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Column: Adrenal fatigue

Dr. Amanda Chay ND

What are adrenal glands?

Our adrenal glands are two small glands that sit on top of each of our kidneys.  These little glands are responsible for controlling our response to stress by producing cortisol and DHEA (among many other hormones such as adrenaline!).  Cortisol is part of our stress response, making us feel overwhelmed, worried, tense, and irritable.  On the other hand, DHEA is responsible for us feeling calm, relaxed, peaceful, and happy (think back to how you feel when you are on a relaxing holiday!).

What is Adrenal Fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue happens when our adrenal glands produce excessive amounts of cortisol, leaving us in a constant state of stress.  When we are in a constant state of stress, many things happen to our bodies, including:

·       Weight gain

·       High blood pressure

·       Blood sugar dysregulation

·       Hair loss

·       Digestion problems including acid reflux, bloating and cramps

·       Anxiety

·       Depression

·       Irritability

·       Fatigue

·       Insomnia

·       Headaches

·       Constantly getting sick

·       Hormone imbalance

Adrenal fatigue is characterized by high amounts of cortisol in the body.  There is also a further stage to this called adrenal exhaustion, when our bodies stop producing enough cortisol and your levels are always low.

What causes it?

Chronic stress.

Every time you are worried about a deadline, are stuck in traffic, have a cup of coffee, have a fight with your spouse, or didn’t get a good sleep your adrenal glands produce cortisol.  This response originally was beneficial when we would run into a bear or some other form of acute danger, however with modern life we are triggering the production of cortisol several times throughout the day.

Why should I pay attention to it?

You should pay attention to it because cortisol also helps regulate inflammation and we now know that inflammation is the cause of many of our chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.  To prevent chronic disease, you must decrease the amount of inflammation in your body.

Increased inflammation also contributes to aging more quickly.  Inflammation causes damage to both our internal and external organs (ie. skin!), which can cause more wrinkles and a lack of vibrancy.  Cortisol also decreases the amount of collagen we make (this already happens as we age, so higher cortisol just makes it worse), which causes our skin to lose its elasticity.

High cortisol can also cause bone loss, slowed wound healing, mood problems, sleep issues, obesity, and exhaustion.  Take another look at the list above as all of these things can be related to high cortisol levels!

What can I do to decrease my cortisol levels?

Not only will decreasing cortisol help prevent chronic disease and accelerated aging, you will also just feel calm and relaxed.  Once you start addressing your cortisol, it will take the ‘edge’ off of everything so you can be a happier you.

My top tips for reducing cortisol are:

1.      Exercise—no more than 45 mins of high intensity per day (more than this will increase cortisol levels).

2.      Daily calming activities (even if just for 5-10 minutes)—yoga, tai chi, meditation, an Epsom salt bath, a long walk.

3.      Say ‘no’—don’t put so many things on your plate that you will never be able to get them all done.  If you can’t or don’t want to do it, don’t say that you will.  This will make you feel lighter and will re-set people’s expectations if you always say yes to everything.

4.      Supplement—there are so many amazing herbs out there to support our adrenal glands to accelerate you feeling your best.  Some of my top choices are Ashwaganhda, Holy Basil and Rhodiola.

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