Adrenals – what are they + what is Adrenal Fatigue

adrenal fatigue, nature's marathon

It’s that time of year with everyone rushing around, the year winding up, feeling like there’s never enough hours in the day to do it all, stumbling our way through December and just hanging out for some time off over Christmas. You can feel the frazzled energy in the air, you can hear it in people’s voices and it’s contagious too. Does it feel like your running a race that you just can’t finish no matter how hard you try?

Tired but wired. I know this feeling well. It’s nature’s marathon and it’s all about your adrenals.

 

So what are your adrenals?

 

The adrenal glands are two small walnut shaped organs that sit on top of your kidneys. What they lack in physical size, they make up in their superman efforts in producing hormones that are required in numerous hormone-related functions within the body.

The adrenals are part of the broader endocrine system, headed up by the pituitary gland in the brain. The adrenals play play a vital role in the hormonal cascade as the body deals with any types of acute day to day stress and more longer term chronic pressures.

Each gland contains an outer adrenal cortex, which is responsible for producing hormones called steroid hormones – including aldosterone and cortisol. Aldosterone helps control your blood pressure and fluid balance by managing the balance of the electrolytes potassium and sodium.

Cortisol works in conjunction with adrenaline and noradrenaline, which are produced within the inside portion of the adrenal glands, called the medulla. Cortisol also helps regulate your metabolism, sugar levels, and blood pressure.This triple threat are the hormones your body deploys to help to regulate our reaction to stress.

I like to think of adrenaline as a 200m sprinter; it serves you directly in the time of stress, our body’s natural primitive ‘fight or flight’ response, it is honed to make you run faster, carry you to safety. In this state of adrenalin rushing through the body, various bodily functions which are not vital to immediate survival are shut down like the digestive system which enables blood and energy to rush to our extremities to run.

Cortisol is more of an endurance athlete, more like a marathon runner. Cortisol is activated in more a low level, long term stressful situation. In modern day life this can be many things – a stressful career, family pressures, consistent relationship issues, financial stress, lack of sleep, improper diet, mental health issues or living an environment that is heavily polluted or in a house full of chemicals and mould.

While it has its designated role in the body’s stress mechanisms, coritsol can also be extremely depleting for the body –

  • weakening the immune system so you are more prone to picking up viruses and other illness
  • decreases bone formation and favoring long-term development of osteoporosis
  • insulin resistance and blood sugar imbalances
  • decreases the calcium absorption in the intestine
  • decrease general nutrient absorption in the intestine due to lack of decent digestive function
  • inhibits collagen production which we need for healthy connective tissue in muscles, joints, ligaments as well healthy skin, hair and nails
  • inhibits wound healing
  • can affect our cognitive function, memory and ability to learn information
  • lowers our ability to then handle short term stressful situations
  • can affect sleep quality and circadian rhythms – our sleep/wake cycle
  • can lead to a complete ‘blow-out’ when our body can no longer even produce adequate levels of cortisol

The adrenal glands get easily strained as these are the first ones to reply in the course of stressful conditions whether it is psychological, physical, emotional or environmental. We often realise a physical stress easily as we might be very fatigued or be rushing through life and feel our body holding tension, but it can take longer to notice that you are being mentally or emotionally stressed by something.

Having a thyroid disease means I am extra careful in looking after my adrenal health as they interact on the same hormonal axis in the body and are ultimately affected by each other in every move. A huge step in healing my thyroid was dealing with my adrenal issues. As well as a genetic predisposition and a potential viral instigator, I have no doubt that the underlying stress on my adrenals was certainly a factor in triggering my Hashimoto’s.

As a professional ballerina, I work with adrenaline hand in hand across my day, naturally some days more than others. It can be a very friendly feeling, a partner in crime so to speak. Even learning new roles in the studio or being in a particular choreographic process can result in a release of adrenaline. You want to do your best and adrenaline can actually make you focus more clearly and be a big positive.

Going on stage without the rush of adrenalin can sometimes be unsettling, feeling like you are a little off your mark or a little flat. Post performance, the thrill of adrenalin is a full body sensation of warmth, satisfaction and sense of achievement that any dancer or athlete can identify with so clearly. You are buzzing  and on a total high.

Naturally, after a short time the body produces noradrenaline, to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of what makes us get up and run from the tiger in the jungle!) The body begins to calm down, relief and relaxation set in and you might feel hungry, thirsty or like it’s time for bed. This is a natural hormonal process and how the body is attuned to handle immediate stress and then relax back into normal life.

The problem comes when our little marathon runner, cortisol, can’t seem to get off the track. He’s like Forrest Gump, just keep running. I relate this feeling to being ‘tired and wired.’ I feel so fatigued, heavy, lethargic but on the inside there’s alarm bells ringing and my brain is thinking at a hundred thoughts a second, unable to slow down. Physically slow but mentally charged.

It’s not a nice feeling, but now I know the ways I can set myself back on the path to balance. My Balance Point(e)s.

This has now become a lifestyle for me, a way of living. While I am not in the mindset of avoiding stress at any cost, in life and in a highly functioning career as a ballerina, I am aware to minimise the internal marathons on a daily basis. It’s only improved my quality of life and my ability to stay healthy.

It means picking up the warning signs early – persistent fatigue, poor sleep, needing too much caffeine, sugar cravings, feeling rushed, anxiety, unable to concentrate in rehearsals, poor wound healing, a puffy face from sub-optimal fluid/electrolyte balance, feeling always like you have to be somewhere or doing something, waking up tired but not being able to sleep at night, needing to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. They are all some of my warning signs.

Magnesium my favourite mineral is also important. “A combination of a magnesium deficiency and stress can create a vicious cycle. This is due to the fact that the adrenal glands secrete additional cortisol understress which also interferes with magnesium absorption. Even a mild magnesium deficiency predisposes a susceptibility to stress which inturn may induce or exacerbate the magnesium deficiency.” Jill Thomas, Albert Park Naturopathy in her book Revival

I take greater measures to fuel my body with absolute nourishing foods, even when and especially when I just want sugar. I eat more greens, take in more good fats, drink more water, resist the extra coffee, eat more protein with meals to balance my blood sugar levels, similarly not eating carbohydates alone and getting that sugar high, I nap in the day before performances, I slow down and lie on the grass and disconnect from the ‘connected’ world, I meditate twice a day for 10 minutes at a time, I read, I remove myself from highly stressed or ‘buzzing’ people so as to save my precious energy and not cultivate any more buzzing, I put my to-do list on hold and just breathe.

I do anything that brings me back to that calm and peaceful place. Collectively, step by step, I encourage the little man inside to stop running inside, that it’s okay to take his shoes off and hop off that track.

And I see my naturopath who usually prescribes a beautiful herbal adrenal formula that keeps me in peak balanced condition. This supplement often stays as part of a preventative measure if we can foresee especially busy and stressful times ahead. When we are performing for months on end, especially the chronic albeit enjoyable stress of 24 shows Swan Lake, it has really supported me through this time and enabled me to stay injury free, mainly healthy and balanced.

I believe these adrenal herbs have their place as part of a regime that includes all the self-care measures I have in place for myself. No supplement can ever fill the gap that is not taking good care of yourself holistically and keeping yourself in balance. But the support is there.

Adrenotone is a herbal formula by Metagenics that helps naturally strengthen and support the adrenal glands. It is a great daily, high quality herbal adaptogenic formula for everyday and long term support of the adrenals. By strengthening the adrenal glands, the adaptogenic herbs enable the body to cope with the adverse effects of long-term stress, increasing energy and resistance in these who are debilitated or stressed.

Adrenotone contains Withania somnifera root, Siberian Ginseng, Glycyrrhiza glabra root (Liquorice but not the lolly kind!), Rhodiola rosea, Panax ginseng and Tyrosine. There are other formulas out there and a Naturopath or Herbalist can help you out with what would best suit your condition and your current health status.

In any case, adrenal health is critically important to how we live and enjoy our lives. Particularly at stressful points in our lives and especially in the lead up to Christmas, let’s all be a little nicer to ourselves and buck the curve and do a little less, rush a little less and breathe a little more. Take time to look after the little runners inside you and they will have you running in balance for a lot longer yet!

 

Important Note – I am by no means in any position to personally recommend, prescribe or advise on any health supplement or health condition that you may have. I always advise that you go and see your licensed medical professional, Naturopath or Herbalist to talk about your particular concerns and condition. Read my disclaimer here.

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