Many more people are aware of their adrenal glands these days. They have gone from being a mysterious and largely unknown part of our internal organ system to something people talk about over coffee. Talking about adrenals over coffee is kind of apt, but more on that later! To start with, here is an introduction to two little super-heroes you may not have met before.
The adrenal glands are a pair – a fine pair! They sit atop our kidneys like little triangular hats, one on each. They are about the size of a walnut. They have two parts, the outside bit, called the adrenal cortex, and the inside bit, called the adrenal medulla. The main job of both bits are to release hormones that ensure our body responds to stress. When our brain senses stress, the hypothalamus (master of ceremonies) sends messages to the adrenal glands. The inside bit secretes adrenalin, which is our short-term stress hormone. The effects of adrenalin don’t last too long, so the adrenal cortex is also stimulated to secrete cortisol, which has a longer-lasting effect in the body.
Stress hormones work brilliantly to help our body respond to stress. They are life-savers! When you have to suddenly lift a car off an injured puppy or run at light speed away from a predatory tiger, adrenalin is your best friend and may just enable you to do these things! Adrenalin basically signals the body to divert all bloodflow to the brain and the muscles in the limbs (for running). It increases blood sugars so we can have more fuel on hand for all this activity. It increases our heart rate and blood pressure and opens up our lungs so we can be our fastest bestest speediest selves. Phew! This kind of action just can’t be sustained though. Short bursts are what adrenalin is all about. Cortisol kicks in for the long-term response. So if the stress continues, cortisol will ensure that blood sugars stay high, tissues are broken down to be used for fuel, and the body doesn’t spend precious energy on immune responses or anything so frivolous. When you know how the adrenal glands work, it’s really not too hard to see how prolonged stress can wreck havoc in the body.
Cortisol usually has a lovely rhythm, but stress interrupts that rhythm. Our cortisol levels are naturally higher in the morning to get us out of bed, then drop off later in the day. Stress will keep them elevated however, making it harder to wind down in the evening and difficult to get a good deep sleep at night.
While cortisol is the main hormone of note produced by the adrenal cortex, it is just one of a group called corticosteroids. Another key hormone produced by the adrenal cortex is aldosterone, which is all about fluid and salt balance in the body. It mainly does this by working on the kidneys, and encouraging them to keep more salt (sodium), which makes blood pressure also go up. When your adrenals are exhausted from too much stress, it is harder for them to pump out aldosterone too, meaning that people can get low sodium and low blood pressure. Salt cravings can sometimes indicate low adrenal function.
There is still an idea out there that stress is ‘all in the mind’. This is tricky because it’s both true and not true. The perception of stress is indeed in the brain, but the effects of stress are right throughout the body. And while we can’t control the way that stress responses happen in the body, we can influence our perceptions of stress through various techniques that allow us to generate more peacefulness and stillness of mind. Sometimes our patterns of perceiving stress are so ingrained that they feel ‘fixed’, but like many aspects of our bodies, we are constantly growing replacing and changing, so changing our relationship with stress is always a possibility too. Basically, the more our mind (and body) can feel safe, the less it is under stress. The more we feel calm, the less we are under stress. Cultivating these things in our lives is like tending a garden- constant weeding and maintenance is required, but the more we do this, the easier it becomes over time.
Adrenal fatigue is a condition whereby continued stresses on the adrenal glands basically cause these little superheroes to become worn out. They can no longer protect us from stress, and no longer function optimally to even maintain our daily functions. This is the extreme end of low adrenal function, and causes considerable health issues. Many people may be somewhere on a spectrum of reduced health with their adrenals glands however.
Potential signs you may need some adrenal support:
- low energy
- Fatigue early in the mornings and afternoons especially
- reduced stress tolerance
- reduced productivity
- Increased number of infections and poor recovery
- Allergies and intolerances
- History of stressful events
- Poor sleeps
- Cravings for caffeine or sugar
- Salt cravings
- Feeling blah, lacking joy
- Fuzzy head and poor memory
Nourishing your adrenals:
- The very best thing you can do for your adrenals is to reduce the stress in your life or change the way you view it. Relaxation is key- whether this means learning to switch off, have down time, or learning new skills such as simple breathing or meditation exercises.
- Nutrients that are especially important for adrenal function include Vitamin C, Magnesium, and B vitamins.
- Herbs which improve adrenal function and help balance stress hormones include Withania, Licorice and Siberian ginseng. These should be individually prescribed to suit your individual needs.
- Diet keys for adrenal support include eliminating caffeine, reducing sugar and alcohol, and increasing nutrient dense plant-based whole foods. It is also essential to consume enough good quality protein, and to eat regularly, not skipping meals or skimping on good food.
- Hydration is important as is salt.
- Sleep is essential, especially the sleep you get before midnight! Yes, early nights people.
Whole books can and have been written on our adrenal glands and our relationship with stress, so we hope that this simple introduction has given you a little insight into these two little superheroes so essential to our daily survival, and how to look after them so that they can look after you!