Do you ever think about what stress might be doing to your body? Chronic stress is a major problem in many lives, contributing to a never-ending cycle of fatigue and perhaps exhaustion, poor nutrition, weight gain (or loss), mood swings, poor immune function, hormonal imbalance and more. When I take a look at the root causes of my patient’s symptoms, it often starts with overwhelm or business pressures – too much to do in too little time, a relationship issue or a family crisis. However, this then gets worse as we find ourselves overloading on caffeine, sugary snacks, alcohol, and even sleeping pills or antidepressants – all of which can disrupt our body’s normal rhythms – simply to manage their stress.
Research shows that when we experience ongoing stress, our adrenal glands, those tiny glands that sit above the kidneys and aim to balance the stress response as well as regulating hormones that regulate our body’s functioning. This includes cortisol, a hormone activated when our stress levels rise, which signals our body to enter a heightened state of emergency. But high cortisol levels are intended to be short term; prolonged elevation of cortisol can create a myriad of issues in your body. The problem is, our adrenals do not know the difference between different kinds of stressors; they continue to pump out cortisol whether we are stressed due to a true emergency or are managing life’s everyday stressors.
Symptoms of adrenal imbalance — an “aggravating pattern”
Symptoms are your body’s way of telling you that it is not receiving the support it needs. These are some of the signs and symptoms that can indicate
response to stress)
| Adrenal |
(underactivity in response to stress)
|Sleep||Difficulty winding down to get |
|Pleasant tiredness toward evening|
Looking forward to turning in
Wake refreshedfrom sleep in
|Difficulty getting out of bed in the morning|
|Energy||Always on the go (“high-adrenaline lifestyle”)Feeling “tired and wired”||Maintain relatively steady energy levels throughout the day||Ongoing fatigue not relieved by |
Lack of energy
|Temperament and coping |
| “Driven”Short temper|
|Ability to reframe, adapt and respond with flexibility to life stressors (and opportunities)|
Positive attitudes and beliefs
|Inability to handle everyday stressFeeling overwhelmed by relatively minor challenges|
Mild depressionStruggling to get through the dayTendency to avoid conflict
|Mental clarity||Racing thoughts |
Inability to focus on one task for very long
| Clear thinking|
|Mental fogginessFuzzy thinking|
|Acne||Good immunity to infections||Frequent infections|
Longer recovery times from
illness, injury, or trauma
|Worsening PMS symptoms|
|Healthy libido||Low libido|
|Food cravings and weight management||Abdominal weight gain|
High caloric intake in the evenings
|Few cravings for salty or sugary |
|Increased cravings for salty foods, sugary foods, refined carbohydratesCaffeine dependence|
|Blood pressure (tendency)||High blood |
|Normal blood |
Low blood pressure
|Other signs and symptoms||Intolerance to cold|
There is a lot of overlap of the signs and symptoms listed above with other medical conditions, so adrenal imbalance may not always be the root cause. Adrenal imbalance can, however, be a contributing factor in a wide range of medical conditions — many of which may seem unrelated — including the following:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Depression and anxiety
- Premature menopause
In turn, many health conditions and certain drugs used to treat them can predispose an individual toward adrenal insufficiency.
The good news is, when addressed in time with proper support you can heal adrenal imbalance and reverse the damaging effects of chronic stress.
Adrenal drain can deplete the whole body
As our adrenals encounter and thwart more and more stress without replenishment, many things can happen in the body. In addition to their primary role in dealing with stress, your adrenal glands:
- balance more than 50 hormones in your body
- synthesize their own hormones, including stress and sex hormones
- help regulate blood pressure and heart beat regularity
- help balance blood sugar levels
- help quell inflammation throughout the body
- support nervous system function (behaviour, mood, excitability, memory, clarity of thought)
Because the adrenals are intimately linked to so many other systems in our bodies, men and women with exhausted adrenals can end up with weight gain, fuzzy thinking, insomnia, severe fatigue, thyroid disorders, and accelerated aging..
Eat, drink, and support adrenal gland function
As our awareness increases about when we eat, it’s also helpful to think more about what we eat. Stress often brings out the worst in our food choices. Many of my patients with adrenal insufficiency tell me they reach for foods and drinks that give them instant energy — cookies, cakes, doughnuts, white bread, coffee, or sugary drinks. Craving sweets make sense — it’s the body’s normal response to low blood sugar.
Unfortunately, the surge of energy you get from consuming these foods is followed by an even greater dip in energy, causing you to feel worse. Sugar and simple carbohydrates stimulate a spike in blood sugar and a subsequent spike in insulin that clears sugar from our bloodstream so fast that we “crash.” Complex carbohydrates don’t cause this same spike and crash, though too many carbs in general can still imbalance blood sugar.
Although I am not in to removing food groups for the sake of it but many of my patients with symptoms of adrenal issues do well on a low refined carbohydrate diet (eg swapping out muffins, cakes, biscuits, white breads and flours and do forth for healthier alternatives – such as lower gluten grains and definitely brown and wholemeal. And definitely limited caffeine as caffeine can over-stimulate the adrenals and affect sleep patterns.
If you find yourself craving caffeine or refined carbohydrates, it may be that your cortisol or blood sugar is low or that your serotonin is imbalanced. In any case, you may not have much energy and your body probably needs a rest. I encourage you to honour your body’s request and take a break, instead of cranking it up another notch. Treat yourself to some deep breathing or a ten–minute walk. And if drinking a cup of coffee is a relaxing part of your routine, drink it in the morning along with something nutritious to eat, and add cream to help dull the negative effects of caffeine.
Diet tips to help support your natural cortisol cycle:
- Eat breakfast within an hour of getting up, or by 8 am, to restore blood sugar levels after nighttime depletion of glycogen.
- Eat a healthy snack around 9 am.
- Eat lunch between 11 am and noon. Energy from breakfast can be used up quickly, and having lunch early will prevent a large dip in cortisol levels.
- Eat a healthy snack between 2 and 3 pm to help offset the natural cortisol dip that occurs around 3 or 4 pm. Many people reach for extra caffeine or carbohydrate-loaded snacks when they notice this dip, but those will actually impede hormonal balance.
- Eat dinner between 5 and 6 pm and although it may be difficult at first, try to eat a light meal. Eventually your body will enjoy digesting less food in the evening.
- Eat a nutritious, light snack an hour before bed, but be sure to avoid refined sugars. Nut butters with fresh fruit or cheese are ideal choices.
Choosing adrenal-healthy beverages
Just as with food, your choices about drinks can either support or strain your adrenal glands. Here are some not-so-good choices and some healthy alternatives.
| Adrenal |
|Drinks that contain caffeine||Ginseng [Panax sp.]Eleuthero/Siberian ginseng [Eleutherococcus senticosus] (in the morning)|
|Alcohol||Herbal teas like chamomile, passionflower, valerian|
| Powerade or|
|Vegetable juice (with salt if BP ok or low)|
Try, in general, to eat meals and snacks made of fresh whole foods, preferably organic or locally grown, without colours, dyes, chemicals, preservatives or added hormones. Including some protein in all meals and snacks (especially in the morning – e.g try an egg for breakfast) will have a stabilising effect on your blood sugar, which, in turn, can help you overcome cravings for caffeine and sugars. No longer will it be an issue of will power.
Ensure you eat regularly too, to balance blood sugars. Intermittent fasting or any type of fasting is probably no good. But check this out with a qualified and registered Nutritionist (like me) who can tell you what diet is right for you.
To lessen the stress that’s often associated with making dietary changes, consider preparing additional servings of nutritious foods on the weekends so you have them ready and available on busy weeknights, or stop at a health food store to pick up some hot prepared food. Don’t feel guilty if you veer off the nutritious path occasionally.
Bingeing, especially on sugar, can often lead to feelings of guilt or self-disappointment, making you want to throw your hands up and surrender. But don’t worry. I always tell my patients to eat their best 90% of the time and the other 10% is up to them because guilt is the last thing your adrenals need!
Salt and adrenal imbalance
Those with adrenal insufficiency often crave salt. Sometimes it is important to heed this signal. Yes, salt can increase blood pressure, but low blood pressure (hypotension) is a very common sign of adrenal insufficiency. If you feel lightheaded when you get out of bed in the morning, stand up quickly, or get up out of a bath or hot tub, you may very well have low adrenal function, so including more salt in your diet could be helpful (but NOT if you have high blood sugar). But try to make it good-quality sea salt. One of my favourites is Himalayan sea salt.
Salt cravings in people with adrenal insufficiency are mostly due to low levels of aldosterone, a steroid hormone that, like cortisol, is produced by the adrenal cortex. Aldosterone is part of the complex mechanism that regulates blood pressure in the body, partly by helping the body to hang on to salt and water. Levels of aldosterone go up and down in a similar daily pattern as cortisol, and influenced by stress – when cortisol goes up, aldosterone goes down, lowering blood pressure. If cortisol levels stay high, or if your adrenal glands run out of steam, chronically low aldosterone can disturb both electrolyte balance and cell hydration. Increasing your salt intake is one way to help restore these imbalances.
If you need additional support for adrenal health
Some people will still need extra nutritional and/or herbal support for healing adrenal imbalance. Several key herbs that support adrenal function are called ‘adaptogens’ because they can adapt to the needs of your body, nourishing and strengthening the adrenals, whether they’re over- or underactive. Here are my top recommendations for adaptogenic herbs and key nutrients:
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Eleuthero / Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
- Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus)
- Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)
- Rhodiola rosea
- Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
- Extra B vitamins (B-complex)
You can begin on your own with B vitamins and the first two herbs listed above. If you do not notice improvement within a few weeks, consult a functional medicine or naturopathic practitioner to create a program that best fits your personal needs — dosage, timing, blood pressure, and cortisol levels are some of the factors that should be taken in to consideration.
Vitamins like C, E and all the B vitamins (especially pantothenic acid and B6) have crucial roles in the production and actions of stress hormones. And a mineral like magnesium provides necessary energy for your adrenals — and every cell in your body — to function properly. Calcium and several trace minerals, like zinc, manganese, selenium, and iodine, provide calming effects in the body. These minerals can help relieve the stress associated with adrenal fatigue and imbalance, which will ultimately restore normal cortisol output.
A strong nutrient foundation also supports the endocrine system overall. There is great synergy between the different organs of the endocrine system, including the adrenal glands. And when hormonal levels become deficient or excessive, our cells count on extra nutritional support to compensate.
You have the power to lessen the burden on your adrenals — and your whole body.
It doesn’t take much. The small choices you make in regards to your nutrition and eating patterns will make a big difference. Here’s my advice to you: in addition to exploring stress management, support your body with a