There are two little hormone glands, about the size of a grape, that sit just on top of our kidneys. Only small but they play such a HUGE part in our wellbeing and they really do appreciate a bit of love and care.
They may not be the largest of the hormone glands but, among the many hormones they produce, are our stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is absolutely vital to life – it controls our sleep cycle, helps suppress inflammation, gives us energy from non-carbohydrate food and regulates our blood pressure. Adrenaline is a key hormone in our ‘fight or flight’ stress response, designed to help us deal with imminent danger and trauma.
The problem comes when we are keeping our bodies in that constant state of stress. Our ancestors would have had to cope with running away from a lion or hunting for food whereas in the modern world stress comes from many other and very different arenas.
We are frequently attached to screens – phones, tablets, laptops, TV screens, we are constantly ‘in touch’ what is happening in the world and are almost expected to be always available. This can then affect our sleep cycles as we are ‘wired’ and rarely completely switch off. How many of us can say that we have a whole day without looking at our phones or a screen of some kind? I willingly admit to this too. It’s all too easy.
We have increasingly busy lives where we are required to juggle so much more than our ancestors did. Rushing to get to work in the morning or to get the kids ready for school, its easy to have a quick breakfast or even skip it. We are expected to work harder, we have more work and life pressures, days are busy, our dietary choices aren’t always the best ones for us. And then we get home, and we are tired. But it still doesn’t stop. We might fit in a work-out or a run, cook tea, eat it in front of the tv before we spend the rest of the evening catching up with chores, emails, TV, having a cup of coffee or half a bottle of wine. And then collapse into bed (while still looking at social media on our phones) and prepare to do it all over again the next day. It’s easy to feel pressure while all of this is going on too, although we might not even notice it or it just feels normal.
And all the while our busy little adrenal glands are constantly pumping out those hormones which keep us going. And going. And going. Those hormones that are designed to help us deal with short-term stress and initiate our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. And they get pretty exhausted after a while. As do we.
This isn’t a lecture as most of the things I’ve just mentioned, I have done. And with the same effects that I’m talking about here. (Slap on the wrist, I should know better!) It seems just part of life. But it isn’t until we start to feel below par, not right, permanently exhausted with a few other initially minor symptoms thrown in for good measure that we begin to struggle and realise that we need help.
Adrenal fatigue is a term that is being talked about more and more these days, while not quite yet being officially recognised by GPs. Much as M.E. was initially described as “yuppie flu” in the 1980’s.
Adrenal fatigue, otherwise known as Hypoadrenia, is a deficiency in the adrenal gland function and can range from incredibly mild to more advanced. Our adrenals are sensitive little glands that are very easily affected by any physical, emotional, environmental and psychological changes or stress. These may include huge life stresses – a bereavement, moving house, a major illness, the loss of a job or financial pressures – and they may also be a run of minor illnesses, excessive exercise, a poor diet, relationship issues or an unhappy work life. Our adrenals react in exactly the same way to every kind of stress. It’s when these minor stresses are continuous that our adrenals may start to suffer.
Now this is an incredibly simple overview as there is so much more research and evidence out there (Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome by James Wilson is highly recommended reading!) but the most important thing is:
Knowing How To Look After Them!
Just saying “eliminate stress” is impossible. And actually some level of stress is a good thing. It helps us to get things done. It’s only when our bodies are in a permanently highly stressed state that making a few changes to our lives can be helpful. For me, it was cutting out ‘quick energy fixes’ from my diet – out went excessive or poor quality carbohydrates, a high sugar intake and all caffeine, and in came food that was low on the Glycaemic Index and all about keeping my blood sugar levels balanced, in addition to taking appropriate supplements to support my adrenals (I work with the right people for this!).
- A healthy, balanced diet is vital as when you’re feeling exhausted or stressed with little time or energy, the first thing you do is to reach for something to give you that energy fix. Something caffeinated, a chocolate bar, a quick sandwich. And that will initially give you an energy boost but it won’t last. It will raise your blood sugar levels in the short-term but they will quickly drop again and leave you feeling worse. Because when our blood sugar levels drop, we need cortisol to help bring them back into balance again. And for already tired adrenal glands, being driven harder to produce the hormone we need to do this does not help.
- Cut the caffeine, put the diet coke down and try replacing with lots of water or some fruit teas. Just ask about our favourites!
- Try eating every three hours to keep your blood sugar levels balanced. A handful of nuts and a piece of fruit or oatcakes with hummus or almond butter are easy alternatives. And make sure this is in addition to a good breakfast, filling and nutritious lunch and evening meal.
- Go to bed before 11pm! Our cortisol levels often get ” second wind” and have another little surge after 11pm. Which is why if you’re already up and doing something, it’s easy to push through any tiredness and keep going. Making sure you’re in bed, and hopefully already asleep, is a great way of allowing your body to rest at the optimum time.
- And talking of rest, try and make sure you get enough. Although exercise can help your energy levels, frequent high-intensity workouts can burn those little adrenals out even further. Gentle exercise – walks, swimming or yoga will help to relax you and build in calm “me-time” too. If you find tour day becoming overwhelming take five minutes to sit and concentrate on your breathing. Breath in for a count of four and out for a count of eight and simply focus on the breath.
- If you are dealing with a particularly stressful or difficult situation, it can be helpful to seek professional help on how to deal with, or eliminate, the negative effect that these situations or feelings have on your life. Having someone objective and focused on helping you to resolve any issues that may be holding your back or affecting your health can make a world of difference.
- Introduce some gentle exercise. (Note the use of the word ‘gentle’ here!) Yoga, Tai Chi, Nordic/brisk walking, swimming, a fun dance class – anything that you find fun without being really hard work. It should be enjoyable and not a chore or another stress! And if you’re feeling exhausted at the prospect of doing anything physical, start slowly and very gradually increase as and when you feel able.
These six quick tips can be used to improve our general wellbeing – something that we talk a lot about. And it’s identifying what might be causing us anxiety or stress and the effect it may be having on our sense of health and wellbeing that means, with the right help, we have the potential to prevent long-term imbalances, fatigue and a feeling of being below-par and can feel great!