Here’s a scenario I see over and over, busy women who complain that even though they exercise and try to eat right, still cannot seem to lose weight. They are frustrated and up the effort without avail. What’s going on? New research now supports what nutritionists and naturopaths have known for years–up to 80 percent of adult Americans suffer from some level of adrenal exhaustion and this is impacting our physical and emotional health, causing everything from weight gain to an impaired immune system and insomnia. So what are the adrenals, how do they figure into our weight and health problems, and what can we do to heal them today?
The adrenals are star shaped endocrine glands that sit on top of the kidneys and regulate several hormones–the two most important being cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline (the fight or flight hormone). These hormones evolved to deal with short-term stress. If our ancestors had to run from a predator, for example, the adrenals would boost adrenaline, to sharpen the senses and make us super focused on survival, and cortisol, to increase the rate protein is converted to energy and release sugar so that our bodies could respond quickly and strongly to danger. All in all, the adrenals increase heart rate, decrease metabolism, and tense our muscles so that we are lean, mean fighting (or fleeing) machines. When the danger passes our bodies return to normal fairly quickly. The problem, however, is that our bodies, and our adrenals, are not adapted to the chronic, unrelenting stress of our modern world. Constant stress is put on our adrenals every single day—everything from chaotic traffic and schedules, lack of sleep (the adrenals restore themselves from eleven at night until nine in the morning), to the emotional stress caused by financial, job, and relationships responsibilities.
When we are so chronically stressed, our adrenals are pumping out too much cortisol and adrenaline. Studies have shown that increased cortisol in the body leads to weight gain, especially around the stomach area. When the adrenals become exhausted it can lead to low thyroid as well, which also causes weight gain. In addition, adrenal exhaustion leads to poor immune function, poor hormone regulation, insomnia, and chronic fatigue.
How do you test for adrenal exhaustion? Obviously a doctor can figure this out for you to be sure, but here are some common symptoms:
- Pattern of being groggy and not fully waking up for several hours. A dip in energy level between 2–5 in the afternoon and again around 9–10 in the evening.
- Craving high amounts of salt and fat
- A high frequency of cold and flu
- Weight gain around the middle and/or inability to lose weight
- Lightheaded feeling when standing from a lying down or sitting position
- Increased symptoms of PMS in women
- Trembling when upset
Although it may take some time to bring your adrenals back to health, it is entirely possible with a balanced and natural approach. Taking care of your adrenals is all about taking care of YOU.
A Five-Pronged Approach
Sleep: Since the adrenals restore themselves between eleven at night and nine in the morning, it is important to sleep during this time and for as long as you can. If you cannot, try to spend your awake time doing things that are gentle on the body and emotions—listen to tranquil music, stretch lightly, avoid arguments.
Breathe: Often, proper breathing can help to short-circuit the stress response. Becoming aware of how you breathe is the first step. When you are stressed out is your breath short and rapid (this is a panic response which increases adrenaline and heart rate) or do you hold your breathe (a fear response which increases cortisol)? Work on making yourself take deep breaths, filling the entire stomach cavity and especially the lower back, which is the bottom of the lungs and, in Chinese Medicine, shares a meridian with the adrenal glands.
Eat Well: Craving salt, fat, and sugar is a hallmark of adrenal exhaustion. We crave salt because the electrolyte balance—another function of the adrenals—is often out of whack. Eating foods rich in potassium, reducing salt and sugar intake, and increasing your consumption of water are three ways to help restore the kidneys.
Herbs: Several supplements are great in helping the adrenals recover:
- Siberian Ginseng: An “adaptogen,” which helps the body adapt to stress, it also gives us energy and vitality
- Ashwagandha: Is a great nerve tonic that also helps to rebuild the digestive system.
- Rhodiola Rhosea: Improves memory and concentration and reduces stress-induced fatigue.
- Cordyceps: This mushroom is, far and away, the best herb for reducing adrenal stress. It also increases immune, kidney, and liver function as well as increases the utilization of oxygen in the body.
Gentle Exercise: Exercise is a great stress reliever but too vigorous exercise can further stress exhausted adrenals, which in turn can lead to exercise induced asthma (again, since the lungs and adrenals are on the same meridian in Chinese Medicine). Gentle swimming, walking, light jogging, hiking, and cycling are all great ways to cleanse the body and reduce stress while restoring your adrenals to health. Certain yoga poses, such as simple cross leg pose, bound bridge pose, and corpse pose are also healing for the adrenals. In kundalini yoga, the adrenals are also tied to the ego and anger and exercises to help reduce anger also are miraculous for adrenals.
While it make take some time and dedication to get the adrenals soothed and in optimal shape, it is well worth it. You will be able to lose weight more efficiently, deal with stress better, get sick less often, and feel more happiness, vitality, and energy over the long run.