We hear a lot these days about adrenal insufficiency and adrenal fatigue, but what exactly are the adrenals, and how do they affect our day-to-day health? The adrenal glands regulate a number of hormones, including the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol isn’t a bad thing — and stress itself isn’t necessarily bad either. Imagine the first day of your dream job. You’re likely to be nervous, which can cause stress, but it’s a good kind of stress.
However, if you’re experiencing chronic stress, your adrenals are forced to constantly pump out cortisol. This can lead to adrenal fatigue, which can then create a cascade of other health issues. Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include fatigue, body aches, low blood pressure, lightheadedness and more.
So what can we do to avoid or help address adrenal fatigue? Here are a few tips.
1. Reduce emotional stress
The stress that leads to adrenal fatigue can come from a variety of sources and is often related to emotional challenges we’re experiencing. We don’t often hear about the physical health implications of our emotional lives. Instead, we live in a culture where we’re basically told to suck it up and get on with our day-to-day routines, and we tend to downplay the impact that our emotional state can have on our health. Yet, this is illogical because we know that stress can negatively affect our health.
If you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one, or relationship challenges, for example, these are forms of stress that are always there. And emotional stress leads to the release of cortisol, just the same as if you’re being chased by a bear. To the adrenals, stress is stress, and it all affects our hormones. So addressing it is critical, whether it’s through therapy, meditation or just talking out your issues with anyone else involved.
2. Find your joy
Along similar lines, many people experience chronic stress due at least in part to the rigors of the “daily grind.” First, you get up and rush to work, where you may or may not experience genuine professional or creative satisfaction. Then after work, you run errands or care for your kids, then finally fall into bed exhausted only to do the same thing all over again the next day.
If this sounds familiar, ask yourself — where’s the joy? How often do you take the time to do something just because it makes you happy? If you’re feeling burned out, this could be a contributing factor. Try to carve out a little time each week just for yourself and do something that’s fun. Find something that helps you relax and de-stress.
3. Cut down on carbs
Eating low-quality, refined carbs can disrupt a group of blood pressure-stabilizing hormones called corticosteroids. Refined carbs, as you’ve probably heard, can destabilize your blood sugar, causing spikes and drops. When you eat a food like chocolate cake, for example, your body releases insulin. But the release of excess insulin can cause your blood sugar to drop below a comfortable level. At this point, your adrenals release cortisol to help bring your blood sugar back up to normal. If your adrenals are constantly needing to release cortisol in this way, it can become very taxing over time. That’s not to say that you should never eat refined carbs. Becoming overly dogmatic about any dietary principle is a recipe for self-sabotage — just do it in moderation.
4. Eat fermented foods
Cortisol has an important role in controlling the immune response in your gut. Under healthy conditions, there will be an appropriate amount of probiotics (“good bacteria”) present. But if you’re chronically stressed, your gut tissue can become damaged and “bad” bacteria can start to outnumber “good.” This can lead to a range of health concerns, but eating fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut — which contain probiotics — can help return your gut flora to normal.
5. Reduce inflammation
Inflammation is one of the culprits behind a whole host of diseases and health conditions. This is because it puts stress on your body, including your adrenals. Your diet can play an important role in reducing chronic inflammation. Cut out processed foods and refined sugars as much as possible. Add in fresh produce and green juices, and try to transition to a mostly plant-based diet. These foods will not contribute to inflammation. In fact, they contain the phytochemicals and antioxidants needed to heal the conditions caused by inflammation.
If you believe you are experiencing adrenal fatigue, it is important to consult with a medical professional. Severe adrenal insufficiency can lead to conditions like Addison’s disease or Cushing’s disease (though these are generally rare). In the meantime, however, you can start addressing any concerns you may have by implementing the suggestions listed above.
— Sarah Cooke