Over the holidays I had quite a few more clients than usual contact me about their health. Most complaints were due to the sudden onset of severe dizziness and lightheadedness, fatigue and insomnia.
I recognized these symptoms as the result of what I call “holiday overload”….during a time when the increased dark and lower temperatures call for hibernation, humans instead gear up with increased activity: merrymaking, rich food and excess alcohol. This behaviour depletes adrenal health in those that are susceptible. I think it was all made worse this year because the holidays were preceded by the acrimonious election season which created unprecedented stress among most Americans.
Read about how excess stress affects this very important gland and what you can do to protect its health and stay robust.
The adrenals are small pea-shaped glands that sit on top of our kidneys. They are a command center for our endocrine system, which regulates metabolism, digestion, growth and development, brain function and mood.
They secrete adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones that regulate the stress response, blood pressure and water balance. Low adrenal hormone levels, caused from excessive long-term stress, can create many symptoms, including:
- Waking up tired
- General exhaustion
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Feeling “wired but tired”
- Lack of focus
- Craving sugar
- Salt cravings
- Feeling overwhelmed by life
- Having low or no sex drive
- Stubborn belly fat
- Feeling achy and “inflamed” all over
- Have trouble falling/staying asleep even though you are exhausted
- Experiencing erratic periods or severe PMS
The adrenal glands have a circadian rhythm that regulates our sleep and wake cycle. Highest cortisol production occurs between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. and is at its lowest between midnight and 2 a.m.
An accurate way to measure cortisol is by saliva testing using the Adrenal Stress Index ( ASI) . Samples are collected four times during a single day and charted.
Below is what a normal cortisol range should look like over a 12-hour day:
We can determine a number of useful facts from studying a cortisol curve.
1) Do we produce enough cortisol? When we have long periods of stress, we produce excessive cortisol levels initially, to keep up with the demands of our lives. After years of overproducing cortisol from being in “fight or flight” mode, we run out of cortisol. So, it is useful to know whether we are overall high or low in cortisol, or perhaps even in the normal range.
2) Is the cortisol output evenly distributed? Sometimes, people have normal total cortisol secretion during the day but in an irregular pattern. This sporadic distribution can cause problems with focus, productivity, depression, pain and sleep.
Waking up tired suggests low cortisol output in the morning. Being wired and sleepless at night often suggests overly high cortisol at bedtime, in a reverse pattern that is common in fibromyalgia. Naturally, poor quality sleep effects energy the next day. Feeling wired but tired throughout the day is most often due to low total cortisol.
Putting on belly fat is usually associated with high cortisol. Not being able to lose weight with the usual exercise and diet routine is typical of low cortisol.
Low overnight cortisol can disrupt sleep, and is typically what causes people to wake up every two hours. A certain “baseline” cortisol is needed to maintain the blood sugar. If it is inadequate, blood sugar drops, and the body wakes up in a state of alarm from the resulting adrenaline surge. Clients will say “I was wide awake at 2 a.m.” Yes, that would be typical of low overnight cortisol.
When cortisol is too high at night, people have trouble falling asleep and sometimes, trouble staying asleep as well. So you see, the same symptoms can be caused by opposite levels of cortisol. That is why testing is so illuminating.
Other problems besides fatigue can be assessed using the adrenal saliva testing. Cortisol elevation and rhythm disruption are typical of ADD/ADHD. Elevated midnight cortisol levels are now considered one of the best tests to diagnose endogenous depression. Anxiety can very often be the result of either too much or too little cortisol.
Blood sugar dysregulation can be identified and corrected using this test, from the sugar blues to early diabetes, because blood sugar follows cortisol. The more individual cortisol stays close to the normal diurnal curve, the better controlled blood sugars will be.
Besides using the Adrenal Stress Index to measure cortisol rhythm throughout the day, the adrenals can be assessed using the Amino Acid profile and the Organic Acids test, that are parts of the TRIAD test. Although these tests will not reveal the diurnal rhythm of cortisol, they do give us a better idea of total daily output and reserves by measuring our body’s ability to make epinephrine and norepinephrine, which convert to cortisol.
There are many ways to heal the adrenal glands. Many practitioners use glandulars and botanicals such as Licorice, rhodiola rhosa or ginseng (Adrenotone) . I have used these products for clients over the years, but feel strongly that the best way to restore the adrenals is by actually restoring robust levels of the amino acids that make them. By replenishing these raw materials, primarily the amino acids tyrosine and phenyalanine, we get the fastest and most satisfying resolution to adrenal fatigue.
Having said that, I still like to use botanicals to help tone the stress response in order to “spare” the adrenals and prevent their future depletion. By decreasing a person’s reactivity to stressors there is less taxation of the adrenal glands, which is why using the botanicals along with the amino acids is the best approach. Long term use of ginseng and ashwaganda is safe and an excellent way to maintain adrenal health once they are repaired.
I have used glandulars, such as Adrenal Complex or CytoZyme AD as well since there are some clients who do best on those, or using a combination of the adrenal glandulars and the amino acids. I think of glandulars as tonifying agents. Think of a toned muscle and a flabby one. Clearly one functions better and is stronger than the other. So it is with the glandulars, which are animal products extracted from neo-natal calves, in a laboratory. The adrenal glandular “tonifies” the adrenal glands. Interestingly, we are not really sure how they work. They just do. But I caution clients against using them for more than a few months at a time because there simply isn’t any research on their use.
Here are some tips for improving your adrenal function:
- Avoid extra obligations
- Manage time wisely to avoid time stress. Being overscheduled is one of the biggest causes of burnout. Create time every day to do something you enjoy.
- Make sure you stay well hydrated. With adrenal fatigue the blood vessel walls are less toned and can’t deliver enough blood to the brain. This problem is compounded if your total blood volume is diminished from dehydration.
- Use caffeine wisely. Limit it to two cups daily as more than that will have a reverse effect and deplete energy rather than boost it. I recommend a cup in the morning and one in the early afternoon, as long as it doesn’t affect your sleep. Organic coffee or green tea are best.
- Get adequate sleep each night – 7 to 9 hours, preferably between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. We get the most restorative sleep during these hours.
- Make sure you eat some quality protein, healthy fat and complex carbohydrates every time you eat, and eat every 4-5 hours. A bedtime snack is often helpful during early stages of recovery to keep you asleep.
- Try some ginseng or rhodiola rhosa, two herbs which have an adaptogenic effect that helps us regulate cortisol. If cortisol is too high it will bring it into normal range; if it is too low, these herbs will help elevate cortisol into your normal zone, temporarily.
- Meditate and exercise regularly – not excessive, strenuous exercise but calming exercises such as tai-chi, yoga, walking.
- Limit your exposure to “energy vampires”, negative people who deplete your energy. Protect your mind and emotions. Choose your music, tablet time and reading wisely.
With time and patience you can restore your adrenals. Those who have experienced depleted adrenals DO need to adapt their lifestyle to be able to maintain adrenal health for the long term.
If you need help with your adrenals please call us for a Free 15 minute consult.
We want to help you to “BeWell”!
Happy New Year,