Most of us are very familiar with stress. Whether we’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our way home from work, trying to make sure our kids keep out of trouble, or grappling with world news, stress is coming at us every day from every angle.
Stress is actually something humans have dealt with since the dawn of time (though it’s arguably a much more constant presence today than ever before). Yet, despite how accustomed we’ve become to experiencing periods of stress, few of us truly understand what’s happening inside our bodies when we’re feeling it—and how to best support ourselves through it. Ahead, we explain all that and then some, including the role our adrenals play and how to promote their health.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Kiera Lane, N.M.D., MSAc, L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., is a naturopath and the director of Arizona Natural Medicine. Sarah Connors, N.D., is a naturopathic doctor based in Canada. Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P., is a functional nutritional therapy practitioner. Judith Thompson, N.D., is a naturopathic doctor.
Stress And Your Adrenals
As it turns out, we have two entire organs with the primary responsibility of regulating our stress response: the adrenal glands. These small glands, which are located on top of each kidney, produce a variety of hormones, including adrenaline and the steroids aldosterone and cortisol, explains naturopath Kiera Lane, N.M.D., L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., director of Arizona Natural Medicine.
“The outer part of the gland, called the adrenal cortex, is what produces cortisol, aldosterone, and a small amount of other hormones, while the inner part of adrenal glands, the adrenal medulla, produces adrenaline and noradrenaline, which are important in our ‘fight-or-flight’ response,” she says. “In all, the adrenals are vital and involved in myriad important physiological functions, including regulating and managing stress, energy, inflammation, blood pressure, blood sugar, and our sleep and wake cycles.”
When we experience stress, an area of our brain known as the hypothalamus signals another part of the brain, the pituitary gland, to produce hormones that then signal the adrenal glands to start pumping out the stress hormone cortisol. When excess cortisol is released in our body, we start to experience the symptoms we identify as stress: increased heart rate, sweating, feeling anxious, increased breathing, and the like, explains Canada-based naturopathic doctor Sarah Connors, N.D. “These symptoms occur because our body is preparing to fight or flee for our survival, which was beneficial from an evolutionary perspective but isn’t so useful in our modern world,” she says. “For example, when we are stressed about a situation at work, we can’t simply run away from our job (in most cases).” To add insult to injury, this chain reaction can become a positive feedback loop that ultimately leaves us feeling chronically stressed out.
Often, excess cortisol in the body contributes to fatigue, body aches, trouble concentrating, issues with sleep, and other frustrating symptoms that have come to be known as “adrenal fatigue,” notes functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P.
How To Support Your Adrenals When You’re Stressed
The good news: If we give our adrenals the TLC that they deserve, we can try to counteract the stress reaction within our body, even when exposed to high-stress situations or environments. Here, holistic health experts share some of their best-kept tips for prioritizing your adrenal health when the going gets tough.
1. Sleep, sleep, sleep
Getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night can significantly lower our experience of stress, per the American Psychological Association (APA). “While we are still studying the full importance of and impact of sleep on the body, it is an important time for the body to make repairs for all manner of damage, which can include to our brains, muscles, organs, and immune system—which can impact our adrenals,” says Connors.
“Unfortunately, chronic stress can actually interfere with our sleep and possibly create a vicious cycle of increasing stress and lower quality sleep,” she adds. The best thing to do here is to help reduce your stress levels before bed and set yourself up for a peaceful slumber. Consider shutting off electronics and smart devices at least 30 minutes before hitting the pillow, taking a warm bath, and even journaling.
2. Up your vitamin C intake
You may already eat a nutritious diet, but if you’re looking to bolster your adrenal health, vitamin C is one nutrient to prioritize even more, according to Lane. Why? Of all the organs in your body, the adrenal glands contain some of the highest concentrations of vitamin C. Since humans can’t produce vitamin C ourselves, we must rely on outside sources to get our fair share, notes Lane. “Consider incorporating more vitamin C-rich foods, such as green leafy vegetables, citrus, fruits, papaya, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and strawberries, into your diet,” she says. You can also opt for a vitamin C supplement.
3. Limit or avoid processed sugar
While you’re working on leveling up your vitamin C intake, try to also cut back on the amount of foods you eat that contain processed sugar. According to Lane, when you consume high amounts of sugar, your pancreas releases the hormone insulin (sometimes lots of it), which can then lead to low blood sugar, or that all-too-familiar crash. To help you out of blood sugar crashes, your adrenals start producing the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, which bring blood sugar levels back up and increase your heart rate to boost alertness.
If you only eat sugary foods once in a while, your adrenals can do their job without issue. However, if you’re consuming the amount of sugar in the average American’s diet—which is some 17 teaspoons of sugar each day—your adrenals go into overdrive in response to fluctuating blood sugar.
Read More: The 5 Fruits With The Most And Least Sugar
As such, it’s always a good idea to limit or avoid processed sugars such as candy, cookies, ice cream, and sugary drinks. But it’s especially important when you’re already feeling stressed, Lane says. Additionally, eating plenty of fiber and protein can also help keep blood sugar stable and take a load off your adrenals.
4. Exercise regularly
The impacts of a sedentary modern lifestyle are many—and one is that they inadvertently keep us stuck in stress mode. “One of the big problems with stress in today’s world is that we don’t have the same outlets or opportunities we had in the past to release or relieve our stress,” says Connors. “In the past, we could have run away or fought our way through the challenge to release or fully process that stress. However, in today’s society, many have desk jobs that are highly stressful but don’t have access to many ways to relieve that stress.”
This is where exercise is really helpful. Connors recommends regularly going on walks or runs, or participating in sports to help work off the stressors of day-to-day life. “This physical outlet allows for tension in the body to be released, reducing stress and increasing helpful hormones like endorphins, which also help to combat stress and its effects on the body,” she explains. Bonus points for any form of exercise you do outside, since outdoor activity has been shown to have a greater positive impact on mental health.
5. Try ashwagandha
This adaptogenic herb has been hailed for its ability to promote healthy levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In fact, one study published in The Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that supplementing with 300 milligrams of ashwagandha each day for 60 days helped reduce levels of cortisol and improve feelings of overall well-being in those dealing with chronic stress.
Connors is a fan of this popular herb, noting that taking ashwagandha can help regulate an imbalance of cortisol and nourish the adrenal glands. She recommends taking it in the morning and/or early afternoon, especially if your primary goal is to help manage stress and anxiety throughout the day. While dosages can vary, most people find a sweet spot somewhere between 250 and 600 milligrams a day, she says. (Start on the lower end of that range and gradually work your way up to find yours.)
One important note: “Individuals who suffer from autoimmune conditions or thyroid disorders should consult their healthcare practitioner before taking ashwagandha to avoid contraindications,” Connors adds.
6. Or, consider maca root
Another adaptogen that can help the body cope with symptoms of adrenal fatigue: maca root. “When people have low adrenal gland function, the body preferentially produces cortisol instead of sex hormones, so many people’s libido takes a dip when they’re under a lot of stress,” explains naturopathic doctor Judith Thompson, N.D. While the research is not completely clear, some studies suggest maca influences hormone production by helping to regulate the production of testosterone and estrogen. Thompson has found maca to be massively helpful for those who lose any shred of a sex drive when experiencing stress.
If you’re feeling particularly sluggish but your blood work (including thyroid tests) comes back as normal, consider seeing a naturopathic doctor to assess your adrenal function. It could be that your symptoms are related to a down-regulation of your adrenal glands due to chronic stress, explains Lane. While these at-home solutions can help, it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re under the care of a board-certified practitioner for any concerns regarding stress or energy levels.