I have a friend, Katie, who is a master juggler of the pieces of her life. For years, she’s taken on extra work, volunteered, raised children, helped her aging parents – all without letting anything fall through the cracks. This ability to organize herself so well that she can take care of everyone’s needs – even her own much of the time – has been a great source of pride.
But recently, Katie told me the other day, it’s getting more and more difficult to keep all of these pieces in the air. In all the years she has been scheduling appointments for herself, her two children, their three cats and her mother, she’s never missed one – until last week, when she completely forgot to take her children to their dentist appointments.
“It’s getting scary,” she told me. “I feel like I’m losing my mind. I forget to call people back. I can’t remember my point halfway through a story. I’m afraid it will start to impact my work. What’s going on?”
It didn’t come as any surprise to me that Katie has finally hit this point. I’ve wondered for years how she continues to do it all and stay healthy. I haven’t examined Katie, but I did suggest she see her healthcare practitioner and ask them about her adrenal functioning. This brain fog that Katie is experiencing is one of the classic symptoms of adrenal fatigue.
Unfortunately, the idea of adrenal fatigue is controversial among conventional medical practitioners. While they acknowledge disease that impacts the adrenals, they refuse to consider that even small shifts in levels of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands can result is symptoms that can make daily life incredibly difficult.
Let’s take a look at cortisol, how it impacts your adrenal function, and the connection between your adrenals and fuzzy thinking. Then I’ll give you five tips to keep your adrenal glands – and your brain functioning – at peak performance.
What is Cortisol?
I’ve talked a lot about cortisol, and you’ve probably heard about it elsewhere as well. It’s a popular buzzword these days, and it seems like everyone’s talking about it. It’s about time!
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by your adrenal glands, which rest on top of your kidneys. Cortisone is also produced by your adrenals, but it’s a precursor hormone that can be converted to cortisol. That means that cortisol is a more active form of steroid hormone – which is why you hear more about it.
Cortisol plays a large role in your body’s stress response. It’s responsible for the fight, flight or freeze reactions you have to stress. And it’s vital to life – you absolutely need it in your body! The problem is that all too often, your body doesn’t have the right amount of cortisol. It may be too high or too low — both are a problem.
There’s far more research and information on high cortisol levels, which is what I’ll focus on here. But there’s a good case to be made that low levels could also impact the brain, due to the anti-inflammatory properties of cortisol. If all that inflammation is left to run rampant your brain could most certainly feel the impact.
However, like I said, more is known about the impact of high cortisol levels, so let’s focus on that for now. Your body was never designed to deal with constant stress – but that’s exactly what this modern life brings! Like Katie, we’re often juggling so many different things – children, parents, work, volunteering, relationships, and even play. Your body responds the same way to all stress, good or bad, major or minor. And that leaves the possibility of putting too much strain on your adrenal glands wide open.
What is Adrenal Fatigue?
I have a lot of articles in my health library on your adrenals and how they impact health. In a nutshell, adrenal fatigue occurs when stress is constant, putting steady demand on the adrenal glands to continue producing cortisol.
This can often create a vicious cycle since that ongoing call to action makes it more difficult for your adrenals to produce hormones. Then, when levels are too low, your body sends out the call for more – and on and on.
As I said before, many medical professionals don’t believe adrenal fatigue is a real condition. But here’s the thing — even when levels aren’t skewed enough to indicate a disease state, the symptoms are very real. And I’ve seen enough people feel so much better after we take steps to heal their adrenals that I know adrenal fatigue is something we should be talking about.
How Do Imbalanced Cortisol Levels Cause Brain Fog?
When levels of cortisol are chronically high, your health can be impacted in so many ways. Right now, I’m going to focus on what impact imbalanced cortisol has on the brain.
Research has shown that cortisol can damage and even kill brain cells in the hippocampus, where episodic memory is created. Chronic stress can also cause premature brain aging by allowing too much calcium into your brain cells, killing them. Other studies have revealed that cortisol also decreases the speed that new brain cells are generated. All of these demonstrate how having high levels of cortisol for too long can have a neurodegenerative effect on the brain, causing brain fog, memory issues, anxiety and more.
Research on the impact of low levels of cortisol is slim, but there is a known positive impact that cortisol has on inflammation. Therefore, I think it’s a fair assumption that if you don’t have enough for extended periods of time, inflammation in the brain could cause neurological issues.
Testing Cortisol Levels
Conventional practitioners often won’t do extensive enough testing on cortisol to really get the right information. While serum cortisol testing happens fairly often, it really only provides a snapshot of the level of cortisol in your blood at the exact moment that the test is run.
Since levels of cortisol fluctuate throughout the day, a single test doesn’t give you the full picture. And having multiple blood tests in a single day is impractical. Saliva testing, however, is much easier to complete several times in one day, and gives you a complete picture of the rise and fall of cortisol in your body. Saliva testing has been used in peer review research on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Urine testing is another effective method, and the most accurate since in Urine testing (24 hour shows levels not only of “free cortisol” (a very small percentage of the cortisol in your body) and metabolized cortisol, it also shows the diurnal pattern of cortisol throughout the day.
5 Tips to Balance Cortisol
Once you have a clear idea of how your cortisol levels are balanced, you can identify ways to level it out if needed. Let’s take a look at five top tips for balancing cortisol and keeping your adrenals healthy.
1. Reduce Sugar, Boost Protein, Healthy Fats, and Healthy Carbohydrates
The food you eat is the one of the most important components in good health. You need a balanced diet, including enough natural sugar and carbohydrates, like a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Skipping the processed food and added sugar is always a good idea – they simply don’t offer any nutritional value.
Fats and protein are also important because they help you get the essential fatty acids and amino acids you need to produce the chemicals your brain needs to function properly. Protein also helps keep your blood sugar level stable.
When you eat can also make a big difference, especially when dealing with adrenal fatigue. Eating at regular intervals is important as you heal – save the intermittent fasting for when your adrenals are functioning well.
2. Keep stress at bay
If anything is more important than food, especially in the case of adrenal fatigue, it’s stress reductions. Supplements and a healthy diet will support your body, but they can’t do all the work on their own. You have to pay close attention to what’s happening in your life that could cause the inner turmoil that constant cortisol production creates.
Stress reduction isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been functioning on high speed for years. But learning how to step back, examine what’s really important to you, and let go of some of the expectations you’ve created for yourself is essential.
It’s okay to say no, and it’s essential that you protect time for yourself, to do what you want – even if that is nothing at all! Rest is key in helping your body heal.
3. Protect your sleep
Have you ever been on an overnight flight, and found yourself absolutely unable to think clearly the next day? I’ve experienced this and it made it so clear how important a good night’s sleep is – and how much even one poor night of sleep can impact brain functioning. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep to feel their best.
Set yourself up for a good night’s sleep by keeping electronics out of the bedroom (Yes, all electronics – use an alarm clock instead of your phone if you need help waking up). Keep the room cool, and find a bedtime routine that works for you. Meditation or quiet reading are great ways to wind down and prepare your body for rest.
4. Keep moving in moderation
Even when you are faced with feeling exhausted, some physical activity can help you get back on the right track. But now is not the time to take up training for a marathon or other extreme sports. Regular moderate exercise, including some strength training, is a great way to keep hormones balanced, combat insulin resistance, and help you sleep. All of these will help diminish fatigue and keep your brain clear.
If you haven’t been exercising, and can’t find the energy to begin even a light routine, remember that even regular daily activities that require you to move a little can help. If you have a desk job, stand up and stretch every so often or ask for a standup desk. Take a brisk walk at lunch time, or make it a point to always use stairs instead of elevators or escalators. Park at the back of the supermarket lot instead of in the closest spot you can find. There are dozens of ways to add a little movement to your routine without having to commit to a class or vigorous routine.
5. Consider Targeted Supplementation
A high-quality multivitamin and omega-3 supplements can help keep your brain healthy and strong, especially in times of stress. I recommend that my patients take them daily, even when stress is reduced, to feel their best. It’s so hard to get the nutrients you need from food – even when you’re eating as healthy as you can!
If you have already reached the point of adrenal fatigue, you may need some extra help to get back on the right path. Supplements formulated for the purpose of supporting your adrenals, helping you get better sleep, and easing the effects of stress, like those I offer in the adrenal health section of my shop, can help.
You can think clearly again when you address stress and your adrenal health
So many women, like Katie, tell me they feel out of control and helpless when they start to forget things and let balls drop. I reassure them that all is not lost — they can regain the clear thinking they once had. You can too — but you have to be willing to let go of some of the stress and make a commitment to yourself. You are just as important as anyone else you are caring for – it’s time to acknowledge that and put your health first!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD