Are you constantly on overdrive, overworking yourself in the office, trying to keep up with the kids’ extracurricular activities, all while keeping the house in order and making sure everyone is getting fed? You aren’t the only one! It seems like this has become the norm in our society.
While you may have accepted this, your adrenals won’t be going along with this arrangement for too long. Your adrenals respond to this nonstop daily stress you experience, and as a consequence, they get overworked and burned out – wreaking havoc all throughout your body.
When your adrenals are on overdrive, you most likely are dealing with some level of adrenal fatigue. Patients can be on any point of the spectrum, with Addison’s Disease being on the most fatigued side where 90% of your adrenal functions aren’t working properly. Even if you don’t have the most severe case which is an autoimmune disease, you may be experiencing adrenal fatigue. This can cause a slew of health issues, which is why it’s vital that we get to the bottom of your adrenal fatigue – your stress levels!
Stress can be caused by a number of factors including poor diet, lack of sleep, over-exercising, large workload, stimulants, emotional trauma, and lack of joy and excitement in your life.
When you are stressed (which is very easy in our society), your body enters into fight-or-flight mode. This is a good thing when you are in a dangerous situation, but more often than not, we are really stressing over unnecessary things. The issue occurs when we stay stressed day after day. This is called “chronic stress” and it can put your body into the fight or flight mode 24/7.
During this mode, your adrenal glands produce the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol increases your blood sugar, decreases digestion, suppresses your immune system, and breaks down proteins and carbohydrates for energy. All of this would be wonderful for your body and survival… if you were being chased by tigers or bears in the wild! In actuality, we are most likely in our safe house, causing ourselves mental stress.
At first, our bodies overproduce and flood our system with the cortisol hormone. Over time, it causes our adrenals to burn out and they can’t function properly. This prevents us from being able to have a healthy response to stress.
Many of my patients come to me with specific health issues or symptoms. While I am always searching for the root cause of those symptoms, a common underlying cause that often gets overlooked is stress. Stress can influence the way many of your bodily processes work.
Craving of sugar, salt, fats or carbs
Poor immune system
Gaining weight easily
Mood Changes ( more anxiety, anger, and irritability)
Many people don’t realize that when your adrenals are overworked, it can significantly affect the way vital systems work. Let’s take a look at how exactly stress and overworked adrenals can make you sick more often, cause stomach issues, and even cause long term damage to how your body responds to stress (as mentioned above).
When your body has an increase of cortisol, usually caused by stress in different ways, it suppresses your immune system. Evolution created this process to focus the body’s energy into more important functions like breaking down nutrients for energy and pumping sugar to your blood to help you “fight or flight” when faced with danger. When you experience stress on a daily basis, your body focuses on those stressors and the inflammation it causes.
When you are battling chronic inflammation, your body’s immune system is trying to keep up with that instead of fighting harmful toxins, viral infections, and bacteria. Your body produces pro-inflammatory cytokines during prolonged stress, which can further compromise the immune system. This is why you are more susceptible to getting sick when your adrenals are combating stress.
As stated above, when your adrenals are on overdrive, it puts digestion on the back burner. Chronic stress, which leads to your adrenal impairment, can suppress your appetite, salivary enzymes, stomach acid production, and even restrict blood flow to your digestive organs.
When you eat food, the first process of digesting food actually starts in your mouth. Enzymes in your saliva start breaking down that food. When you are feeling stressed out (stress eat much?), these enzymes are actually suppressed which reduces any kind of beneficial food breakdown.
Not only that, but your body also produces less stomach acid because it’s in that “fight or flight” mode, thinking its energy is going to be required elsewhere. This low stomach acid causes poor digestion. Instead of being broken down, food just sits in your stomach halting your body from receiving the food’s nutrients. This can even lead to bacteria build-up, including small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and dysbiosis.
Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction is common in patients who have adrenal fatigue. When our health is operating normally, our hypothalamus, pituitary glands, and our adrenals are communicating and sending signals to one another.
When you are under stress, your hypothalamus releases the corticotropin-releasing hormone which sends a message to your pituitary. This release signals the pituitary to produce ACTH, which then prompts your adrenals to make cortisol. Still with me?
Once your body produces enough of the cortisol it needs to respond to the stress, it tells your hypothalamus to halt the signals being sent out, halting any more cortisol production. (This process is known as a negative feedback loop).
The breakdown occurs when our adrenals become fatigued. The signals are sent from our hypothalamus to our pituitary and then from our pituitary to our adrenals. However, our adrenals have been so overworked that they become depleted. The adrenals can’t send out the needed hormones, like cortisol, and as a result, our bodies can’t react to stressful situations properly.
When cortisol levels are imbalanced, it can influence the levels of our other hormones like thyroid, estrogen, and progesterone, causing a number of other health issues including fatigue, infertility, migraines, and weight gain.
The good news is that since we know the common culprit of adrenal overdrive, aka stress, we can put our primary focus on learning how to manage that to help heal our adrenals.
Learn to Say ‘No’ to Unwanted Events: Don’t feel obligated to go to that party or extended family gathering if it just causes stress and anxiety.
Avoid High-Intensity Workouts: If you feel completely exhausted after a workout, try to cut back on the duration or intensity. Your body responds to this exercise as stress and starts signaling to make those stress hormones.
Participate in Low-Intensity Workouts: Instead, try practicing yoga, pilates, and/or walking. It’s important to still get exercise but don’t overdo it. Taking a walk in nature is a bonus since getting fresh air and sunshine can help reduce stress even more.
Focus on balancing your blood sugar through your diet. Eat frequent meals with protein and fat and unprocessed carbohydrates. Also, avoid overconsuming things like caffeine and alcohol that can disrupt blood sugar.
Adaptogenic Herbs and B vitamins: Both B vitamins and adaptogenic herbs are known to help the adrenals. Some of these herbs include Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Maca, Siberian Ginseng, and Holy Basil.
Get Enough Sleep: Your body needs time to reset and restore. Giving your body ample time for rest will allow your body to go through the proper sleep cycles that regulate and influence your hormone levels. Give yourself a routine and bedtime to make sure you aren’t staying up too late watching Netflix! And if you happen to be exposed to blue light at night, don’t forget your blue light blockers.
Focus on stress reduction. Whether this means getting a massage, meditating, praying, journaling, or getting in nature, do things that calm your mind, body, and spirit.
Many conventional doctors look past the importance of stress levels in your body. Since stress and adrenal fatigue usually show up as some other sort of symptom located elsewhere in the body, they focus on covering up those symptoms instead of getting to the root cause.
Healthcare providers that are trained in Functional Medicine know to look deeper. They recognize lifestyle factors like stress can be a major contributor to health issues and help you throughout your journey to heal.
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