Our adrenals are two walnut sized organs that sit atop each of our kidneys. If you breakdown the name ‘adrenals’ we get ‘ad’- meaning on top of, and ‘renals’ referring to the kidneys. Pretty nifty, eh?
These two walnut-sized organs, though small, are paramount to our overall health. The adrenals are involved with countless physiological processes in the body like balancing blood glucose levels, managing stress, secreting cortisol (our fight-or-flight aka ‘stress’ hormone), are a major part of our reproductive system, and so much more. If it weren’t for our adrenals, we’d have a pretty damn hard time being alive.
The term “Adrenal Fatigue” has been thrown around in the holistic health space for quite some time now, and it’s recently become pretty controversial. Many in the medical community and holistic community alike have deemed the term “Adrenal FATIGUE” to be misleading and inaccurate. The idea that the adrenals can reach full fatigue is not necessarily accurate, and the term is not a clinical diagnosis you’ll find at any medical doctor’s office.
A more accurate term would be ” Adrenal Insufficiency” or “HPA Axis Dysregulation”
When the adrenals take a hit (which we’ll talk about what that looks like in a second) there’s a lot more going on than just the adrenals struggling. To be more specific, the Hypothalamus, Pituitary and Adrenal axis (HPA axis) are largely what take a hit when the adrenals reach a state of insufficiency. Just like most imbalances in the human body, when the adrenals take a hit it’s not just a single-sourced issue- we have other organs involved and other systems in the body that are struggling as well that bring us to this state of dysregulation.
This HPA Axis is a more comprehensive view of how the adrenals function, what organs are necessary for optimal function and what affects them directly. You can think of the HPA Axis as the central stress response in the body. The system itself is pretty straight forward: A perceived threat/stress signals our Hypothalamus to release a hormone (CRF) which binds to receptors in the Pituitary gland. The Pituitary then releases another hormone (ACTH) which binds to our adrenals and signals them to release cortisol- our fight or flight hormone.
Cortisol is involved with:
- shuttling blood to muscles and tissue in times of stress
- dilating blood vessels to send more oxygen-rich blood throughout the body
- helps to manage blood pressure
- proper immune function
- proper systemic inflammatory response
- sleep patterns
- energy + appetite
Although cortisol is absolutely necessary to human life and is a wonderful piece of our physiology, it can also be quite detrimental to the human body if we are constantly experiencing excess levels of it coursing through our veins and tissues. As humans, we’re created to be in high-cortisol states only for short periods of time.
If you think back to our ancestors, they spent most of their time in a restful state, only occasionally jolting themselves into a fight-or-flight state when absolutely necessary- when being attacked by a wild animal, neighboring tribe, etc. Looking at life today, our genetics haven’t changed very much since our ancestor’s time- but how different is life now? Simple daily tasks like experiencing the stress of work, balancing multiple friendships, flying down the highway going 75 miles per hour late for an appointment, filling our bloodstream with caffeine to keep up with the day, sleep deprived, anxious about a presentation we have- the list goes on and on- these stressors keep us in a constant state of elevated cortisol.
What we have here is a perfect storm for our HPA Axis to be dysregulated- for our stress response in the body to be set on over-drive all the time and to rarely be in a rest-and-digest, Parasympathetic nervous system state. Cortisol is, by nature, a catabolic hormone- meaning it “breaks down” muscle and tissue for higher energy expenditure. Putting the pieces together here.. if we’re constantly stressed out, worried, and have this lovely HPA Axis Dysregulation, we also likely have chronically elevated cortisol which can cause systemic inflammation, high blood pressure, decrease of lean body mass, increase of fatty tissues, and other health-deteriorating symptoms.
You may be experiencing HPA Axis Dysregulation if…
- You find yourself SUPER tired and exhausted in the morning and afternoon, then experience a surge of energy in the evening. Many call this a “tired but wired” feeling at night- you know you need to sleep but you just can’t wind yourself down.
- You’re doing all the “right” things to lose weight, but you’re gaining weight instead. (aka- weight loss resistance).
- As a woman, your monthly cycle is all over the place and you’re struggling to conceive if trying.
- Simple things like going to a coffee shop or out to lunch have you feeling exhausted, run down, grumpy and tired.
- You’re not recovering from workouts, feeling constantly tired and sore.
How can you support yourself?
First and foremost, it’s important to understand how massively influential your day-to-day lifestyle can be on your HPA Axis. Supplements and nutritional support are two things that everyone wants to jump on board with, but if we don’t drastically change the lifestyle factors that play into daily stimulation of a heightened nervous system, we’re not going to get too far.
When I have clients struggling with HPA Axis Dysregulation and Adrenal Insufficiency, I always make these suggestions first and foremost:
- Create an evening routine to wind yourself down at night. ie: read a book, take a bath, journal, etc. and try to get to bed earlier, striving for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
- Avoid screen time and blue light after the sun sets, or invest in a pair of blue-blocker glasses
- Sip on warm lemon water with a pinch of sea salt first thing in the morning and throughout the day. The adrenals crave vitamin C and salt when they’re feeling sluggish.
- Practice belly breathing throughout the day- get back into your body and remind yourself what the Parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system state feels like.
- Lower your workout intensity or completely stop all forms of exercise for 30-90 days until adrenals are restored.
- Stop all forms of intense cardio- HIIT, long distance training (high cardio- high cortisol- lots of catabolism happening)
- Eat plenty of fats and proteins, especially at breakfast to balance blood glucose levels and support healthy cortisol production
- Try to eat every 2-3 hours and be sure to avoid being “hangry”- this is a tell-tale sign of the adrenals screaming for support
- STOP CONSUMING ALL FORMS OF CAFFEINE. Caffeine stimulates the HPA Axis and will undermine your efforts to re-regulate yourself.
- SLOW. DOWN. and practice plenty of self love
When it comes to supplements, here’s some of my favorites you can find at Natural Grocers:
- Adaptogenic herbs + mushrooms like Ashwagandha, reishi, rhodiola etc. may help with the stress response in the body and help your system to respond to stressors with less urgency and shock to the system. You can find these in the herb aisles of Natural Grocers.
- Magnesium glycinate– this specific form of magnesium targets the nervous system of the body and helps to support neurocognitive and cardiometabolic health. Find these with the Minerals at Natural Grocers.
- Phosphatidylserine- this supplement can help balance out cortisol overproduction. It can make some people feel a bit spacey and out of it, so if this happens to you be sure to take it right before bed instead of during the day.
- Amino acids like Tyrosine and Tryptophan– these amino acids are precursors for serotonin and may help support a calm nervous system. Find these in the amino acid section of supplements at Natural Grocers.
- 5HTP– encourages the synthesis of serotonin and may help with healthy sleep cycles, metabolism, and the body’s stress response.
- Vitamin C– the adrenal glands contain some of the highest amounts of vitamin C in the body, and they’ve been known to secrete Vitamin C when under stress. Vitamin C may help support the body’s stress response.
- Trace minerals– The adrenals need adequate minerals to function properly, so be sure to get enough minerals! I really like Trace Mineral drops from Natural Grocers.
*This post is sponsored and paid for by Natural Grocers, a local grocery store I visit frequently and truly love! All opinions are my own.