Article at a Glance:
- 75% of all Americans have moderate to severe stress.
- When we are triggered by stress the lizard brain gets to take the wheel and it feels as though our logical, creative, and inspired brain has taken a vacation.
- “Adaptogen” is an herbal term referring to the ability of plant medicine to help us adapt to stress better.
- Things like meditation, reading a good book, going for a walk in nature, getting a massage, or taking a nap can help your body to recover from adrenal fatigue.
As we continue to navigate 2020 and head into the Fall, it is as important as ever to pause and reflect on the effects of this year on our health. How is it affecting your life and health? Have you noticed that your body is not functioning the same as it used to? Perhaps sleep is more troubled, moods more erratic, and patience wearing thin? I’ve heard more often than not that people are feeling lonely, worried, and are gaining weight. I’m here to help you understand what is going on and how to practice stress resilience!
My heart goes out to everyone affected by the pandemic, stay at home order, and the continued uncertainty that permeates our communities. I’m especially concerned about the parents who are working alternative schedules while juggling child care and the new school reality for their children. It is a lot! All this change takes its toll on the stress systems of the body. I see this every day in my office and want to talk about how to take good care of yourself to mitigate the effects of unrelenting stress.
I will go over the adrenals, cortisol, and adaptogenic herbs in this article. If you are struggling with the symptoms of adrenal fatigue and would like some individualized attention and support, please schedule with me here. It is a very reversible condition with the right guidance!
Adrenals, Stress, and Cortisol
The adrenal gland is part of your endocrine system, the system that makes and balances your hormones. Adrenals live on the top of your kidneys and have multiple functions, but today we are going to focus on the fact that they make cortisol. Cortisol, one of the primary signaling hormones for the stress response, is a key player in how our bodies adapt to and cope with stress.
If you do any research into the physiology of cortisol secretion by the adrenals, you will run into the HPA axis. This refers to the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis. These three glands work in a coordinated effort to ensure that your body adapts to stress. They send hormone messengers back and forth to let each other know to turn up or turn down the amount of cortisol made. For example, when Bambi is chilling and eating some grass there is not a lot of stress, but if a cougar surprises him his body goes into fight-or-flight. Cortisol and other hormones are made to signal the body to stop eating, digesting, or repairing because it is time to get the heck out of here! The focus of the body processes based on these hormone signals are aimed at running away to survive. Once the threat is over and Bambi survives, his body has an opportunity to slowly go back to a rest-and-digest mode - another set of hormones.
Our bodies are signaled by hormones to know what systems to power up and which to power down based on our immediate needs. When we are stressed, our bodies are not digesting well, or focusing on the repair of the body. High stress can even change how our brains and immune systems work. Cortisol is an important signaling hormone for your sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm. In this case, cortisol and melatonin work together to help signal when it is time to fall asleep and when it is time to wake up. Cortisol wakes you up in the morning and melatonin makes you sleepy at bedtime.
In our modern world many of us feel like a Bambi who is constantly running away from the cougar with no time for chilling or resting. Deadlines, childcare, work, and family obligations keep us running from sun-up to sun down. It is not valued in our current culture to take time to rest and enjoy the small blessings of life, but times are changing!
Cortisol Dysregulation and Adrenal Fatigue
Here are the stats before the pandemic, my estimation that we have exceeded these in 2020.
75% of all Americans have moderate to severe stress.
A full 25% experience severe stress.
At least 43% of all U.S. adults suffer adverse health effects due to stress. #1
In my experience, many people are so used to chronic stress in their lives that they don’t think it's abnormal. Once you begin to recognize the symptoms you are experiencing, the lightbulb will turn on. If you are dealing with chronic stress, you will begin to realize how it has taken a toll on your body. Many of the most popular reasons that bring clients into my office can be traced back to the effects of stress over time. So, what does stress do to make us unwell?
Let's get back to Bambi, the cougar, and cortisol. When Bambi is running, running, and running without any breaks this puts a lot of pressure on the adrenal glands to produce and continue producing cortisol. The body can adapt to a period of high stress for a while but at a certain point the pressure causes the adrenal glands to stop responding to HPA signaling the way they are supposed to.
There are many symptoms that correlate with HPA and cortisol dysregulation- showing up as overwhelm and then leading to burnout. The sensation is often described as feeling tired but wired at the same time. Those with dysregulation will sometimes have a hard time falling asleep while others seem to wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep again.
You can get salivary cortisol testing that will help you determine the exact way that stress has affected your cortisol levels. Just schedule with me to learn more about getting your adrenals tested.
Common Symptoms Associated with Adrenal Fatigue
I find that many of my patients assume the symptoms of adrenal fatigue or cortisol dysregulation are normal. This is because they have become accustomed to living with them for months or years. Here are some most common ways your body could be telling you that your stress response is struggling.
- Feeling stressed or overwhelmed
- Anxious or depressed
- Feeling pressured
- Feeling out of control of your life or moods
- Food cravings - especially sweets or salty foods
- Experiencing insomnia
- Decreased libido
- Blood sugar dysregulation
- Metabolic syndrome
- Gaining weight
- Afternoon fatigue
- Waking up feeling tired
- Catching a second wind in the evening and can’t sleep
- Waking at night and can’t get back to sleep
- Brain fog (unclear thinking)
Adrenals and Your Brain Power
Do any of these sound familiar? Can’t remember your grocery list, where you put your keys, or the time of your next meeting? Can’t seem to get that argument you had out of your mind. Can’t concentrate or focus to complete projects like you used to? Your brain is in a fog and your motivation has taken a nosedive?
When we are in fight-or-flight our body turns on our primitive brain or what I like to refer to as the “lizard brain”. We lose our ability to think with our higher functioning frontal cortex when the lizard brain is turned on. When we are triggered by stress the lizard brain gets to take the wheel and it feels as though our logical, creative, and inspired brain has taken a vacation. We can’t think straight, our short term memory is gone, and the ability to reason through a situation is gone.
"Changes in your brain due to the prolonged effects of cortisol make you more likely to cement and replay negative, worrisome, or distressing memories (this is how traumatic memories get stored and how post-traumatic stress disorder develops), while making it harder to learn and store new information." #2
The way out of this vicious cycle is to prioritize habits and behaviors that get your body in rest-and-digest mode. Things like meditation, reading a good book, going for a walk in nature, getting a massage, or taking a nap can help your body to recover from adrenal fatigue.
4 Steps to Renewing Healthy Adrenals!
Your body has the innate capacity to heal. When given the right conditions it is self-correcting and self-healing. We can use this to our advantage when recovering from chronic stress and getting adrenal function back on track. Self care is the foundation of how to encourage health back into an unwell body. Self care is something that must be prioritized, scheduled in, and needs consistency to get best results. Here are some habits you can begin to incorporate and improve over time to create stress resilience.
Get enough sleep. 7-8 hours is a good goal to set for yourself, especially if you are recovering from adrenal fatigue. Sleeping the same hours each night will help your circadian rhythm and cortisol signaling recover more quickly. You will also benefit from better sleep. Read 4 steps to better sleep hygiene here.
Cut back on caffeine. Caffeine is a strong alkaloid found in plants like coffee and tea. It is strong enough that I consider it a drug and it is very addictive. It also wreaks havoc on the adrenal system. If you are a consistent coffee drinker or make caffeine a daily habit, my advice is cut down the amount over time and avoid consuming caffeine after noon. This will support natural cortisol signaling and your circadian rhythm. Mix some decaf beans into your morning cup of Joe. Your adrenals will recover much faster if you are less reliant on caffeine for energy. Eventually your body’s energy levels will stabilize and you will not need the caffeine to wake up or get going. This would be the ideal healthy state of your body. It is closer than you think!
Drink more water. It is stressful on your system to be dehydrated. Help your adrenal recover more quickly by drinking a minimum of 64oz of water per day (for most adults). Drink more if you are sweating or exercising that day.
Exercise regularly. Burn off the feelings of stress by getting enough exercise. There is no doubt that regular movement or exercise will help reduce stress, help your adrenals recover, and make you feel more energized and focused.
Stress and Your Immune System
You are way more likely to succumb to a cold virus when you have been stressed than when you have healthy adrenals and normal cortisol levels. At this time we are in the midst of a pandemic so everyone is paying more attention to their immune systems than ever before. Chronic stress will diminish our immune systems ability to fight off infection. I even see old infections, such as Ebstein Barr, reactivate when there are periods of high stress.
Make Self Care a #1 Priority
Recovering your adrenal health will contribute to a stronger immune response. Fall is an important time to do all we can to promote a healthy immune system. I encourage all of you to find ways to boost your self care habits and improve your health, adrenals, and immune system. The healthier we all are the less likely we are to suffer complications of the infectious diseases going around like COVID-19.
Adaptogenic Herbs: Protecting Adrenal Health
Here are some of my favorite herbal allies for stress resilience. “Adaptogen” is an herbal term referring to the ability of plant medicine to help us adapt to stress better. There are many plants whose medicine helps our HPA axis get back to a harmonious state. These plants are often referred to as “tonics”, or plants that we take on a daily basis to rebuild and support the body’s natural function.
These adaptogenic herbal tonics are found in our custom blend made here at NCNM for adrenal support. For dosing instructions on the adrenal tincture please reach out to me or a trusted herbal medicine practitioner.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has the properties of being antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, liver protective, and an adaptogenic adrenal tonic. This one is popular because of its natural sweet flavor. The root of the plant is what we use as medicine. It has a direct action on cortisol in the body.
Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridum) has the properties of being adaptogenic, antimicrobial, immune supportive, and has an effect on insulin sensitivity. It is a local herb here in the Pacific Northwest. It is our native ginseng! The root is where we find the medicine in this plant. Be careful and seek some help from someone with herbal training before harvesting this one yourself. It’s name refers to the many long sharp spikes on the stems and leaves of this plant!
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a calming adaptogen and is highly esteemed for its rejuvenate effects when taken long term as a tonic. This herb comes from the Ayurvedic herbal tradition and is found in many modern adrenal support formulas. It works best when taken daily for longer periods of time.
6 Tips for Building Stress Resilience
- Follow the 4 Steps to Renewing Healthy Adrenals (listed above)
- Reduce or stop any sources of stress that you have control over.
- Learn to say no and set healthy boundaries for yourself.
- Schedule time for self care. Make your self care a bigger priority in your life. My mentor says that if it's not on the schedule it's not important. Your rest and health promoting behaviors are important!
- Most people will benefit from taking an adaptogenic botanical blend. If you have the symptoms of adrenal fatigue and know that your stress levels have been high then consider taking an adaptogenic formula for at least 3 months and re-evaluate.
- Find strategies to cope with stress with more skill. Find an app, program, or coach to help you find strategies and styles that work for you. I love talking about this so if you would like some guidance, please schedule with me HERE. My passion for coaching people towards health is what gets me up in the morning!
We are not robots and do not respond well to constantly doing, being busy, and being “on”. If you are Bambi running, running running… then get off the roller coaster and take a break! Give yourself permission.
Self care is not an option if you want to maintain or build your health. I often hear from my patients that they don’t have the time because everyone else needs so much attention. Lets pause and think on that for a moment… if you run yourself into the ground taking care of everyone else, how useful will you be in your burnt-out depressed state? When you fill your cup each day, it gives you the ability to do more, be more, and give more to the world. Fill your cup first with good self care habits and the overflow will naturally lift all those who depend on you for support.
Stress is a leading cause of dis-ease in our bodies. It is easy to let it get the best of us because our culture does not support the behaviors of self care. You have to make time and schedule in habits that will support your adrenals and protect your health. I’ve given you some habits to start working on today. You also know about adaptogenic herbs and our Adrenal Support Tincture.
Remember that your body will recover and has the ability to heal. Your job is to learn and establish the foundational lifestyle habits that support self-healing and wellness. I have dedicated my life to understanding how to optimize wellness through daily health building practices. Please reach out. I’m here to support your desire to feel good in your body again!
- Romm, A. J. (2019). The five root causes of adrenal and thyroid dysfunction. In The adrenal thyroid revolution: A proven 4-week program to rescue your metabolism, hormones, mind & mood (pp. 48). New York, NY: HarperOne.
- Romm, A. J. (2019). The five root causes of adrenal and thyroid dysfunction. In The adrenal thyroid revolution: A proven 4-week program to rescue your metabolism, hormones, mind & mood (pp. 53). New York, NY: HarperOne.