We all go through moments of stress which is a normal part of life that helps us grow. But chronic stress has a destructive effect on the whole body, often without people even realising that it is the main culprit of their health issues. Eventually, it leads to a burnout called adrenal fatigue, adrenal insufficiency or hypoadrenia. Stress isn’t just ‘in the head’. It is an actual physiological mechanism which involves approximately 1400 various biochemical reactions. In other words, poor stress tolerance requires a holistic approach and not just stress management techniques.
Stress is body’s response to a stressor. For some, it might be of emotional origin (e.g. trauma), mental (e.g. workload), while others are faced with physiological stress (e.g. chronic inflammation). Regardless of the source, the response is always the same and involves the adrenal glands.
The adrenals and cortisol
During stress, the adrenals release a stress hormone cortisol which helps us fight or flight by providing instant energy. Technically speaking, it raises blood glucose levels so that we have fluel to deal with the stressor. But when stress is ongoing and the adrenals fire cortisol all the time, it eventually ‘exhausts’ the glands, leading to the so called adrenal fatigue - inability to produce sufficient cortisol. It causes a burnout because without cortisol blood sugar cannot be raised any longer... Unless you eat something sweet, have caffeine or alcohol. These, however, cause a blood sugar roller coaster which is a big stressor itself. So unless your diet and lifestyle are balanced, you can get into a vicious cycle of further depleting the adrenals.
When standard blood test shows low cortisol, it already means a pathological state, namely Addison’s disease. In other words, It’s not a great test to indicate burnout as such because cortisol may test normal in the blood but will be functionally low. Instead, 24-hour cortisol cycle salivary or urine test with four samples taken is a better diagnostic tool. Tests are available in most labs but they are not cheap and symptoms are often sufficient to assume an imbalance.
Can you identify yourself with any of these symptoms?
Decreased ability to handle stress
Loss of tolerance (to situations, things, people)
Inability to lose weight , especially around the middle
Low or no libido, poor sexual performance
Low blood pressure, fainting
Dizzy upon standing up
Cravings for salt, sugar, caffeine or alcohol
Anxiety and/or depression
How to restore the adrenals for optimal stress tolerance
1. Reassess your diet:
The adrenals need a regular influx of certain nutrients to function optimally. Therefore, have three solid meals a day, with breakfast being the most important one. All meals should be based on vegetables, quality animal protein and cholesterol. Yes, you read that right. Cortisol is made of cholesterol so the more building block is provided with diet, the more supported the adrenals are. Butter, pastured eggs, quality bacon, seafood, fattier pieces of ethically sourced meat and grass fed dairy are all good sources. Carbohydrates should come from fruits and root vegetables. Fizzy drinks, fruit juice, baked goods, chocolate bars and the like should be avoided because they wreck havoc on your blood sugar. Remember, fluctuating blood glucose is the most undesirable state for the adrenals, regardless of the source of stress. Reduce caffeine and switch to coconut water, highly mineralised water or alternatively water with a pinch of quality salt - these are all great adrenal tonics.
2. Reassess your lifestyle:
Prioritise sleep: often those with adrenal fatigue burn the candle at both ends and are unable to fall asleep because they missed their optimal falling asleep window. Slowly adopt a new habit by going to bed 15-30 minutes earlier each week. Reading books can help tremendously.
Get organised: predictability means safety and safety is relaxing. Organise your to-do lists in the order of priority, try a day planner or get a virtual personal assistant, if you can afford it. Deal with priorities and delegate the rest. Not everything can be controlled but get advantage of what you can.
Stop intense cardio for a while and swap to walking, yoga, pilates, hiking or similar. High intensity exercise raises cortisol which can be even more destructive.
3. Take care of your overall health: cortisol receptors can be found on most cells in the body. Many chronic illnesses are associated with a prolonged stress response. And the other way round – ongoing health issues are stressors themselves and can burn us out without any apparent emotional stress involved. This is when one feels stressed but doesn’t know why.
4. Supplementation: there is a wide array of various adrenal supporting supplements. The most common ones include adaptogens, glandulars, pregnenolone, vitamin C and B vitamins. Supplementation should always be tailored individually because without the expertise, one may further deplete the adrenals (e.g.it’s common to take the ashwagandha which tends to lower cortisol levels).
4. Most importantly, see a specialist: At GLOW, I deal with various health concerns which can successfully be supported with functional nutritional therapy and lifestyle medicine. The cornerstone of my work is uncovering and addressing the underlying causes which can be both, emotional and physiological. Online consultations from any location, visits on yachts and workplaces are available.