Are Your Adrenals Taxed?
Are you tired of working out and eating clean but seeing little to no results? Do you struggle to shed the stubborn weight around your belly despite your best efforts? Have the words “I’m so stressed” and “I’m exhausted” become daily mantras? If so, you’re likely experiencing signs and symptoms of taxed adrenals. This tricky yet ever-growing issue can also cause hormone imbalances—leading to an inability to shed the stubborn weight you’ve been trying so hard to lose.
So, what are these adrenals and why have they hijacked your life? The adrenal glands (also known as suprarenal glands) are the triangle-shaped endocrine glands that sit on top of your kidneys. Similar to ovaries, testicles and the thyroid, the adrenal glands are hormone-producing glands. They’re responsible for regulating our stress response and play an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system. They are also key contributors to proper thyroid function, the balance of hormones, maintaining an ideal weight, stabilizing emotions and controlling cravings, but one of their most important jobs is to ramp up the production of stress hormones.
Most people do not realize just how important the adrenal glands are to their overall health and well-being. Multiple studies have proven that the health of the adrenal glands will dictate a person’s overall health and ability to recover from many types of chronic illnesses. Since chronic stress is the main cause of overactive adrenals, leading to weight gain among many other issues, one must find a way to control and minimize stress.
Over time, as your adrenal become more taxed, it can compromise your natural hormone balance, which may lead you to experience enormous energy fluctuations that look something like this:
- You struggle to drag yourself out of bed and can’t get going without a strong coffee or two (or three). Your body feels like you’ve got no gas in the tank.
- After lunch, you finally feel awake enough to get more done. But the energy doesn’t last. A few hours later, you keep wanting to put your head down on the desk.
- In the evening, you’re tired, even nodding off, but you’ve been rushing all day so you want to sit up a bit longer to feel you actually have a life.
- You suddenly get a second wind and end up reading for hours or watching back-to-back episodes of the latest ‘it’ series on Netflix.
- You finally feel tired enough to sleep. You wake from sleep in the middle of the night feeling suddenly alert or very tense. You don’t fall back asleep quickly or only manage to nod off again shortly before it’s time to get up for the day.
These constant slumps and dips are signs that your body is trying hard to adapt to stressful demands. There are 4 main types of stressors:
- Physical Stress: You experience infections or suffer allergies and food sensitivities. Excessive sports like marathon running and over-exercising can cause or worsen adrenal symptoms.
- Emotional Stress: Caused by issues like work pressures, financial or relationship problems. Past unresolved trauma and abuse. Feeling unworthy, not good enough, pushing yourself to over-achieve all the time.
- Chemical Stress: Your liver is overloaded by toxins coming from xenoestrogens, antibiotics, prescription drugs; or you have lived or worked near places (like factories) that are highly toxic. Toxins in food, water and molds can also contribute.
- Dietary Stress: A period spent overloading on caffeine, carbs and high-sugar foods can stimulate repeated cortisol release, impacting your adrenal response. Chronic gut issues like constipation, diarrhea, bloating, IBS, “leaky gut” and unaddressed food sensitivities can also cause undue stress on your adrenals.
Sound familiar? Here are some more specific symptoms of adrenal dysfunction:
- Weight gain (specifically around the midsection)
- Cravings for salt or sugar
- Lightheaded when standing up
- Irritability or mood swings
- Frequent illness
- Overly emotional
- Morning fatigue
- Tired after exercise
- Poor sleep
- Heart palpitations
- Brain Fog
Understanding the Phases of Adrenal Adaptation to Stress
In stressful situations, our adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which when partnered with adrenaline creates that “fight or flight” response. Cortisol’s main function is to raise blood sugar levels by converting glycogen from your muscles back into sugar. This provides you with fuel for sudden and unexpected situations, like running away from a harmful situation. As our blood sugar increases in response to our cortisol levels, our insulin levels also rise. Our body was designed to handle short bursts of stress. Unfortunately, many people are chronically stressed in this day and age, which is something our body wasn’t designed for. Chronic stress keeps our cortisol and insulin levels elevated, which is the perfect recipe for weight gain.
The over-triggering of your adrenal glands can lead to three phases of chronic stress:
Alarm – In this first stage, the body considers a stressor to be dangerous and stimulates an increase in cortisol production. But levels of DHEA (a natural steroid also produced by the adrenals) stay normal. This thrusts your body into fight-or-flight mode (where pupils dilate, breathing deepens and heart rate increases).
Resistance – In this second stage, the body remains on guard in the continued presence of a stressor but is weakened. Cortisol is chronically elevated, but DHEA levels decline, which may lead to mood swings, anxiety attacks or even depression. This can be taken as a warning sign that some relaxation and downtime are required before burnout. The adrenals will adapt to this stage by going through a stage called the ‘pregnenolone steal’ phase or also called the ‘adrenal steal’ phase. Pregnenolone is derived from cholesterol and is the precursor for cortisol and sex hormones. However, the body only has so much pregnenolone to go around, and during times of stress, the body will stunt the available pregnenolone into cortisol instead of DHEA. The body will favor making the cortisol it needs to deal with stress over making sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone. This stage is represented in the adrenal profile as increased cortisol/low DHEA.
Exhaustion – At this point, your body loses its ability to combat stressors. The adrenals do not function properly, cortisol and DHEA levels decrease further. In extreme exhaustion, DHEA levels can even normalize as the adrenal steal is no longer even happening.
A few weeks or months of stress are all it takes to start taxing your adrenals and ramp up signs of hormone imbalance. In hindsight, this stress response was crucial for our species survival. The trouble is – with our current on-the-go lifestyle, we’re no longer escaping predators or hunting down our food; we’re arguing with our partners, scrolling social media, neurotically refreshing inboxes, rushing through traffic — all of which are micro-stressors that keep us in a fight or flight state, adding to our appetites and waistlines.
How to Break the Cycle
Although the standard “try and reduce stress” advice isn’t always practical, there are several lifestyle factors in your control that when combined, can help mitigate symptoms of chronically stressed adrenals, balance hormones, reset your body, and finally have you looking and feeling your best.
Follow an Adrenal Support Diet
- Eat regular meals: This not only keeps your blood sugars and energy stable but also reassures your body that you’re not in crisis.
- Eat right for your body: Food sensitivities and unhealthy food choices can add another stress load. Get tested and remove potential food stressors. Common culprits include wheat, soy, dairy, corn and eggs. Cut them out then reintroduce them one at a time and watch for physical reactions to see if they trigger health issues.
- Minimize sugar intake: Cut back on sugar in all its different forms and watch out for hidden sources of sugar in packaged foods such as dextrose and maltose.
- Consume whole, organic foods: foods rich in phytonutrients are great for adrenal support, but supplementation is often needed to support proper adrenal function when the adrenals are taxed. Supplements like B complex, vitamin C, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, and omega 3 fatty acids can be of great benefit. Bovine adrenal glandular concentrate is also available for supporting healthy adrenal function.
- Avoid excess caffeine and alcohol.
Exercise Smarter, Not Harder
- Do more gentle forms of exercise: It may seem counterintuitive to slow your exercise pace to get more benefits but it really is important. I recommend exercise like weight training, use of kettlebells and dancing. Take a brisk nature walk.
- Calm your brain with yoga: Yoga is like a moving meditation that connects your mind, breathe and body and induces a relaxation response that helps lower your cortisol levels. At the same time, it boosts your alpha brain activity, which promotes greater calm.
Try A Variety of Relaxation Approaches Including:
- chiropractic care
- Tai Chi
- proper sleep
- massage therapy
- breathe work
- emotional freedom technique (EFT)
Adrenal Support Supplements ·
- In the Alarm Phase, consider taking ashwagandha, 5-HTP, L-theanine, passionflower, valerian root, and schizandra. *
- In the Resistance Phase, consider taking ashwagandha, Rhodiola, cordyceps, ginseng, St-John’s wort, phosphatidylserine, dark chocolate, and melatonin. *
- In the Exhaustion Phase, consider taking ashwagandha, licorice, Asian ginseng, cordyceps, and Rehmannia. *
* Always consult with your Natural Health Practitioner before starting supplementation especially if you take medications.
Your ‘Not-To-Do List’
Everyone needs some downtime; an hour or two when you can get away from the everyday stresses of life. Try taking a few minutes regularly to write down a ‘Not-to-do list’, where you review the things that bring you stress. Go over that list and decide what you can remove, delegate or ask for help with. Give it a try, you will see it’s effective and even therapeutic. On the flip side, you may also want to make a list of things you enjoy doing most and incorporate more of these items into your daily routine. I wrote a blog a few months back on Wellness Tips you may get some ideas from.
Stress may always be a constant in our lives, but its effects don’t have to be.