What are adrenal glands?
Adrenal glands are two triangle-shaped glands sitting on top of our kidneys. They secrete hormones to help us cope with stress and help regulate our immune function, metabolism, blood sugar, and blood pressure.
Hormones secreted by the adrenal glands (aka Stress Hormones)
Cortisol – regulates blood pressure, blood sugar, and serum sodium level, inhibits inflammation, inhibits immune function, inhibits wound healing, inhibits bone, collagen, and muscle formation, and regulates mood and sleep.
Aldosterone – regulates serum sodium level and blood pressure.
Epinephrine, norepinephrine – regulates blood pressure.
What kind of stress stimulates the secretion of stress hormones?
Physical: pain, illness, low temperature, low blood sugar, changes in circadian rhythm
Chronic infections, toxins (heavy metals, mycotoxins), and chronic inflammation can increase our body's demand for cortisol too.
Mental and emotional stress; including past traumas, and PTSD.
What is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is a dysfunction of our adrenal glands, either in excess (secreting too much cortisol) or insufficiency (secreting too little cortisol). It is also referred to as functional adrenal insufficiency or functional adrenal excess. It differs from Cushing syndrome (pathological adrenal excess) and Addison’s disease (pathological adrenal insufficiency).
Adrenal fatigue is a “functional” disorder, which means even though the adrenal function is low or high, it has not reached the severity and meets the definition of a disease. However, the disorder is significant enough to cause systemic symptoms.
Short term stress
Adrenal glands secrete more cortisol and epinephrine to cope with stress
Temporary elevation of cortisol and epinephrine.
Usually presents with anxiety, palpitations, chest tightness, sweating, insomnia, or poor sleep.
Long term stress
Adrenal glands still have enough reserve and fuel to produce cortisol and resist stress
Elevated cortisol level
Usually presents with:
Weight gain, edema
Elevated blood sugar and blood pressure
Irritability, anger, insomnia
Acid reflux (increased gastric acid production)
Decrease in muscle mass, poor stamina
Poor immune function
Female: low progesterone, estrogen dominant -> PMS, irregular menses, painful menstruation, heavy menstrual bleeding, and other gynecological conditions (When there’s a large demand for cortisol production, progesterone is been shunted to make cortisol. In the long run, progesterone will become deficient.)
Male: low testosterone -> loss of muscle mass, low libido
This happens when adrenal glands are exhausted and can no longer produce an adequate amount of cortisol
Low cortisol level
Usually presents with:
Fatigue that is not relieved with sleep or rest, prolonged and extreme fatigue
Low blood pressure, low blood sugar, low serum sodium level
Frequent colds, colds that take a longer time to recover, poor wound healing
Signs and symptoms of inflammation
Depression, poor concentration, poor memory
Decreased muscle mass, poor stamina, poor endurance
Other symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue
Gastrointestinal – irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal pain
Immunological – allergic rhinitis, eczema, food allergy/sensitivity
Endocrinological – poor growth (in children), low thyroid function, inhibited ovulation, infertility
Musculoskeletal – osteoporosis
How to regulate your cortisol level with diet and lifestyle changes
Well-balanced diet - sufficient amount of proteins and vegetables, consume vitamin C-rich foods, avoid sugar and caffeine.
Avoid vigorous exercise, especially in the evenings - intense exercise can increase our demand for cortisol and raise our cortisol level, worsening symptoms at the resistance or exhaustion stage. If you raise your cortisol level in the evening, it can also affect your sleep.
Good sleep hygiene - go to bed before midnight, relieve stress before bed, and ensure a restful environment without disturbances.
Stress management - try different ways of relieving stress, for example, moderate exercise, meditation, essential oils, flower essence, emotional freedom technique (EFT), diaphragmatic breathing, counseling, traveling, etc.
Work on past traumas - psychotherapy like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), counseling, EFT, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), flower essence, and homeopathy can all be helpful in reducing the intensity of response to past traumatic events.
Heal the body - resolve any underlying health conditions, especially chronic infections, environmental toxins, and chronic inflammation.