body’s metabolism. With extreme stress, the adrenal glands prepare, the “fight” response, increasing blood to the heart, brain, and long muscles, and at the same time decrease blood to the intestinal tract and skin. The “flight” response is also prepared with the skin becoming pale, hands cold, and mouth dry. Just like animals, humans have this innate biological “fight or flight” response as a mechanism for survival. This is the body’s way of preparing for a stressful situation or a threat even if the “threat” is just taking an important school exam or starting a new job.
Cortisol, our main stress hormone, is secreted in response to stress. It helps control the body’s use of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates important to brain function. When an excess of cortisol occurs, as a response to ongoing stress, the body cannot always appropriately use the excess. The unused excess cortisol in turn circulates in the body and can damage body tissues. As a result, this suppresses inflammatory responses in the body and negatively affects the immune system. At this point there is a greater risk for infection and allergens.
Signs of Chronic Stress (a.k.a. Adrenal fatigue)
– Low blood pressure
– Hair loss
– Weight loss
– Inability to exercise
– Inappropriate response to temperature
– Lack of perspiration
– Sugar/Salt cravings
It is important to note that higher amounts of cortisol also triggers retention of sodium, which can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure). Furthermore, higher levels of cortisol can impair the stomach’s ability to handle normal levels of stomach acid, which can lead to gastritis or ulcers. Even more, high cortisol can suppress growth hormones, which can result in slowed or retarded development in children. As you can see, managing cortisol and more specifically managing stress, is imperative to overall wellness in the body.(Bauman, 2015)
How to Manage & Support the Adrenals to Prevent Imbalance?
There are numerous ways one can support their system during adrenal exhaustion. The very key is to manage stress. More simply, cut the stress and the stressors. This can involve any method to lesson or relieve environmental, food, toxins, or emotional stressors that tax the body and contribute to strain on the system. First, it is essential to remove stimulants, which cause excess stress on the body such as coffee, sugar, caffeine, and drugs. In fact, sugar, soda, drugs and alcohol actually deplete the body of key vitamins and minerals, which is counterproductive for the healing process.
Next, it may also be helpful to seek professional counseling or therapy to address old emotional wounds or past traumas. At the same time, it is important to establish connections that will help with supporting you during this challenging time. Moreover, it is imperative to reduce or cut-out processed or nutrient-poor foods and replace with nutrient-dense organic whole foods, which will provide more essential vitamins and minerals. *Note, when the body is taxed because of stress or illness, it is in need of even more vitamins and minerals for healing and repair, thus is it most essential to provide the body the highest quality nutrient-rich, colorful foods during times of stress.
Additionally, having complex carbohydrates (such as sweet potatoes and oats) will help to provide a healthy source of glucose for the body to make energy for cell repair. It is not a good idea to completely eliminate carbohydrates during times of stress, since the body uses carbs to make glucose (energy). Even more, having at least three meals a day with two snacks will provide the body lasting energy throughout the day and eliminate periods of low blood sugar. Research also shows it may be helpful to reduce the amount of time one interacts with electromagnetic devices, such as cell phones and lap tops, due to the stimulant nature of these devices. Finally, moderate exercise is a great relief to the body and actually gets rid of excess cortisol before it can damage cell function. Yoga, deep breathing, meditation and walking are all great ways of reducing stress and balancing the system, so it can heal properly. (Bauman, 2015)
Looking closer at stress relieving techniques, Michael Murray believes that meditation, prayer, progressive relaxation, autogenic training, self-hypnosis, and biofeedback can all be helpful when dealing with stress. It is important to keep in mind that each individual will respond to a specific technique in a different way, so choose a practice that best fits the individual. Even more, it is recommended to provide yourself with at least 5 to 10 minutes of relaxation each day. Developing one of these practices can provide a tremendous relief for someone dealing with chronic stress and fatigue.
Balancing Blood Sugar = Strong Adrenal Health
For healing to take place, balancing blood sugar is imperative to overall adrenal health. Not only will three meals daily, with two snacks help keep blood sugar level, but making sure to eat breakfast and not skip meals will also help balance stress on the body. Meals should not be eaten after 8pm, so that the body has enough time to repair and heal during sleep, not just digest. Especially important to lifestyle and supporting adrenal fatigue is making sure to get a restful nights sleep with at least 7-8 hours of rest. Sleep is a powerful healing tool for the body; the body heals and regenerates with proper rest. It is also recommended to increase protein intake during times of increased stress. Each meal should have a 2-4 oz. serving of animal or 4-6 oz. plant protein because protein is essential for making hormones, neurotransmitters and enzymes. Additionally, incorporating two servings of healthy fats, like olive oil or coconut oil, will help reduce sugar or carbohydrate cravings. Research shows indicates that coconut oil aides thyroid function and adds extra energy, which is a huge bonus for the healing process. In addition, increasing non-starchy, colorful vegetables to 6-8 servings will provide the needed additional vitamins and minerals during this time. It is also a good idea to consider eating to 80% full instead of overeating. This will ensure proper pancreatic function and blood sugar regulation.
Eliminate Allergenic Foods
One last very important step for reducing stress in the body is to eliminate any allergenic foods. An elimination diet that reduces known problematic foods will help to reduce the total stress load on the body. Foods to eliminate include: gluten grains (wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and kamut), dairy (some may tolerate yogurt and raw dairy), soy, corn, eggs, citrus (if sensitive), chocolate, peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish. Getting rid of toxic foods like hydrogenated oils, refined carbohydrates, GMO foods, soft drinks, and pesticide laden foods, should be of high consideration as well.
Testing for Adrenal Fatigue
There are several tests that can provide insight as to whether one is suffering from adrenal fatigue. The book Adrenal Fatigue by James L. Wilson and well as Blood Chemistry and CBC Analysis by Scott Ferguson can be helpful guides. Saliva testing is offered through several labs, including BioHealth Diagnostics, Diagnos-Techs, Genova/Matametrix, and ZRT. Saliva testing looks at the overall levels of cortisol as well as the circadian rhythm, which can be indicators of stress. You may request a saliva test through your doctor or order one online. Hair mineral analysis can also assess adrenal fatigue, but it is necessary to seek out an experienced professional for this method.
Overall, it is important to consider that stress weakens key systems in the body. More and more research indicates stress plays a larger role in the development of disease (not just genetics) and therefore it should be taken seriously when preventing illness. Nevertheless, if one develops key strategies for prevention and management, health conditions such as adrenal fatigue can be avoided.
Repairing Adrenal Fatigue
– Nourishment through foods, supplements, movement, stress management, and human connection
– Avoidance of anything that may cause or increase symptoms
– Detoxification of any simultaneous conditions (viruses, bacteria, parasites, candida, etc.)
– Time ——> give yourself enough time to heal
*Remember: If it took 3 months to feel fatigue or exhaustion, it may take 3 months or more to heal…have patience with yourself and throughout the healing process.
Key Nutrients to Support Adrenal Fatigue
B complex is critical to overall energy, brain function and immune support. They are water-soluble, therefore daily deficiencies can occur easily because the excess is timply excreted. We also use up more of our B vitamins in times of stress. Good food sources include meats, organ meats, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, whole grains, nuts, seeds, mushrooms and colorful vegetables. It is important to take a complex of B vitamins because taking one B vitamin can deplete you of others.
Pantothenic Acid (b5)
Pantothenic Acid (b5) plays a significant role in absorption of fats and carbohydrates for energy production, along with the creation of adrenal hormones and red blood cells. (Murray, 2005) It is also of one of the major nutrients that support adrenal function and combat stress. It is recommended to take 500 mg 1-3 times a day. It is better utilized when used with Vitamin B6, as well as the entire B complex because all vitamins and minerals work synergistically. Foods high in B5 include liver and other organ meats, fish, poultry, milk, egg yolks, broccoli, oats, seafood, legumes, mushrooms and sweet potato. (Bauman, 2013)
Vitamin C + Bioflavonoids
Vitamin C is essential for the healing process and overall immune function. It is also crucial for the absorption of other nutritional factors. More importantly, it yields antioxidant protection in the body. (Murray, 2005) Because Vitamin C is one of the body’s most important antioxidants and the body cannot make it, it is very important to incorporate Vitamin C rich foods and/or supplement to ensure proper levels of Vitamin C in the body. Particularly, Vitamin C is high in bioflavonoids, which have been shown to protect Vitamin C and preserve its action. They also work together to help protect again inflammation by reducing allergic reactions, which is important for reducing stress on the body. (Bauman, 2015) The optimal daily allowance of vitamin C is 1,000 mg. However, a therapeutic dose of 500-1,000 mg of vitamin C three times a day is the recommended dose for those under extreme stress or until the bowel can tolerate. (Bauman, 2015) Excellent food sources of vitamin C include rose hip tea, acerola, guavas, red chili peppers, parsley, kale, sweet red and yellow peppers, strawberries, citrus fruits, cantaloupe, spinach, tomato, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and collard leaves. (Murray, 2005)
Other Recommended Foods, Nutrients & Herbs
Magnesium helps make energy and is one of the most predominant minerals in the body. It has the ability to activate many enzymes and thus is very important is supporting the adrenals. The first signs of deficiency are mental confusion, irritability, weakness, insomnia and a predisposition to stress. The RDA for magnesium is 350 milligrams per day for adult males and 300 mg per day for females. Ideally, 6 milligrams per kilo of body weight. Due to the low amounts of magnesium in our top soil, many Americans are deficient in magnesium. Food sources of magnesium include: kelp, wheat germ, almonds, cashews, molasses, brewer’s yeast, Brazil nuts, doles, peanuts, pecans, walnuts, figs, apricots, dates, avocado and brown rice.
Licorice for low Cortisol
Phosphatidylserine to decrease high cortisol
Adaptogens are natural substances or herbs that are considered to help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes. An example is ginseng. These can be used in teas or tinctures to help aide the relaxation process.
– Panax Ginseng – good for endurance sports; beneficial for athletes
– Siberian Ginseng – helps support the immune system & aides sleep
– Ashwagandha – calming, good for females
– Holy Basil – Basil family, very calming, great for tea
– Rhodiola – Russian herb, very calming effect
– Astragalus – Chinese herb, calming effect
– Cordyceps – Chinese herb, calming effect
*Look for herbal formulas that have a variety of these herbs and preferably certified organic.
Bauman, E. (2015). Therapeutic Nutrition Textbook, Part 1. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College.
Murray, M. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York, NY: Atria Books.
Murray, M. (1996). The Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements. New York, NY: Prima Health