How to recover from adrenal dysfunction
In my last article, I talked about the role of stress in hormone balance, inflammation and adrenal dysfunction - if you haven’t read it yet you can link back to it here. You would be right to assume that in order to reduce adrenal dysfunction and the debilitating symptoms that come along with it, you need to reduce stress; reducing stress on the body helps us to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as our ‘rest and digest’ system, which supports in reducing elevated cortisol and helps bring us into a calmer state. However, stress doesn’t only refer to that crazy work schedule or the kids driving you mad - there are a number of physical and emotional stressors that need to be tackled in order to take control of your symptoms.
In this article, I’ll be exploring the different types of stressors that could be contributing to hormone imbalances, inflammation and adrenal dysfunction, and looking at simple solutions that you can begin to implement now, so that you can start to feel more like you again.
When looking at emotional stress, an under-recognised source is historical stress; perhaps your parents divorced when you were young, you sadly lost a loved one or experienced another poignant or traumatic event. These, as well as historical illnesses and viruses (such as glandular fever), all make up a big part of our health history and can have impacts on our stress level right up to the present day. Of course, current emotional stress should also be included in this section - if you’re self employed, work long hours, perform shift work or have a complicated family situation, these could be adding additional stress to your body. Finally, our thought processes, self perception and relationships should be considered, as these can all be possible stressors (1).
To combat emotional stressors (both past and present) you need to work on actively reducing anxiety and stress in your life - yoga, meditation, mindfulness, breathing techniques and practising gratitude can all be great ways to do this. Personal development work can also be really useful to become more aware of your needs, which in turn can reduce stress. Other options include prioritising your time, saying no when you need to and dedicating time to activities that you enjoy; if you feel historical emotional stressors are a big contributor to your stress levels, you may wish to consider working through them with a therapist.
Looking after your body from the inside out...
Nutrient depletion is a big contributor to adrenal dysfunction - and nutrients also become deplete during prolonged stress - so eating a nutrient-dense diet will help to nourish you and relieve symptoms. Moving away from processed foods to more nutrient-dense, whole foods is a good way to start this process. Regulating your blood sugar is also extremely important (you can read my article on regulating blood sugar. Essentially, good blood sugar control means reducing the extreme peaks and troughs, which happens when you consume a lot of carbohydrates throughout the day, and can make you feel lethargic and moody. Eating more nutrient-dense foods will help your body more efficiently turn food into energy (which no doubt you’ll be lacking with adrenal dysfunction!) as well as replacing depleted nutrients (2).
You can do this by reducing less nutrient-dense, processed carbohydrates (such as pasta and bread) and increasing the amount of nutritious carbohydrates you eat from roots, fruits and shoots. Also, be sure to include a source of protein and good-quality fat with each meal - including saturated fats such as butter, ghee and coconut oil. Stimulants such as tea, coffee, sugar and fizzy drinks increase cortisol levels and so add to the inflammatory response, so try to reduce your intake of these (1,2). Finally, supplements can be a great addition for those struggling with symptoms of inflammation - head over to my ‘5 plants to harmonise your health’ article to find out which natural supplements may complement your lifestyle.
Finally, there are some physical stressors to be aware of - intense exercise being one of them. Although exercise is very beneficial for us, taking part in high-intensity activities, such as long runs, crossfit or tabata training, can actually be counterintuitive for those struggling with adrenal dysfunction, as it increases levels of cortisol - meaning increased inflammation and stress. Instead, swap for lower intensity work, such as pilates, swimming, walking or resistance training (3). If you can get outside while exercising, even better! Being in nature has been shown to significantly reduce stress levels.
As our circadian rhythms are affected during adrenal dysfunction, sleep is another incredibly important factor to consider - both getting enough and getting good quality sleep. A good way to start improving your sleep length and quality is to practice sleep hygiene; going to bed and getting up at similar times every day (even at the weekend), not using screens in the evening (blue light from screens reduces melatonin levels which discourages sleep) and setting a bedtime routine can really promote good quality sleep. Aim for 6-9 hours a night (4).
You may feel you have a lot of areas to work on - but don’t stress! It doesn’t all need to be tackled at once. In fact, I’d recommend taking your time with it, as you don’t want to become overwhelmed and further add to your stress levels. Start by choosing one area that feels most achievable for you, and work on that. As you begin to feel better, you can start to incorporate more of the advice in this article. Finally, if you feel you would benefit from some support, consider working with a registered nutritionist, nutritional therapist or functional medicine practitioner, who will be able to guide you through the process at a pace that suits you and your lifestyle.
Wilson JL Adv Integr Med 2014; 2(1): 93-96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aimed.2014.05.002
Stachowicz M et al Eur Food Res Technol 2016; 242: 2001-2009. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00217-016-2772-3.
Brooks KA et al J Nov Physiother 2013; 3(1): 1-5. http://dx.doi.org/10.4172/2165-7025.1000125
Sleep Foundation (2020) Sleep hygiene. Available at: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/sleep-hygiene (Accessed: 27th September 2020)