I recently gave a talk at my office about all things adrenal. It was epic and you should be bummed you missed it!! Check out my events calendar so you don’t miss out on any more ;) This is my attempt to sum up the adrenal glands in the written form. They are the super de duper complicated, but so important for whole body health. The crazy thing is, medical doctors pretty much ignore them until they cease function and a disease process can be then labeled. If you just get on the proper adrenal support and work at a few lifestyle changes you can improve your overall health and add years to your life! So here’s the gist.
What do the adrenal glands do?
Lots and lots… They are the stress responders of the body. They help your body adapt to stressors so that you can continue to function in this crazy world we live in. They do this by secreting hormones. These hormones then boss around the rest of your body so shit doesn’t hit the fan. I am breaking this down to the highlights so that you can understand the basic concept and importance of adrenal function. Here is a list of a few important hormones secreted by the adrenals:
Epinephrine aka adrenaline. You know the stuff. You get cut off in traffic, your kid almost takes a header off the couch, your heart starts beating fast, this is adrenaline. It helps your body deal with acute stress. We’ve evolved from being chased by saber tooth tigers but it’s the same deal. It is paired with another hormone called Norepinephrine. This is basically the opposite of that acute stress response. Your nervous system gets switched from sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest), so that our bodies can heal and repair itself. Muy importante!
Next up, Aldosterone. This hormone helps to balance fluid in the body to regulate blood pressure and tone. Not like your toned up abs. Like vascular, ligament, and sphincter tone. Get dizzy when you stand up? Probably because your blood vessels aren’t being told to constrict when you stand. This would prevent blood from rushing out of your head. Get reflux? Usually not an acid issue, but an issue with a floppy sphincter allowing that acid to creep up in your throat. Constantly sprain your ankle? If those ligaments were keeping that joint in place you wouldn’t be.
And now, the star of the show, Cortisol. This hormone is a potent anti-inflammatory. Bet you never knew that if your adrenal glands were working properly you wouldn’t have to take prednisone, cortisone injections, or other anti-inflammatories. Our bodies are designed to handle inflammation on their own. Inflammation is bad news, not just because of pain, but because nearly all chronic disease starts with out of control inflammation. Cortisol also sends signals to manage blood sugar when you go long periods without eating. Gluconeogenesis!? Yeah that’s right, I know big words! The other big thing about cortisol that I want to mention is that it talks to your thyroid gland to help run your metabolism. If you have a thyroid problem, you also have an adrenal problem! High levels of cortisol in the body due to long term stress also messes up your gut. It promotes dysbiosis. Look at that another fancy word! Basically the bugs in your gut are all out of balance. Remember, 70% of your immune system lives in that gut. So when the environment is all jacked up, your immune system suffers. This equals more disease. Get how important this is?
Given the above functions of those few adrenal hormones, think of all the symptoms you could be facing if they are not working properly: fatigue, weight gain, chronic inflammation, pain, constipation, diarrhea, dizziness, frequent joint injuries, acid reflux, anxiety, chronic infections, basically any disease process!
Now let me explain how things typically go awry for these glands. To understand this we are gonna talk about phases of adrenal fatigue.
Alarm phase: Let’s go back to the good ol’ cave man days. You have a surge of adrenaline and cortisol when you are being chased by that wholly mammoth, but then you run and hide in your cave where you are able to chill out and recover from that stressful event. Norepinephrine would kick in and flip you back to rest and digest and your body would repair and be ready for the next stressful event. Well, we live in the 21st century. Things don’t go down like that anymore. Nowa days it is one stressful event after another. When your body is constantly dealing with high levels of stress, cortisol levels never have a chance to dissipate in the system and you move into the next phase.
ResistancePhase: This is kinda like when your kids are constantly being loud and obnoxious, so finally you just tune them out. Then you don’t even realize that one of them is crying for an actual good reason. Same deal. Cortisol is all over the place bossing around your cells because there is stress after stress. Finally your body says, “What’s the big deal? I’m not listening to you, you are always nagging me!!” Cortisol is no longer getting the response it needs, so your super smart body makes more. Well, it’s hard for your adrenals to pump out all that cortisol, so they get tired. Then you enter the next phase.
ExhaustionPhase: Your adrenals have now thrown in the towel. They are wiped out! They are no longer making much of anything. This is where the risk of disease is real! Your body is not checking inflammation at all. It is doing a crappy job of managing blood sugars. If your adrenals are tanked so is your thyroid. Maybe your labs look ok, but fun fact… Your thyroid has to be about 70% dysfunctional before it will spill over onto lab work. That is assuming your MD even runs the appropriate tests… Thyroid blog still to come!
So what’s the fix?
I give the cup analogy. Our adrenals can handle a specific amount of stress (water) before it spills over with symptoms. If you are pouring in more stress than your cup can hold, then you are gonna feel it. Our job is to A) grow the size of your cup so that you can handle more stress. B) Identify which things in this world are pouring the most into that cup so we can decrease them. C) Improve your lifestyle so that you are creating habits that poke holes in the bottom of that cup to allow it to handle more. We accomplish A) by providing the proper supplementation and nutrients to heal up that gland. B) is helped by food intolerance testing or Nutrition Response Testing to identify the major stressors in your environment. Lastly, to improve C) we need to get you doing things like regular exercise, deep breathing, sleeping, and drinking water. All those things we know are good for us but we never do. Let’s make em a habit!
Life is crazy! Stress is inevitable. Adrenal fatigue is also inevitable if you don’t support your body in the right way. Many of my patients ask when we will be done working on adrenals? My response is, when you are done being exposed to stress! Supporting the adrenals in the most appropriate way for your individual body can help prevent disease and add years to your life. What are you waiting for?