The mystery surrounding the adrenal glands, including ‘adrenal fatigue,’ is somewhat rampant. These hormone producing beans that sit atop the kidneys play a specific role in our experience of fatigue and stress, which doesn’t need to be over-complicated.
The adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system, which produces hormones and manages our metabolism. They produce three major groups of steroid hormones, but for the sake of our conversation around stress and fatigue, I will be writing about the glucocorticoid group of adrenal hormones, which subsequently includes cortisol. That “stress” hormone I’m sure you’ve all heard about.
Glucocorticoids are wonderful at helping the body metabolise food, which is one reason why we want to have healthy adrenal glands. But most markedly, they also help the body resist long-term stress by increasing glucose in the blood. When cortisol is secreted from the adrenal glands it initiates the process of converting available fats and proteins into glucose, which is sugar. The purpose of this is to provide the body with an immediate dose of energy to get out of the stressful situation. You can imagine that this would have been extremely helpful hundreds of years ago when a tiger enters your village and all you need to do is run!
So how does modern day stress interact with the adrenal glands?
Chronic stress (work, family, finances, sex, children, etc) can unfortunately trigger an abnormal adrenal response, resulting in a deficient or excess release of hormones, i.e. too little or too much cortisol. An excess secretion of cortisol hormone results in higher blood sugar levels, and because the immediate high dose of glucose isn’t needed, this glucose is then converted into fat. This is why some of us experience weight gain when we feel stressed. Symptoms of this disorder include intense sugar cravings, depression, and sometimes muscle loss because protein is converted into glucose. Over time the adrenal glands can become so fatigued that they no longer regulate normally, and in some cases, adrenal fatigue takes over and you feel completely exhausted, without any energy to do much at all. On the other hand, deficient hormone release causes an inability to cope with the level of stress, which unfortunately impairs the immune system.
Treatment for Disordered Adrenals
Manage Stress More Effectively
If we can get a grip on our stress, then our adrenal glands wont need to become so involved in the ups and downs of life. This could look like asking ourselves “what is the worst thing that could happen?” during a stressful situation. Sometimes when we actually breakdown the possible outcomes of a situation, we realise that it isn’t quite as crucial as our feelings or our hormones are telling us. I tend to suggest having a few truthful phrases up your sleeve for these times. An example of this is when I am running towards the bus to go to a meeting that I am already late for. As soon as I reach the bus stop, the bus pulls away from the sidewalk, and I will have to wait another 10 minutes for the next bus. In these moments it is so easy to let ourselves become stressed, to feel as though this is a terrible situation, and to worry about what the person we are going to meet with will think of us. In reality, there is nothing more we can do in this situation. It is what it is.
Instead of feeling stressed and anxious I tell myself a combination of the following phrases, “There is nothing I can do about this situation now,” or “feeling stressed won’t help me.” Then I ask myself, “what is the worst thing that can happen?” The answer to this could be; this person won’t want to meet with me again, they will think I am a late person when usually I am on time, I might miss out on an opportunity. Then I ask, “is this really that bad?” The truth is that I will still be ok, I still have my loving family, I still have friends who to spend time with, and I still have my health. Finally, I tell myself, “it is not as crucial as it feels inside,” and I move on from feeling stressed to focus on what is in front of me – the meeting.
Choosing to eat wholefoods, reduced sugar (including natural sugars), quality protein, ample healthy fats, and plenty of vegetables will stabilise your blood sugar levels and will set you up to handle stress more effectively. Research shows that people who regularly consume processed and refined foods are at more risk of anxiety and low moods, which consequently increases stress. Sticking to a wholefoods, low-glycaemic diet is key.
Exercise & Rest
There is a lot of research out there that suggests only 20 minutes of exercise each day, even very gentle excise, can help reduce stress. Gentle exercise such as yoga or tai chi counters the impact of stress on the body by producing the opposite physical products of stress. This is also true for walking, painting, having a bath, or anything that makes you feel relaxed. Try to incorporate a time of rest into your life every second day to reduce stress, which will effectively support your adrenal health.
Feed, nourish, value yourself.