Thursday, March 10, 2011

Chronic Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

We're going to talk today about chronic stress (an increasingly common complaint of people across the globe) and 'Adrenal Fatigue.'

What, exactly, is Adrenal Fatigue, you ask? Or even, what the heck are adrenals?

Well, you might notice that 'adrenal' sounds suspiciously like 'adrenaline' – and you would be exactly right.

So, what do adrenals do? Why are they important? And why does it matter if they become fatigued? How the heck do they get fatigued in the first place?!?

First things first….

  • What are Adrenals, and why should I care?
  • How do I know if I my adrenals are fatigued?
  • What causes Adrenal Fatigue, and what can I do to fix the problem?
Why are my Adrenals important?

Hormones are the 'keys' that fit into 'locks', or receptors, in our cells - and tell them to do certain things. Simply put, they are chemical signals produced by an organ that is sent to other organs and tissues, causing an effect in those organs or tissues. Hormones help the body to maintain its balance, and without them, we would not function!

For example, insulin is a hormone. It is needed to move sugar from our blood into our cells, as sugar is the 'gas' that fuels our body. When our insulin production is not regulated properly, our bodies cannot maintain a balance – and our bodies either become hypo-glycemic or hyper-glycemic (too little sugar or too much sugar). Both conditions cause serious symptoms and can lead to death in a matter of hours if not corrected. So, it stands to reason that maintaining normal blood sugar levels – and therefore healthy insulin production – is pretty important, right?

The same holds true for our adrenals. Our adrenal glands are responsible for the production of Epinephrine, Norepinephrine, Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), Aldosterone, and Cortisol. Phew! That's a mouthful! What the heck are those, and what do they do, you ask? Here's a breakdown:

  • Epinephrine is more commonly known as Adrenaline. Adrenaline is our body's "Fight-or-flight" hormone, and causes changes in our metabolism and nearly all our body's systems. It is what prepares our body to survive a battle, what allows a mother to lift a car off her trapped child, and the 'rush' we feel when engaging in potentially life-threatening activities (like bungee jumping or public speaking). 
  • Adrenaline increases your heart rate and blood pressure, raises blood glucose, and opens your airways. If you have ever had (or witnessed) a severe allergic reaction, an 'Epi-pen' is simply an injection of Epinephrine.
  • Norepinephrine is another 'stress hormone,' acting in similar ways to Epinephrine. It specifically affects parts of your brain responsible for attention and responding actions. When Norepinephrine is released, it increases your heart rate and triggers the release of glucose from your body's energy stores, increases blood flow to your muscles, and acts as a neurotransmitter – improving your ability to think clearly and quickly.
  • DHEA is a steroid that is not completely understood. It plays a significant role in the immune and stress response, improving memory and mood and enhancing mental performance. It is actually prohibited under the World Anti-Doping Code of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is the organization that manages drug testing for Olympics and professional sports!
  • Aldosterone regulates the exchange of sodium and potassium in the blood, regulating blood pressure.
  • Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory steroid, also known as hydrocortisone. It is another stress hormone, helping to restore balance after stress. Cortisol acts primarily to increase blood sugar, suppress the immune system, and assist with the metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrates. It also counteracts insulin, which can contribute to hypoglycemia or diabetes symptoms. Changes in cortisol levels are associated with depression, illness, trauma, fear, pain, and other extremes. Additionally, high levels of cortisol lead to collagen loss in the skin (think wrinkles), increased gastric acid secretion (heartburn, anyone?), lowered bone formation ability (aiding the development of Osteporosis), impaired learning ability, the shutting down of your reproductive system (infertility), increased appetite (a factor leading to obesity), and a weakened immune system. Every person has their own rhythm of natural cortisol production.

Wow! Them there are some potent drugs. Our bodies have fantastic self-regulating systems, and the hormones our adrenals produce in reponse to stress are one of the most observable reactions! HOWEVER, are bodies are not meant to express these hormones continuously. If our adrenals were a tool to use, they would be in a box on the wall labeled "For Emergency Use Only". They have a limited capacity, and a long recharge time! If we overuse them, pretty soon they get totally tapped out and exhausted – and our bodies get sick from the emergency drugs they keep throwing at us! This is where Adrenal Fatigue comes into play, and where we start to become aware of an unhealthy cycle our society is prone to encouraging…

What Is Adrenal Fatigue?

First of all, let me acknowledge that Adrenal Fatigue is not recognized by most western medical practitioners as a 'valid' disease. It is incredibly difficult to diagnose with blood tests and other measurable methods, and therefore not often acknowledged as 'real'. That being said, people who have experience with it – as well as a growing number of both traditional and holistic health care providers – acknowledge that Adrenal Fatigue is a very real condition, and one that should not be taken lightly.

Adrenal Fatigue occurs when our adrenal glands become exhausted from the continuous producton of stress hormones, and become unable to effectively regulate those chemicals. This can be caused by one massively stressful situation (physical or emotional) or, perhaps more commonly, by chronic stress. Sustained anger, poor diet, and regular caffeine consumption are also major contributing factors. It typically is a slow-onset condition, meaning you gradually feel more and more tired, stressed, worn out, etc. – until you reach the point that you are no longer functioning adequately! Many people live their lives in this state of being, assuming the way they feel is normal for someone with a busy life and many demands and stressors. Eventually, greater health problems can develop – such as heart disease, fibromyalgia, immune disorders, osteoporosis, and other conditions.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue

Some symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:

  • Excessive fatigue and exhaustion; a feeling of being 'rundown'
  • Extreme sensitivity to cold
  • Non-refreshing sleep (even when you get enough hours, you wake feeling tired)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Lack of ability to cope with stress
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Difficulty concentrating or 'brain fog'
  • Anxiety or depression; feeling 'on the edge'
  • Low stamina
  • Slow recovery from exercise, illness, injury or stress
  • Digestive complaints
  • Heartburn
  • Systemic inflammation
  • Compromised (low) immune function
  • Allergies
  • Craving for sweet or salty foods coffee, or other 'pick-me-ups'

How Can I Fix Adrenal Fatigue?

First of all, THIS IS NOT A QUICK FIX. You cannot take a pill, or go on a diet, or drink a magical drink that will suddenly fix everything. Your body is out of balance, and you need to take some long-term steps to correct this imbalance. Areas of your lifestyle that will need adjustment include:

  • Lowering your stress level
  • Changing your sleep habits
  • Adjusting your diet
  • Avoiding caffeine
  • Introducing regular exercise
  • Nutritional and herbal supplementation
Managing Your Stress Level

A few ways you can help to healthily manage your stress are:

  • Avoid stressors if possible
  • Express your feelings in healthy ways
  • Learn time management skills
  • Focus on the positive
  • Create time to consciously relax or meditate
  • Do things that create joy in your life
  • Adopt healthy lifestyle habits

Healthy Sleeping Habits

Getting enough sleep is incredibly important to maintaining optimal health. Many of us, especially if we are experiencing high levels of stress, have difficulty sleeping. A few things that can help are:

  • Go to sleep before 10pm – before you get your 'second wind' at around 11!
  • Maintain a regular bedtime, so your body adjusts to a regular sleep cycle
  • Keep a journal, and unload your thoughts and worries before bed or make a to-do list for the next day
  • Avoid sleep medications if possible; instead, use herbal sleep aids such as valerian, hops or chamomile
  • Exercise daily to physically tire your body out and encourage restful sleep

Healthy Diet

Probably the number one contributing factor to all health problems, and a huge contributing factor in Adrenal Fatigue, is diet. Really, this topic needs an entire post of its own, but I'll start with a few simple tips for you:

  • Stay away from sugar! Refined sugar (sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, brown sugar, etc.) acts as a poison to our bodies, and causes all sorts of issues
  • Avoid refined starches, choosing whole grains whenever possible (brown vs. white rice, whole wheat vs. white, etc.)
  • Eat lots of veggies and fruits, the fresher the better
  • Keep your blood sugar balanced – eat healthy snacks between meals
  • AVOID CAFFEINE!! Coffee is bad. #1 most horrible thing you can do to your body if you have issues with adrenal fatigue.
  • #1 GOOD thing you can do for your body is to drink enough water. Most of us do not consume sufficient quantities; an easy way to remember is by filling two 32-oz bottles and making sure to drink them both over the course of the day.

Avoid Caffeine

Did I mention that coffee is horrifically bad for you as an everyday beverage? Caffeine 'wakes you up' by throwing your body into the fight-or-flight response; that is, by stimulating your adrenals. Rather than coffee (in order from worst to best for you), other less stimulating beverage options are black tea, green tea, yerba mate and herbal teas. Both black and green tea have antioxidants and a small amount of caffeine, and yerba mate is very mildly caffeinated but actually quite good for you.

Another food that can help boost your energy levels is a lovely berry from Brazil called Acai (ah-sigh-ee). It is typically made into drinks or smoothies, and gives you a gentle, healthy boost without caffeine's unhealthy side effects or letdown.

There are several herbal supplements that are marketed to increase energy – ginseng, taurine, guarana, and others. They are certainly effective for many people, but there is some debate as to whether regular use of many of them is detrimental to your health.

Exercise is Important

Our bodies were not designed to sit idle. It may be hard to get started, but exercising regularly will give you more energy ultimately. Start out slow, even 10 minutes per day – and it doesn't need to be aerobics or weightlifting! A few lower-key options are:

  • Yoga
  • Tai chi (and other more intensive martial arts)
  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Pilates
  • … and anything else that you enjoy and gets your muscles moving and heart pumping!

Nutritional and Herbal Supplements

There are a number of supplements that can be extremely beneficial – but no two people are the same. Start with one supplement, let your body adjust (and see how you feel after a week or two), and then add others only after checking about any potential interactions. Some things you may want to include are:

  • Vitamins!! It is very important, especially for the average American (with the average American diet), to find a multivitamin that works for you. There are many, many options – I advise you to avoid commercial drugstore brands and check with your local health food store for more complete and holistic options.
  • Acidophilus – crucial if you have ever taken antibiotics; it helps to replenish the beneficial flora in your gut, which can help everything from digestion to immune function.
  • Digestive enzymes – also helpful if you have any sort of digestive issue or if you eat an imbalanced diet.
  • Adaptogens – a class of herbs that actually help your body respond better to stress, anxiety and fatigue. Some of the more widely acclaimed herbs include Rhodiola, Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng), Astragalus, Maca, Tulsi (Holy basil), Ashwaganhda, Ginseng, Reishi mushroom, and Noni fruit. My favorite is Rhodiola, and I take it regularly when the stress in my world gets to be too much or I cannot manage my fatigue levels. I also take Astragalus on occasion, and like to add the root to nutritive soups and stews (adaptogens also tend to be powerful immune boosters).
  • JuicePlus – I know people who swear by this; personally, I would prefer to eat the fruits and veggies, but this is a good Plan B!
  • Spirulina – algae of the lovely blue-green variety; incredibly rich in protein and trace nutrients and minerals, I notice a huge difference in energy level and clarity of though when I include this in my diet. If you're weird like me, you might enjoy sprinkling it on everything you eat (including popcorn, along with nutritional yeast) – but if not, they do sell it in handy-dandy capsule form.

If you can pick just one thing from one of those lists to start with, you will have taken the first step. Recovering from adrenal fatigue is not quick, and it's not easy – but it will never improve if you don't change your lifestyle habits. Take them one at a time, and as you begin to feel healthier and happier, I imagine you may find it easier and easier to do. After all, we create our own realities. How good do you want to feel?

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should not use the information on this page for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this site.

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