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Adrenals: Tiny glands, Big Job!

Amy Reidhead and Terri Fox

My patients often ask, “Why is my energy always dragging?” Or for some, “Why am I so tired during the day, but then at bedtime I can’t sleep?” Most of us have heard of adrenaline and our “fight or flight” instinct, but what do our adrenals have to do with it? 

These tiny glands are so important that they have precedence, above all else, as they are the messengers of our survival instinct. When stress becomes prolonged,  when we burn the candle on both ends, our adrenals kick in for us –so we can still do it all!  Initially, we are wired and tired, but we can still manage our over-scheduled lifestyle.  Eventually the adrenals will stop compensating for our lack of natural energy, (whether that’s from lack of sleep, stress, infection, trauma, etc) and when they do, they take everything else out with them. 

When the adrenals finally stop compensating for our lack of natural energy, that’s when we get REALLY tired.  When this happens, the adrenals take the entire hormonal system down with them. That’s right, there goes your testosterone – your sex drive, workouts, muscle mass and mood.  And what’s more? There goes your progesterone – your Zen hormone, the hormone that keeps us calm and resilient.  When progesterone tanks, we have more anxiety, irritability, anger impatience and difficulty sleeping. Our ability to deal with stress and what life throws us, evaporates.  In essence, our adrenals create our force field, our grounding, our armor, our power and emotional strength…our very resiliency.  

And not only that!  Your adrenals and your thyroid are interconnected, as they compensate for each other and play in the same feedback loops.  One affects the other in every which way possible.  

Ok, so let’s back up, what are your “adrenals” exactly? 

Your adrenals are two small glands that sit on top of your kidneys and help manage your flight-or-flight response. When you experience stress, your adrenals (part of your sympathetic nervous system) kick in to help you cope.  The adrenals are one of your compensatory mechanisms that help when you have a lack of natural energy. The trouble starts when your stress becomes chronic and your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. At that point you may feel “wired and tired,” have insomnia or experience anxiety.

The adrenals secrete cortisol, one of your “flight or flight” hormones. Cortisol is usually higher in the morning when you wake up and decreases slowly over the day so you can fall asleep easily at night. One sign that your adrenals might not be functioning optimally is that you are tired during the day but then you can’t fall asleep or stay asleep at night. Your cortisol levels may be low during the day and then spike later in the evening, making it hard to fall asleep or it may even spike in the middle of the night, waking you up. 

 If I suspect adrenal dysfunction, I start with a salivary cortisol test such as the Adrenal Stress Index test, where patients capture five saliva samples over the course of the day. This is the best way to know if you’re hypo-excreting (low) or hyper-excreting (high) cortisol and gives the information we need to begin re-balancing the adrenals. For example, if your cortisol levels are low during the day, this can have you feeling very tired. If your cortisol spikes at night, you may have a very hard time sleeping. Conversely, if your cortisol levels are very high during the day, this can contribute to anxiety and even depression.  

Depending on what your adrenals are doing, a good functional medicine doctor can help feed the adrenals the food they need to balance back out on their own.  Most likely, taking an adrenal support supplement without knowing what the adrenals are doing won’t get to the cause of the underlying issue.

If you have adrenal dysfunction, (and who doesn’t in today’s world?) I recommend checking a full thyroid panel, Testosterone total and free, DHEA-S, progesterone and estradiol levels checked, at the very minimum.

Symptoms of Adrenal Dysfunction

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Blood sugar dysregulation
  • Dizziness
  • Weight changes
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Some simple lifestyle things you can do on your own include examining how many things are on your “to-do-list” and committing to putting your health first.  Getting plenty of sleep, 8-10 hours per night if possible helps to restore adrenal health. 

Avoid or reduce your use of stimulants like caffeine and sugar.  While using either may feel like it is helping you manage your stress and deal with fatigue in the short term, it is a vicious cycle of depletion and can be harmful to your adrenals in the long run. 

Stress reduction techniques like breathwork or meditation can dramatically affect your adrenals.  Even 5 minutes a day of meditation using Insight timer works! 

Try balancing your typical exercise routine with gentle exercises like yoga, tai chi or Qi Gong a few days a week. 

Lastly, in addressing any health condition, we always recommend you find time for laughing, goofing off and just having fun! 

So if you have any of these symptoms, or if you are worried that you are experiencing adrenal burnout, we encourage you to make an appointment with your functional medicine provider. There are many amazing supplements, lifestyle interventions and foods that you can incorporate to help address adrenal dysfunction and begin to heal these powerhouse glands.   

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