In my functional medicine practice, I work with amazing women who are proactive and insightful when it comes to their health. Most people seek out a functional medicine approach in order to get to the root cause of their health problems, and whether this happens as soon as they start to feel unwell or after they’ve exhausted their options within conventional medicine without finding any real answers or solutions (unfortunately, I see the latter a lot), this always involves some reflection.
My patients are great at asking themselves important questions in order to get to the bottom of what’s going on with their health. If they’re feeling exhausted, getting more frequent headaches, or having trouble losing weight, they ask themselves: “Have I changed anything in my diet?” or “Could this be related to the new medication I’m taking?” or “Should I check my nutrient or hormone levels?”. These are all important questions to ask when you’re investigating your health!
I have another question I’d like you to ask yourself today. Do you know how well your adrenal glands are functioning?
If you are like most women, the answer is probably no. Conventional practitioners seldom mention adrenal health. And although adrenal fatigue might be a more widely used term outside of the doctor’s office than it used to be, many people still don’t make the connection between adrenal function and their own overall health.
There is no alarm that goes off when you are experiencing adrenal fatigue, and although it impacts health in so many major ways, signs and symptoms often come on gradually. For most people (and most practitioners) it’s not clear that so many different symptoms and concerns are actually the result of adrenal dysfunction. But in my practice, I see it every day!
I talk about adrenal function a lot, and that’s because I’ve found adrenal health to be the true foundation for strength, vitality, energy, and well-being.
Many people hear the term “adrenal fatigue” and assume this is primarily a condition with which you feel tired, but this is only one part of the story.
Let me back up a little bit, and show you how significantly adrenal function impacts overall health.
What Do the Adrenal Glands Do for Your Body?
The adrenal glands are primarily responsible for activating your stress response. They are also the great balancer of more than 50 hormones in the body.
When the stress response (“fight or flight”) kicks in, your adrenals shift energy away from restorative processes like digestion, and focus on pumping adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream.
When this happens, all of those other hormones, including androgens and their precursors such as testosterone and DHEA, as well as estrogen and progesterone, suffer. This is why it’s particularly important to support your adrenal glands as you approach menopause, a time when your body relies even more heavily upon the regulation of hormones (and is, of course, undergoing a great deal of stress).
Again, adrenal fatigue doesn’t just make you tired. It can throw off your digestive system, your reproductive system, and your overall hormonal balance. Adrenal dysfunction can lead to autoimmune diseases, mood disorders, depression, weight gain, brain fog, and insulin resistance, to name a few.
Remember, the adrenal glands are good guys. What they are trying to do is to protect you from that giant bear that’s running towards you. Or, wait… is it actually an email from your boss? The trouble is, your stress response doesn’t really know the difference. The adrenal glands are the key players in a team assembled to react to all stressors. And this is absolutely critical when there is a bear running towards you, or even when you are going into a regular, 21st century, high stress situation like a job interview.
But today, stressors are constant. Our environment is littered with chemicals, our diets often contain inflammatory foods, and we’re trying to balance dozens of responsibilities at the same time. Kids, parents, spouses, careers, errands, emails and social media notifications at all hours. Somewhere in there, we try to fit in a little bit of sleep. And insufficient sleep is, of course, another stressor.
So, we have learned that when our stress response is activated too frequently, many of our other functions including hormone production and restorative processes are sidelined. And, when the adrenal glands start to become burned out (hint: if you feel exhausted and burned out, your adrenal glands are right there with you), they actually stop being able to function properly at all. This is when the problem becomes adrenal fatigue.
The Role of Cortisol
The hormone cortisol is a key player in many other regulatory processes across all your systems: protecting the body from stress by regulating blood pressure, normalizing blood sugar levels, helping to regulate the immune and inflammatory responses, and influencing mood, memory, and clarity of thought.
So, to put it simply, having balanced cortisol levels is critical! But when your adrenals aren’t working properly, depending on which stage of adrenal fatigue you’re in, your cortisol levels can be either too high or too low. This wreaks havoc on your entire system.
Maybe this helps to explain why, when your adrenal reserves are depleted, you might feel totally off balance, and your sleeping and eating habits might seem a little crazy, too! In Ayurvedic medicine, the adrenal glands are connected to the “root” chakra and contribute to being grounded, nourishment and physical health. With persistent stress, we become increasingly less grounded, which can increase stress even more. This constant demand for stress hormones means the adrenals become depleted and ultimately exhausted.
Simple Choices for Change
I’ve worked closely with women who are experiencing adrenal fatigue for years, and I’ve found that there is plenty you can do to provide stronger grounding and support to the adrenal glands.
One of the most important things you can do at home is make a few simple choices when it comes to what you eat.
Will your food choices make or break your adrenal health? Not exactly. Stress is the number-one major offender ( stress from your history, an illness or present day stress) when it comes to adrenal depletion, and you can read more about this in my article on stress and the effects of high cortisol. But there are many food choices that provide more stress than they do nourishment.
Good nutrition, well-timed meals and snacks, and sometimes a gluten-free diet can significantly relieve the strain on your adrenal glands. Focus on fresh, whole foods, especially anti-inflammatory foods.
Selecting high-quality foods, building a strong nutrient base, and paying attention to when and how you eat all make for more efficient and healthy adrenal function — and better health all around.
We also have to look at where else we can cut down on stress. When it comes to restoring adrenal health, there are no quick fixes, and you definitely don’t want a band-aid solution. I have to say, the real key to repairing adrenal function is taking care of yourself! I know that it’s easier said than done, especially when people are counting on you at home and at work. But know that taking care of yourself will heal and benefit not only you but everyone you care about.
So, start learning how to say “no” when you need to! This is a huge one! Focus on getting good quality sleep, and turn off your electronics earlier. Find a way to practice mindfulness, whether it’s through meditation, yoga, or walks in nature. It really is these “simple” things that will be healing when your adrenals are exhausted.
Consider the tires on a car. If you buy good quality tires and routinely check their air pressure, balance and rotate them, and patch any holes, the foundation for how your car moves on the road will be safe, steady, and strong. You’ll get better gas mileage, the car will respond better when road conditions are slippery or uneven, and the car will last longer.
Just as neglecting your tires may not immediately compromise your safety or your car’s efficiency, your adrenals can take a lot of strain before you begin to see the effects on your body. But if you let your good habits slide too long, you will see the impact. Adrenal imbalance can lead to mood challenges, irritability, fuzzy thinking, disrupted sleep, and ultimately, utter exhaustion. But you don’t have to get to that point. And if you’re already there, you can repair your foundation!
The more you support adrenal function, the stronger your foundation becomes for overall health. This is why I’m so focused on the adrenals! Adrenal function is so much more important than it’s been given credit for. It really affects everything, and it’s never too late to support and repair it.
For more information on the impacts of adrenal health, and what you can do to turn dysfunction around, click here.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD