Bodies In Balance COLUMNS

Adrenals…The Stress Responders

Ever been in a near accident on your bike, in your car, or just tripping over the curb? You feel a rush of ‘adrenaline’ your heart rate increases and you may feel flushed or sweaty…that’s your adrenals at work. The adrenal glands, which sit above each kidney, are responsible for the output of hormones that are active throughout the body and help modulate our response to stress. We all have stress in our lives from our jobs, our families, our finances; you name it. But other areas that create stress are less recognized; things like allergies, poor quality sleep, chronic pain, anxiety and depression. All these factors can add up, affecting our adrenal health.

When stress continues long-term the adrenals begin to tire out and make inappropriate levels of hormones which can negatively affect our overall health. Although these glands produce a whole list of hormones the two I am focusing on are cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). In a stressful situation cortisol is released to enhance our alertness and ability to deal with the situation. Once the stressful situation abates DHEA comes in to calm the waters and reset the body back to equilibrium. These two hormones like to be in balance, but under chronic stress DHEA becomes outweighed by cortisol. Long-term, high cortisol levels cause unwanted symptoms including weight gain, water retention, suppressed immune function, poor blood sugar control, weakened skin and bones, and altered moods and behavior. High cortisol levels also decrease the active form of thyroid hormone (T3) and therefore may be another treatment option for those with little relief from conventional thyroid replacement.

I think the best type of testing for adrenal health is salivary testing. It is used less frequently by the medical community but is an invaluable tool for looking at adrenal function. Blood testing is another option but blood levels of adrenal hormones tend not to show the subtleties of adrenal health until disease is very advanced. The salivary test looks at cortisol release throughout a day as well as it and DHEA’s total output. I will mention again that salivary testing is not readily available through most medical professionals BUT if there is significant adrenal disease conventional blood, urine or other standard tests may be more suitable.

So what are the treatment options? The most obvious are to decrease or eliminate as many stressors as possible. Sometimes this may mean re-evaluating a job, asking for more responsibility sharing from the family, getting some time alone, taking a vacation, etc. Identifying more subtle stressors like poor sleep or allergies, and treating them is also a necessary addition to the treatment plan. But as with all things easier said than done we cannot always quit our job or find a better family. So then the discussion turns not so much to eliminating stressors but how you manage stress.

Stress management is an art unto itself and in our hustle bustle world it is a challenge to many. The adrenals love routine which makes sense since they are one of the key players in helping the body to maintain balance. I encourage my patients to get routine in the following ways. Eat regularly this ensures that the body is being consistently nourished and able to handle blood sugar challenges appropriately. Sleep between the hours of 10pm and 4am, again easier said than done for some but if you are at least attempting to do something relaxing and restful in those hours your adrenals will thank you. Exercise regularly, not only will this assist with energy and fitness it is also a terrific way to recharge the adrenals. Lastly do something relaxing everyday, I love the evening bath, others enjoy crafting, music, a good book, journaling; whatever it is it should be something that gets you out of that hustle bustle mentality.

After proper evaluation your health care provider may opt to supplement with DHEA. This is a hormone that should not be taken unless it has been determined that you are deficient; and although it is widely available does not mean it is appropriate for everyone. There are other supplements that support adrenal function, which may be safer options for those who have not been evaluated and are under chronic stress. Vitamin C is highly concentrated in the adrenals; taking 2-3 grams a day in divided doses may improve function. Vit. C at this dosage could be aggravating to the stomach causing gurgling and looser stools however, so take to your tolerance, even smaller amounts will be beneficial. B vitamins are essential for the metabolic pathways of many hormones the adrenals produce. Especially important are B5 and B6, but as always, take a B complex when taking any one B vitamin therapeutically. B vitamins are water-soluble and should be taken in divided doses throughout the day with food. Minerals such as Zinc, Potassium and Magnesium are also necessary for the adrenal’s metabolic pathway.

There are some terrific herbs for adrenal health. They work on a variety of levels from enhancing the life of adrenal hormones to nourishing the glands themselves. My top picks for adrenal health are Ginseng and Rhodiola. Ginseng has a variety of types there is American and Korean and really either/any of them are going to be fantastically helpful for adrenal health. Rhodiola is a Siberian herb which I like for use in stressful situations. I find it well suited to someone who is going through a particularly challenging time as opposed to Ginseng which is a more broadly useful herb for general adrenal health all the time…they work well together!!

Stress is a reality of living in our modern world. Remember to nourish your adrenal glands by taking time to relax and work on your stress management techniques, it will contribute to a body in balance.

DO something you LOVE, BE with someone you LOVE, EAT your vegetables, DRINK clean water, BREATHE deeply, and MOVE your body EVERYDAY!!

By Tracy Erfling

Dr. Tracy Erfling is a naturopath physician in the Lower Columbia Region. Questions?