I don’t think it’s a secret that this time of the year is stressful. Stress is common, and stress is normal. But what happens when stress becomes SO common that it starts to impact our health? We all know that stress can have negative health implications, but do we really know how?
One possible consequence of long-term stress is adrenal fatigue. You may have heard the term “adrenal fatigue” before, but have you ever wondered what it really means? Or even what the adrenals ARE?
The adrenals are two glands that exist in the human body, positioned right above our kidneys. They are part of our endocrine system, and are responsible for the excretion of many hormones, including cortisol and adrenalin. When we experience stress; physical, emotional, or mental, or consume stimulants such as caffeine, our adrenals jump into action and secrete the stress hormone, cortisol, into our bloodstream. This stress hormone then begins a cascade of reactions within the body to allow us to properly deal with the incoming stress. These reactions include things like converting stored glucose to be used as fuel, and sending blood to our extremities so that we are able to “fight or flight” from whatever has caused us stress. It also means that energy is taken away from bodily functions, such as digestion, in order to focus on the danger that we are likely faced with at the time.
This reaction is very beneficial, and very necessary to keep us alive. However, the problem with today's society is that we are no longer faced with stress only when we are in immediate danger, we are faced with stress constantly. With things like high demands at work, rush hour traffic, money or family concerns, and high consumption of caffeine, we are all faced with stress throughout the majority of each day. When this continues for too long, our adrenals become exhausted (much like you would if you had to continuously do the exact same job for hours a day!), and eventually, they may begin to lose their ability to function correctly. This can lead to an imbalance in our cortisol levels, which can present itself through the inability to wake up and get going in the morning, or the need to have regular naps just to make it through the day.
Besides lack of energy, some of the other signs of adrenal fatigue include anxiety, food and chemical sensitivities, decreased ability to handle stress, and body aches. There are also many sources besides stress that can contribute to the development of adrenal fatigue, including nutritional deficiencies, and chronic infections or illnesses.
Although we can’t change the high-stress nature of our society, there are definitely things that we can do in our everyday lives to counteract the effect it has. Incorporating a calming practice each day can be extremely beneficial, and this can be unique to each person. Yoga or meditation are both fantastic options, and both can be done in the privacy of your own home. Any type of exercise can be helpful, but consistent vigorous exercise can also be taxing on the adrenals as it causes additional stress to the body, therefore it is important to include some lower intensity exercises throughout the week. Focusing on a gratitude practice is another option; spending 5 minutes each day physically writing down a few things that you are thankful for can go a long way in reducing stress. Even something as simple as unwinding with a cup of holy basil tea and reading a book in the evening can be a great improvement over staring at a computer screen until bedtime!
Ensuring that we are consuming as many nutrients as possible is always an important component of our health, and the best way to achieve this is through a diet based on a variety of good quality, whole foods! A digestive enzyme can be especially helpful to ensure that we are digesting and absorbing everything that we can from our food, and to remove some of the internal stress that may be on our digestive system. Another area that we can focus on when it comes to supplements are adaptogens. Simply put, adaptogens help our bodies adapt. They assist with our body’s ability to react to incoming stressors, and support the overall stress response process. Some of my favourite adaptogens are reishi mushrooms, holy basil, maca, and ashwagandha. These can be consumed in many different ways; in capsule form, as a tea, or simply mixed into your morning smoothie.
Prevention is key when it comes to our health, but in the case that we or a loved one are already suffering with adrenal fatigue, it is very important to remember that it will be a slow process to regain energy and get back to “normal” everyday life. It can be very difficult to incorporate a daily exercise routine, or even to cook healthy meals, when adrenal fatigue has set in. Taking small steps each day is the best approach, and making sure to ask for help when needed is essential. As the symptoms of adrenal fatigue are also similar to many other conditions, it is also important to rule out anything more serious. Always seek the advice of a medical professional before jumping to conclusions!
Adrenal fatigue is definitely becoming more and more common in our somewhat toxic and stress-filled society, but with a little bit of mindfulness, a lot of listening to your body, and the support of beneficial foods and supplements, we can all do our best to prevent it in our own lives!