Chronic stress is a problem. Not only can unchecked stress contribute to leaky gut, heart disease and autoimmune disorders, it can also play a leading role in adrenal dysfunction. Adrenal fatigue not only affects energy levels, but may put the breaks on metabolism, mood and more.
What is Adrenal Fatigue and HPA Axis Dysfunction?
Adrenal fatigue refers to a state of dysfunction in the HPA axis. The hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenals orchestrate the body’s appropriate response to stress. Besides making sure you have the energy you need to run away from a tiger or to just get through another Monday, the adrenals help regulate blood sugar, electrolyte balance and blood pressure.
Cortisol and adrenal function
The adrenal gland produces cortisol. Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol is what produces the “fight-or-flight” reaction. Normally, this is a short response with a quick recovery. However, increased stress can prevent a full recovery. This stress could be external or internal. Cortisol can be released in response to a bad day at the office as well as eating a high inflammatory diet.
How Adrenal and Thyroid Glands Work Together
The adrenal and thyroid glands work synergistically. Think about two yoked oxen moving as a team. The function of one relies on the other. Sometimes when addressing thyroid dysfunction, adrenal health must be optimized first. Someone with hypothyroidism and adrenal issues may feel worse when beginning thyroid hormone replacement therapy if adrenals are optimized as well.
Signs your Adrenals May Need Support
There are many symptoms of adrenal dysfunction. These may include a decrease in energy, an increase in cravings for salt or sugar, allergies and changes to mood. Take the adrenal fatigue quiz here.
Addressing Adrenal Dysfunction
When addressing adrenal fatigue and HPA axis dysfunction, it’s important to look at the root cause. Finding out the “why” behind your stress load is paramount.
Getting to the root cause of adrenal dysfunction
Here are some key underlying causes of adrenal dysfunction:
Physiological stresses like poor sleep and inflammatory foods
Relationship stresses such as a job change or relational tensions
Nutritional deficiencies in vitamin B, C, E, zinc or magnesium
Toxic exposures from air or food such as glyphosate or mold
Chronic infections such as Epstein Barr virus, tick-borne illness, parasitic or fungal infections
In addition to these, too much of a stimulant can be a problem, as well. Coffee in itself isn’t bad. In fact, it’s a source of antioxidants. However, too much coffee might tax your adrenals if they’re already in a weakened state. In the same way, caution may need to be taken with strenuous exercise, alcohol consumption and any stimulant.
Testing for adrenal dysfunction
The gold standard for cortisol testing is done through saliva collection, four times throughout the day. (ZRT Laboratory offers reliable cortisol testing. Kits may be purchased in our office.) Serum labs can also be used. Blood tests that might shed light on adrenal function could include cortisol, DHEA, Free T3 and a complete blood count panel.
Treating adrenal dysfunction
Cortisol levels should be higher in the morning and slope down to a lower, health-supporting level at night. High nighttime cortisol levels may make it difficult to fall asleep. Low morning cortisol may make it hard to get out of bed.
Specific supplements may help adrenal function:
Vitamins and nutrients: vitamins C, E, B complex, selenium, zinc, magnesium
Adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, ginseng and eleuthero
Omega 3’s to assist with stress-induced inflammation
These supplements provide the building blocks that make up adrenal hormones.
Pregnenolone, the precursor to cortisol, can sometimes be used to boost cortisol production and reduce feelings of fatigue.
What are adaptogens?
Adaptogenic herbs help regulate cortisol production, change the sensitivity of cells to stress hormones and may support the body in producing a healthier response to stress. They have been used for many years in ancient traditions. The beauty of an adaptogen is that whether cortisol is too high or too low, it can adapt accordingly and assist in bringing balance to the body.
Sometimes, if cortisol production is low, medication may be used. It’s important to understand the difference between a physiologic dose of Cortef (hydrocortisone) and the pharmacologic dose of steroids. When treating low cortisol levels, Cortef is prescribed in 5-10 mg tablets, given 2-3 times a day for a maximum dose of 15-20 mg each day. This dosage amount does not have the side effects of steroid therapy.
5 Habits for Adrenal Health
Optimizing adrenal function is 80% lifestyle and only 20% supplementation. Try these 5 habits to reduce stress and make adrenal health a priority.
1. Make getting restorative sleep your job.
If you’re going to recover from HPA axis dysfunction and restore adrenal health, sleep must come first on your to-do list. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night. However, know that the quality of that sleep counts. You may want to consider a sleep mask or black-out curtains. Keep work and clutter out of the bedroom. Avoid looking at computer and phone screens in the hour or two before bed. Try to be asleep by 10:00 p.m.
2. Prioritize positivity and humor.
Every day, make a point to prioritize doing something you love and finding moments of self care. Take a walk, schedule a massage or facial, read a good book. Craft a gratitude practice. Focusing on the positive elements of life instead of the negative can benefit overall health. Laughter can have a positive effect on cortisol levels. Find ways to bring humor into each day whether it’s the comics, a show or a funny story with friends.
3. Opt for gentle exercise.
If you’re recovering from adrenal issues, think about swapping high intensity training and running for restorative movement like yoga, walking, stretching and swimming.
4. Cut the stress.
While it’s easier said than done, stress-reduction is huge to adrenal health. Mindfulness meditation or prayer, diaphragmatic or deep belly breathing, Healing Touch therapy and other stress management strategies are needed.
5. Check your diet.
A low inflammatory diet is a must. Our nurse health coach assists in figuring out the how of diet and lifestyle changes that support adrenal health.
Eating and Hydration for Adrenal Fatigue
A low inflammatory diet is key to optimizing adrenal function. Avoid junk food, processed food and sugar. Also, it’s important to avoid any food sensitivity triggers and maintain proper hydration. Electrolyte balance is important, as well.
Here are some additional tips for using food to support the adrenal glands.
Look at meal timing
Since the body’s glycogen stores will need to be replenished after sleep each night, breakfast timing may be important for someone with adrenal dysfunction. See how you feel eating breakfast within an hour or so after waking. Think of incorporating healthy fats and protein at breakfast. A scramble of eggs or turkey with veggies can better support blood sugar than carb-heavy jam and toast or cereal. Shifting the consumption of complex starchy foods like sweet potatoes and brown rice to the evening may help lower evening cortisol levels and assist you in getting a good night’s sleep.
Stimulants like coffee, tea and other caffeinated beverages have an effect on sleep.
The anti-inflammatory properties in the omega 3 fatty acids from fish can assist with adrenal health. Eat it a few times a week or look at a supplement such as Designs for Health OmegAvail Hi-Po.
Enjoy the right amount of fruits and vegetables
Avoid refined sugar and grains. Embrace a variety of vegetables, aiming for 5-7 servings a day. One serving is generally ½ cup of sliced vegetables or 1 cup of leafy green. Choose fruit with a lower glycemic load such as berries and apples. High sugar fruit and fruit juices can be an additional burden on the body when adrenal glands are already taxed.
Be mindful of potassium
Whether it’s from a banana, coconut water. plantain chips or an electrolyte powder, too much potassium may make those with adrenal issues feel worse, especially when taken in the morning. Those with adrenal dysfunction may find they lose sodium quickly. When looking at electrolyte powders, a ratio of 2:1 or 1:1 sodium and potassium may be beneficial.
Nutrient-rich foods for adrenal health
Key nutrients for adrenals include magnesium, zinc, and vitamins B, C, D, E. Consider these foods:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Chia seeds
- Leafy green vegetables
- Grass fed animal protein
Macronutrients to balance blood sugar
Including more healthy fats such as olive oil and avocados along with protein-rich foods at every meal and snack may help maintain blood sugar balance.
If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, consider a before bedtime snack containing protein and fat such as nuts.
Adrenal Health & Coaching
Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with eating and lifestyle changes you want to make to improve your adrenal health? Those that receive the guidance of a coach are more successful at implementing health-promoting strategies. Coaches help people figure out why of behavior change is important and assists in navigating challenges. See how meeting with our nurse health coach might help you.
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