How Superwomen Stay Sane: The Adrenal Fatigue Link
In this second article in a two-part series, three Vytal Health clinicians–Dr. Tiffany Mullen, functional medicine doctor, Dr. Julie Briley, naturopathic doctor, and Patty Stark, health & wellness coach–provide helpful tips on having it all without giving it all away.
Of all of the hormonal imbalances associated with Superwoman Syndrome, adrenal fatigue is probably the least understood. Let’s look closer at this real clinical problem and what you can do to manage it.
Starting with the basics: adrenal glands are very important glands that sit atop each kidney. They produce many important hormones. Some of these hormones help the body manage fluid levels. The adrenals also produce small amounts of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone in both women and men. Most importantly, adrenals are the epicenter of our stress hormones: adrenaline (or epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and cortisol.
Adrenaline and noradrenaline are responsible for the feeling of “butterflies in the stomach” when a threat occurs. Someone cuts you off on the highway–whoosh! There they are. Their job is to provide the right conditions in the body to survive a given threat. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are usually then quickly broken down and leave the body, and we go on with life.
Cortisol is a different beast. Chronic stressors wreak havoc on the production of cortisol, initially causing it to remain elevated when it should rise and fall in a given 24-hour period. Symptoms of high cortisol include:
- Feeling wired and tired (exhausted, but unable to rest)
- Waking up in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep
- Weight gain (typically at the belly)
- Blood sugar fluctuations
- Digestive problems (loose stools, food intolerances, leaky gut)
If elevated levels are left unchecked for a long period of time, cortisol can bottom out, resulting in significant, unrelenting fatigue.
Testing for adrenal fatigue involves simply collecting saliva samples at four different times of a 24-hour period. We also often check DHEA-S (a hormone that helps the body manufacture other hormones, including cortisol). Low levels can indicate adrenal fatigue as well.
How is adrenal fatigue managed? The most important aspect is evaluating your response to stress. Perhaps you are “spinning stories”–going over and over a scenario that upsets you. Maybe you engage in codependent behavior. Learning about your behavioral patterns and making a plan to change them goes a long way to improving your outlook (which makes your adrenals so happy!).
Keep reading to learn more! Patty Stark will give you some great tips on how to work with a health & wellness coach to break unnecessary stress cycles. Then Dr. Julie Briley will break down how nutrition and supplements (including herbal medications) can be used to support your adrenal function.
How to Break the Cycles of Consistent Stress
More and more, Superwomen begin to think that the world of never-ending to-do lists, exhaustion and overwhelm are normal. It’s the only way she’s ever existed except for those delicious college years where the stress was one dimensional and only around test and project prep. But now, here she is, spinning plate after plate, enduring shame for plates crashing and wondering how other women do it. It’s so hard to get out from under the chronic stress, especially when cortisol levels are involved and middle of the night wake ups creep in adding to the brain fog and panic.
This is where a health and wellness coach can help. You may not even realize there are simple lifestyle changes you can make that will significantly reduce your stress levels. Or maybe you have tried a half a dozen things to try and regain some balance and none of them seem to stick. A health coach knows there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. She also knows change is not linear and she will support those steps forward as much as those steps back. After a meeting with your health coach, you are much more likely to:
- Better understand the stress response . You’ve heard of fight or flight. But rarely do we ever need those intense responses to our day-to-day stressors. You will learn how to recognize when your body and mind shift into this mode and how to handle it, how to get out of that cortisol cascade that is so damaging to your body.
- Identify your personal stress triggers. There may be a few you didn’t even realize, but a health advocate, over time, can help you uncover them.
- Learn how to manage your thoughts moods and energy . So often we think these aspects of our lives are just there, and we have to accept whatever it is they’re selling. A health coach can help support your mindset shift so you can better weed out the parts of your thought patterns that aren’t serving you, thus making room for the joy!
- Learn stress management techniques . A health coach can help you create your own personalized toolbox of methods that can easily be woven into a busy day. The science supports these small changes as having a profoundly positive impact over time, in fact, in as little as three weeks!
- Create long term systemic change . Self-awareness and practice will be the secret weapons a Superwoman can refine in order to make neurological shifts in the brain, leading to calmer responses to conflict, improved professional and personal performance and increased resilience that allows us to push through the toughest of days.
Nutrition, Supplements and Herbals to Treat Adrenal Fatigue
Addressing imbalances stress hormones requires a holistic approach. Removing stressors and improving unhealthy stress response patterns are essential to restoring your adrenal health. I already mentioned some of the many diet and lifestyles strategies that can help support your natural cortisol curve so you feel alert and focused during the day, and relaxed and ready to sleep at night. Supplements and herbs can also play a crucial role by providing specific nutrients needed to make your stress hormones and by supporting energy, blood sugar, mood, and sleep. There is no one-size fits all approach — each Superwoman requires and deserves an individualized approach. A naturopathic doctor will help support your individual needs and create the holistic plan needed to help you feel your best.
Vitamin C. Here’s a fun fact: your adrenal glands have the highest connection of vitamin C in your body. Also, vitamin C is used more rapidly when your stressed, leading to depletion and reducing your ability to make cortisol. Consuming foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and dark leafy greens, in addition to supplementation can help ensure adequate intake for adrenal health.
Magnesium is an important mineral needed to make cortisol and it’s also one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. Amino acid chelate forms of magnesium, such as magnesium citrate or glycinate are well-absorbed and help support healthy cortisol levels. Magnesium also promotes sleep and muscle relaxation- which are important for the overworked Superwoman.
B-Vitamins, especially pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) is needed in higher amounts to make cortisol when your stressed. Taking a high-quality methylated B-vitamin complex can help improve your energy and mood.
Adaptogenic herbs or “adaptogens” are a unique group of plants that help to mediate stress and can improve your physiologic response to stress. Common adaptogens used to help improve adrenal function are ashwaghanda, holy basil, rhodiola, ginseng, and licorice root. Your naturopathic doctor will recommend specific adaptogenic herbs based on your cortisol curve as well as your symptoms, whether you are exhausted, stressed and anxious, or feel wired and tired.
In addition to adaptogens, other herbs and nutrients might be recommended to reduce inflammation, balance blood sugar, or reduce anxiety.
At Vytal Health, we focus on solving health problems others can’t. Our video appointments bring experts from across the country into your home or office and are great for everyone as they fit into our crazy and hectic schedules and ensure that you have the time you need to feel heard and get all of your questions answered.