Tapped out? Let’s Talk Adrenals.

February 29th, 2016 by admin

Let’s talk about your adrenals…and mine!

Do you ever feel like you’ve been run over by a truck at end of the day, or even when you wake up in the morning? It’s no fun. I can absolutely identify. I was feeling pretty good before I had my second child. After all, I had had 13 years to recover after having my daughter, and I was much younger when I had her, too. She also slept very well after the first two weeks. My son, on the other hand, did not sleep for the first 17 months. To tell you the truth, I’m just now getting to where I feel like myself again, and he’s 31 months. One of the reasons why I am feeling like myself again is because I’m on an adrenal support protocol, which involves anti-inflammatory eating, some key supplements, a mindset shift that I’m constantly working to grow and maintain, setting boundaries and more “me” time in nature.

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When I collected my BioHealth Functional Adrenal Stress Profile in December, I was actually convinced that my results would be totally normal. In fact, that’s why I had put it off for so long. Plus, feeling fatigued and under-motivated had become my normal. I didn’t realize just how tired I often was (although thinking back on it, I was exhausted!). I thought it was normal to not want to answer phone calls or return them. I thought it was normal to just want to stay home most of the time. When my results did come back, I was shocked to find that I was in Stage 3 Adrenal Dysfunction. That can sound scary and terminal, but Stage 3 adrenal dysfunction is totally fixable, and we will get into the specifics of that next week. Today, let’s cover some basic info. Also, here are my test results:

You can see that my cortisol levels were very low in the morning, noon and afternoon, and just slightly low at night (when they’re supposed to be at their lowest). Cortisol levels start off at their highest and taper off throughout the day. Cortisol is a stress hormone that most people think of as bad, because when your levels are high, it can cause you to store more fat around your mid-section and make it tough for you to lose weight; but you actually need cortisol to get you going first thing in the morning and to sustain your energy throughout the day. At night, cortisol tapers off and melatonin levels rise, so you can get good sleep.

You also need cortisol to stimulate your “fight or flight” stress response in acute and dangerous situations or physical trauma. The problem for most of us in our busy society, is that we are constantly in fight or flight mode, due to the stress and anxiety we generate from over-committing ourselves, being over-achievers and rarely slowing down. We need more time in “rest and digest” mode than we give ourselves, and this is a key aspect of any adrenal support protocol.

So, how did my cortisol levels get so low? Well, first, my cortisol levels had to be high for a while, due to high stress levels. For me, that looked like not getting enough sleep for an extended period of time, on top of being a mom, a wife and trying to run and grow my own business from scratch.

In general, here are some primary components of lifestyle that can lead up to adrenal fatigue:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor food choices
  • Using food and drinks as stimulants when tired
  • Staying up late even though fatigued
  • Being constantly in a position of powerlessness
  • Constantly driving yourself
  • Trying to be perfect
  • Staying in no-win situations over time
  • Lack of enjoyable and rejuvenating activities

Here’s a sample where you can see elevated cortisol levels in both the morning and the evening, but low at noon and in the afternoon. This person was at Stage 2 and on the verge of Stage 3 Adrenal Dysfunction. Part of the issue here, we uncovered by running a GI Pathogen Screen, which showed some dysbiosis–overgrown microbes in the gut, which was causing gut and systemic inflammation, as well as hogging up nutrients. This client also had been tested by his doctor for an array infections and had come up positive for mycoplasma, a tricky bug to find and get rid of (aka: a stealth infection). Mycoplasma is implicated as a common root cause of many autoimmune diseases, and this client did show some evidence of autoimmunity in other lab testing. Most conventional doctors would recommend a round antibiotics for mycoplasma, which won’t even touch this bug,  AND will just serve to compromise gut and total health. This client opted to do a natural protocol with a very astute Doctor of Oriental Medicine here in Albuquerque, Dr. Heather Jones, and it’s going well. (Update: I’ve since begun to implement natural therapies stealth infections in my practice. ) He also went through the Autoimmune Protocol elimination diet and gut healing protocol with me, and his symptom score, even before treating his adrenals and the mycoplasma, reduced from 131 to 72. That was just after 2 weeks on his initial diet and supplement protocol!

This client’s morning and evening cortisol levels were most likely elevated due to the mycoplasma and GI infections, which are more active at night. It’s important to note that it’s not just emotional stress that causes cortisol levels to soar. Physiological stress from infections and systemic inflammation raise cortisol levels as well.

Cortisol levels become low when we’ve been pumping out excessive amounts of it over an extended period of time. Eventually, we run out of reserves, and our levels become low. That’s when we start to feel not just overwhelmed, but truly depleted. That’s what happened to me when I lost out on 17 months of restful sleep. It’s really important to me to heal my adrenals (the grape-sized glands that sit atop the kidneys, which produce our stress hormones, like cortisol), because they are the key to resiliency,longevity and vitality. Healthy adrenals and healthy levels of cortisol and other hormones determine how well and how fast (if at all), you will recover from injuries and emotional or physical trauma.

A quick word about other hormones affected by adrenal dysfunction. All hormones are made from the same “mother” substance, pregnenalone, which is made from cholesterol. When we make lots of cortisol due to high stress (remember, both psychological AND physiological stress) and run out of reserves, our bodies preferentially use pregenalone to make cortisol. So, not only are we not able to make enough cortisol, we are also unable to make enough of our other hormones, like progesterone, estrogen and testosterone. Thyroid hormone levels dip as well, further impacting our energy levels and cellular metabolism. This is called the cortisol or pregnenalone steal, and it has wide-reaching effects on all aspects of our being.

If you lead a high-stress life (who doesn’t these days?), have a chronic illness or autoimmune disease, have an underactive thyroid, have digestive issues, get totally taken out by common colds and flus on the regular, have injuries that just won’t heal, are a people pleaser, have low sex drive, struggle with infertility or irregular cycles, or feel like you’re walking in lead boots most days, I highly recommend you get your adrenals checked.

It’s important to check morning, noon, afternoon and nighttime levels to establish your cortisol rhythm. Some practitioners only test one or two levels, which doesn’t give us enough information to go on for staging and developing an appropriate supplement protocol. The test I run measures salivary cortisol levels, which is the best way to measure cortisol. We also look at reproductive hormones and melatonin, in order to see how all of these and your cortisol are playing together.

Adrenals are a big piece of the puzzle that often go unchecked. After all, conventional medicine does not even recognize adrenal dysfunction as a real issue. Your conventional doc likely only recognizes the most extreme cases of adrenal dysfunction, which are Addison’s Disease and Cushing’s Disease. Conventional medicine is mostly concerned with overt or acute situations, and it saves a lot of lives, but it does not address the more subtle and very real, core imbalances that lead up to full-blown disease states. Ancient, Integrative and Functional Medicine approaches fill in the wide gap that conventional medicine leaves, covering fine-tuning, prevention and the creation and restoration of positive vitality and resiliency. Sure, your doctor may say you’re “fine” when they don’t know what to do with your symptoms, but if you don’t feel GREAT, please know that it’s not all in your head, and there’s a lot more quality of life available to you.
As you know, I only work with new clients in in committed programs of no less than 4 months, so that we can both commit ourselves to looking at and addressing your health in a very holistic and effective way, and then continue on a maintenance plan after that.  If you aren’t up for the commitment of working with me, I absolutely encourage to find a practitioner who will assess your adrenals for you in the way I described above. I also suggest you make sure that their treatment plan will include not just supplements, but intensive lifestyle, behavioral and mindset changes as well. In order to heal your adrenals for real, your approach has to be multi-dimensional and comprehensive.

By the way, make sure you work with a practitioner who is willing to spend time with you, hear your story and get to know you, and will counsel and coach you in a very individualized way. A client recently told me that she chose me over a fancy Functional Medicine clinic because the proposed program only offered 15 minute visits. I was shocked. Functional Medicine is very much about spending more time with patients/clients. I offer a two-part intake and assessment, and then weekly 45 minute calls (or 90-minute bi-weekly calls), along with email and text support between sessions. And as you know, all of my sessions are conveniently over the phone or Zoom Video Conference, which means less time away from your core commitments and no traffic or parking!

I hope this has been useful to you.  Next week, I will talk more about the symptoms of adrenal dysfunction and what an adrenal protocol actually looks like, so I hope you’ll stay with me and watch your inbox for next week’s post.

Here’s to wellness BEYOND the status quo!

Health & Happiness,