Last week I talked about adrenal dysfunction, and I showed you my own Stage 3 adrenal dysfunction (Update: I personally no longer use the term, “Adrenal Fatigue”, and have replaced it with “Adrenal Dysfunction”) test results. Now I’m going to expand on how adrenal dysfunction develops, the signs and symptoms and in general, how to reverse it with a adrenal support protocol. Read last week’s post here.
Adrenal Dysfunction happens when your adrenals decide to make far less of the stress hormone cortisol. This decision is the result of an extended period of high-stress levels and increased production of cortisol in response to that stress. Stressors which promote the elevated production of cortisol can be both emotional and physiological in nature, such as a major life changing event (i.e., marriage, death or illness of a loved one, injury or accident, birth of a child, new job, job loss, etc.), an infection (i.e., viral, bacterial, parasitic) or even inflammation caused by a compromised GI tract and food sensitivities, as well heightened inflammation related to an autoimmune disease. Your adrenal glands must respond to any type of stress, and over time, your adrenal glands can make an executive decision to protect you against your ongoing stressors, by making less cortisol.
Dr. James Wilson, author of Adrenal Fatigue, The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, provides some good perspective on how adrenal fatigue can happen: “Repeated stresses, no matter what their cause, make a person more prone to adrenal fatigue. The effects of stress are cumulative, even when the individual stressors are quite different. For example, you come down with a bronchial infection that has not quite cleared up when your father dies. Six months after your father’s death, someone younger and newer gets the job promotion you had been expecting, and within a month, you are injured in a car accident. The doctors are concerned at how long it is taking you to recover from the accident, and they are puzzled only because they do not recognize that this series of stressors, although seemingly unrelated, has gradually depleted your adrenal reserves. Each of these separate events, emotional and physical, is an insult to your body to which your adrenal glands have to respond. By the time the accident occurs, your adrenal glands have nothing left to give. Had the accident been the only stressor, you would probably recover quickly and without incident. “
You can see that it’s very important to be aware of and take care of your adrenals during and after major stressors and traumatic events. Are you headed down the path to adrenal dysfunction, or are you already there?
Some examples of lifestyles leading to adrenal dysfunction are the following:college student, mother with 2 or more children and little support from family or friends, single parent, unhappy marriage, extremely unhappy/stressful work conditions, self-employed with a new or struggling business, drug/alcohol abuser, alternating shift work that requires sleep patterns to be frequently adjusted, all work and little play.
Some examples of life events leading to adrenal dysfunction include the following: unrelieved pressure or frequent crises at work and/or at home, death of a close friend of family member, major surgery with incomplete recovery or subsequent persistent fatigue, prolonged or repeated respiratory infections, serious burns (including severe sunburn), head trauma, loss of stable job, sudden change in financial status, relocation without support of family or friends, repeated or overwhelming chemical exposure (include drug and alcohol abuse).
Besides emotional and physical stressors, diet plays a role in your ability to respond to stress. If you commonly eat fast or pre-prepared/packaged food, you are missing out on the nutrients needed by your adrenal glands to make the proper amounts of hormones. Considering how much pre-packaged food “crazy busy” Americans eat and that 62% do not even eat one serving of vegetable per day, it’s not far-fetched to surmise that the majority of Americans are at risk for adrenal fatigue due to nutrient insufficiencies. Even if you do eat well, if you have digestive and absorption issues, you are still at risk. This is why in Functional Medicine, we always address the gut, no matter what form of dis-ease a person is struggling with. In order to heal (and prevent), all cells, tissues and organs must have optimal nutrient reserves. Always look to the gut first. The adrenals are a very close second and must be addressed simultaneously.
If you are experiencing 3 or more of the following symptoms, you very likely have adrenal dysfunction:
- Difficulty getting up in the morning with multiple “snoozes”.
- Continual fatigue not relieved by sleep. Even when you get a good night’s sleep, you wake up feeling exhausted.
- Craving salt or salty foods. Do you find yourself eating whole bags of chips or adding salt to already salty foods?
- Lethargy (lack of energy). Everything you do feels like a chore, even the things you normally would enjoy.
- Increased effort to do everyday tasks. Everything seems to require ten times as much effort as it should.
- Decreased sex drive. Your hottest celebrity crush could proposition you, and you’d ask for a rain check. You just don’t have the energy for it.
- Decreased ability to handle stress. The little things really get to you these days. Road rage, constant anxiety, yelling at your kids, and compulsive eating, smoking or drug use let you know your adrenals are screaming for help.
- Increased recovery time from illness, injury or trauma. The cold you got in November is still hanging around in December. The cut on your hand takes two weeks to heal. Two years after your mother died you are still incapacitated by grief.
- Light-headed when standing up quickly. Sometimes you feel like you are going to pass out when you get up from sitting or lying down.
- Mild depression. Why bother making an effort when it all seems so pointless?
- Less enjoyment or happiness with life. Work and relationships feel empty, and you almost never do anything for fun.
- Increased PMS (bloating, tired, crabby, cramping and craving chocolate) when it’s your time of the month.
- You have to drive yourself with snacks, colas and coffee just to keep from collapsing. You easily get a low blood sugar (energy crash/headache) if you go more than a few hours without eating.
- Your thinking is cloudy. You frequently lose your train of thought, and it’s harder to make decisions, even about small things like what to wear.
- You are forgetful and absent-minded.
- You feel better after your evening meal.
- You don’t really feel awake until 10 am.
- You get an afternoon low between 3 and 4 pm.
- Low productivity. It takes you longer to complete tasks and it’s harder to stay on task.
If you think you have adrenal dysfunction, it’s best to get tested to establish your cortisol rhythm throughout the day, which I discussed last week.
Based on your test results, your integrative practitioner can develop a supplement protocol for you. At any stage, adaptogenic herbal formulas, which help to safely balance your stress response, should be used. Some examples of adaptogenic herbs, which are non-toxic and non-habit forming are, Eleuthero Root, Rhodiola, Schisandra or Holy Basil. Adrenal cortex tissue is also helpful in nourishing the adrenal glands and is commonly found along with adaptogenic herbs in adrenal support formulas. The bioidentical hormone pregnenalone is often used for those with low cortisol levels, and dosing is timed to help raise cortisol levels at times when it is known to be low, based on your test results. Pregnenalone is used to make cortisol. When your cortisol levels are low, supplementing with pregnenalone as a bioidential hormone (rather than synthetic) is a safe way to balance not only cortisol, but other hormone levels that may be suffering as well. Those with low testosterone may benefit from bioidential DHEA, another hormone precursor; however, if you have a history of acne or estrogen-related issues, this one is not for you. It’s very important to understand that even though you can access bioidential hormones on your own, you should not treat yourself. You need to work with someone who is knowledgeable. Licorice root extract is another very common adrenal support supplement. It is used to help raise low cortisol levels during the day and therefore can help with energy levels.
It is very important to eat an anti-inflammatory and nutrient-rich diet.Additionally, you’ll do well to supplement with a high-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement.
If you have read my Enlightened Wellness Guide to Healing Heartburn Holistically (a free download on my homepage), you know that I recommend a very thorough elimination diet to help figure out your individualized anti-inflammatory diet AND heal your gut. If you’re working with me, we’ll do a gut healing elimination diet and supplement protocol to get your gut and nutrient absorption in order. We’ll also run a GI Pathogen Screen to identify and treat any gut pathogens. Addressing gut inflammation is paramount to healing your adrenals.
As important as diet and supplements are, and there’s more to it than what I can cover in this post, lifestyle and mindset are the keys. Change your diet and supplement all you want, but if you don’t start taking time to connect with who you truly are outside of the daily rat race, connecting with nature and prioritizing your own self-care (which means learning how to say no to others AND leaving work at work), you’ll stay where you are. You won’t feel much better.
Here are some of my favorite ways to help manage stress and nourish the soul during the week. Make sure you do at least one of these every day.
- Epsom salt baths. These are a great way to relieve stress and relax at the end of the day, as well as to get some topical absorption of magnesium and sulfur. Add 2 cups of Epsom salt, several drops of your favorite soothing essential oil (lavender, ylang ylang or geranium) and ½ cup of baking soda. Soak for 20-30 minutes. You can also convert this to a foot bath if mermaiding (or mermanning) isn’t your thing. Do this at least 3 times a week.
- Watch the sunset or sunrise.
- Moon and star gaze.
- Go for a walk in nature or even just around the block.
- Get a massage—even if it’s just a 20 minute chair massage when you’re out running errands!
- Do yoga, tai chi or qi gong.
- Meditate or spend some time deep breathing each day.
- Find a patch of grass to quietly walk barefoot in or sit on for several minutes.
- Shut off all devices and screens at least 1 hour before bed.
- Spend the last hour before bed with the lights dimmed and preferably using an amber light, such as from a Himalayan salt lamp.
Notice anything about all of the above? All of these options remove you from busy tasks, deadlines and social stimulation. They offer an opportunity to get quiet and cultivate a deeper connection to yourself and to all that it is. Losing this connection, or at least the depth of it, is a major root cause of adrenal fatigue.
If you have adrenal dysfunction, understand that this is your body and spirit’s way of calling you back to your authentic nature of connectedness, joy and self-love. Remember that if you are going to take care of others well, you must first care for yourself well. If you want to save the world, you must first save yourself.
I hope this has been helpful to you. Please reach out if you have questions, either by responding to this email or via social media!
Here’s to wellness BEYOND the status quo!
Health & Happiness,