Carving out a home workspace, becoming a homeschool teacher overnight – pandemic pivoting was tough. However, now as we get into 2023 and further adjust to hybrid lifestyles – wanting to travel more and get back to enjoying everything the world has to offer while balancing the effects of flu season, inflation and the economy- if you feel unsettled and exhausted, you’re not alone.
But what if you were already feeling tired, stressed and overwhelmed before? Could your adrenal glands be part of the problem? While there is some debate about the term ‘adrenal fatigue’, we can all agree that stress levels are at an all-time high. People are burning out. And the adrenal glands are major players in the stress response.
Symptoms of Adrenal Overload
Does this sound familiar?
You wake up tired. Even after a full 8 hours of sleep.
You can’t concentrate at work, and rely on coffee and sugary treats to get through the day.
You can’t relax with your family in the evenings, feeling irritable, anxious and stressed.
You have trouble getting to sleep, and often wake up sweating during the night.
Wash, rinse, repeat. Whether we call it adrenal fatigue, adrenal dysregulation or increased allostatic load, what do labels matter when your life looks like this?
Let’s get to know your adrenal glands – what’s actually happening during adrenal fatigue and what can you do about it?
Our Bodies are Old School
What’s the key to understanding where our adrenals fit into the stress response? Evolution.
Our bodies are old-school, designed for a world that no longer exists. Back in the prehistoric day, humans were very vulnerable to predators. When we saw a sabre-toothed tiger coming our way, we had to be ready to either fight it off or run away. Immediately. This ‘fight or flight’ response is literally designed to save our lives.
These days there may be fewer predators to run from, but we feel more threatened than ever. And because evolution hasn’t caught up to our modern lifestyle, our body treats physical and ‘emotional’ threats equally. In other words, the same stress response is initiated whether you’re running from a tiger, or reading an unpleasant email.
The Adrenal Glands in Action
So what actually happens in your body when a stressor hits, and how do your adrenal glands respond?
Let’s say you have a big work project due next week, and all is going well. Suddenly an email comes in from your boss – your deadline just got moved up. You now have 3 days to finish a project you thought you had 7 days to complete. Even before you finish reading the email you notice:
Your heart is pounding
Your breathing speeds up
Your muscles are tense
The HPA Axis: What Happens in the Body When Stress Hits
How did this happen in mere seconds? Let’s look at that scenario again.
Within seconds of opening the email, your brain identified it as a threat and sent the ‘get ready to fight or flee’ instructions to the hypothalamus gland.
The hypothalamus sent the super urgent messages directly to the adrenal glands – that’s why you became a heart-pounding anxious mess in seconds.
The hypothalamus also sent less urgent messages to the pituitary gland, which in turn relayed it to the adrenals glands.
These three glands form a stress-response team you may have heard of: the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.
The Role Of The Adrenals
What messages did the adrenal glands receive?
- Produce hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol amongst others)
- Release them into the bloodstream to get to the muscles and organs that can take action.
The Body’s Response to Adrenal Hormones
And what actions do these target muscles and organs take when they get their hormonal instructions from the adrenals?
- Increase heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar
- Dilate pupils
- Expand lung airways
- Redirect blood to the heart, limbs and organs
Makes sense, right? This lightning fast process gives us the immediate energy, oxygen and blood flow needed to fight or flee, and more peripheral vision to see threats.
We Are Over-Taxing The System
Here’s the thing: this system is built for infrequent, physical emergencies. Now, because of the pressures and triggers in modern lifestyles, we mostly use it for frequent, emotional emergencies. Or put another way: stress. What happens when stress is the rule rather than the exception and your adrenals are working overtime?
What Goes Up Must Come Down
When we keep asking the adrenals to produce and secrete their hormones repeatedly over long periods of time, the result is predictable: things start to break down. If we feel threatened or unsafe more often than not, the system that was designed to help us starts working against us.
Does Modern Stress Ever Go Away?
Herein lies the modern day problem: when does the threat pass? Or does it pass? Many of us are living under nearly constant low-grade stress. The signs your body is looking for to dial things back may never truly arrive, so the adrenals are working much more than they were designed to.
This leads to exhaustion, weight gain, brain fog, digestive issues, low sex drive and a suite of other unpleasant adrenal fatigue symptoms. In women, these symptoms can look like perimenopause or menopause (trouble sleeping, hot flashes, irritability, missing periods) but in reality, the adrenals glands are key players in being able to produce hormones that can temper and even eliminate hormonal symptoms women over 40 experience.
Time To Step Out Of Fight Or Flight Mode
So what can you do to help your body get out of the flight or fight cycle and get back on track?
Find Your Threat Triggers
The best way to help your adrenals help you, is to figure out what you’re threatened by. This is a deceptively simple question, but an important one. We may think that we’re only threatened by truly life or death situations, but our physical reality says something quite different.
Keep a Stress Diary
Try this simple practice: observe yourself for a week to see when you exhibit the immediate stress response, and note these incidents in your journal (or the Notes app on your phone).
Because this complex response happens before you even think about it, it’s a very accurate indicator of what stresses you out. Do you get stressed when talking about finances with your significant other? Getting a snarky email from a colleague? Talking to your child’s teacher?
It may not be an action – it’s just as likely to be a fearful thought. How many fearful thoughts do you have in a day? An hour? While reading this article?
Learn What Triggers You & Dial It Back
When you really watch yourself, you may be shocked to see just how many times a day you’re unknowingly putting yourself into fight or flight mode. The goal is to learn which situations trigger you, identify the stress response, and learn to dial it back once you recognise its happening.
On a personal note…
I have learned that “time” is a trigger for me – feeling I am late, there’s not enough time for the day’s activities, etc. I have minimized this trigger by not taking on too many projects, adjusting my expectations of what I will “get done” in a day/week/month as well as setting aside time for the things I actually want in my life because of their importance to my goals (meditation, movement, creativity, relationships).
Supporting Your Adrenals With Nutrition
If stress tends to get the better of you, what you eat can help. Focus on eating a diet full of vegetables and healthy fats, and low in stimulants like sugar and caffeine.
Supplements That Support The Adrenals
Certain natural supplements may help as well, such as:
Curcumin, the active element in Turmeric, is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties, but has also been researched for its ability to support mood and depression.
Licorice has been studied for its role in helping to regulate cortisol and improve energy levels. It’s important to note that licorice can increase blood pressure, so it should not be taken if yours is already high or you take blood pressure medication.
Often taken for its role in supporting a healthy immune system, low levels of vitamin D have been linked to the overproduction of cortisol.
Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb which has been shown to lower cortisol levels when taken twice a day. Make sure that the tea, tincture or capsule you chose specifies Rosea, as other types of Rhodiola may not have the same research backing.
Get to The Root Cause
These mindfulness-based strategies can help you bring your stress response back into balance – but the reasons why you are feeling reactive may run deeper. Remember all those hormones that the adrenal glands work so hard to produce?
Naturopathic Doctors specialising in hormonal balance, like myself, can run the right lab tests to check your hormone levels, and work with you to create a personalised adrenal fatigue treatment plan that will move you from a habitual stress response to a more relaxed frame of mind. We can also help you understand how to support your adrenal glands with the nutrients they need to promote your body’s ability to handle stress.
Time to get calm, strong, and capable of handling whatever problems your day, or the world, brings!