What do you know about the Adrenal glands?
Did you know that they are almond-sized glands that sit atop the kidneys? Or that they are part of the endocrine system and regulate much of the same cellular functions that our thyroids are responsible for? Or that there is a massive connection between stress, the adrenal glands and poor thyroid function?
What You Need to Know About the Adrenal Glands
There is no doubt that the adrenal glands and stress impact our Thyroid health. This concept is well studied and understood by most. The adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system and much like the thyroid they regulate the metabolic, immune, cognitive and digestive processes in the body, in addition to balancing our blood sugar, blood pressure, electrolytes and most of our hormones.
When we experience any kind of stress whether it be good, bad, emotional, mental or physical, our hypothalamus signals our pituitary gland which then signals our adrenals to pump out stress hormones, specifically, Cortisol. When this happens, the other functions that are regulated by the Adrenals temporarily take a back seat.
Look at it like this. Back in primitive times, our bodies became stressed by two main factors, one of them being widespread famine and the other being chased by a wild, vicious animal. The problem is, we are still primitive creatures, the only difference is we become stressed by things that did not exist way back then. Think things like traffic, making plans, working, deadlines, planning weddings, financial troubles, raising kids, waking up in the morning, talking to people we don't know, dealing with under-researched medical conditions, growing plants, taking care of pets, paying bills, jury duty, school, scary movies, roller coasters, you name it and it probably causes your body stress. Your hypothalamus cannot tell the difference between a little road rage in 5 o clock traffic, and being chased by a tiger or bear. It literally does not see a difference. This is normal, and the production of cortisol is a very necessary part of living a functional life, but the problems arise when our bodies are under chronic stress and our adrenals become "fatigued". (Side note: Conventional medicine does not recognize the term "Adrenal Fatigue" because our Adrenals cannot actually become fatigued, it is just a lay mens term for the condition called, HPA dysfunction, meaning Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal Dysfunction).
When we are chronically stressed, our digestive, cognitive, thyroid and immune health take a back seat, and this time, it is not temporary. When our adrenals go into over drive, we get sick. Our sex hormones go wacky, our TSH spirals, our brain becomes foggy, our metabolism gives up on most of the foods we are used to consuming. We essentially become fat, confused and depressed. Anyone relate?
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a stress hormone produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands. Your body needs cortisol to function adequately but too much or too little of this hormone can have extremely dangerous and damaging impacts on the body. When our Adrenals are overworking themselves, the production of cortisol (and other essential hormones) gets wacky and causes all sorts of health concerns. In cases of chronically high cortisol, our adrenals become so focused on pumping out this hormone that other essential hormones like progesterone, for example, are of less importance to the body. This can lead to long term health complications.
So What Happens to My Thyroid When I am Stressed?
Well, in short, it slows down. This is not worrisome when the stress is temporary, but it becomes highly problematic when we are under chronic stress and even more problematic when we already suffer from hypothyroidism or other thyroid diseases.
In addition to slowing the thyroid, chronically high cortisol in the body's tissues impact the enzymes that are responsible for converting the inactive T4 hormone into the very necessary and important active hormone, T3. Chronically high stress can convert the T3 we do have into Reverse T3, causing our bodies to stores excess belly fat and greatly impacting the metabolism. Think about it, if theres a widespread famine, or wild animals chasing us the body will want to store fat to keep you from starvation, as well as make you completely infertile by throwing off progesterone production. Your body knows in times like these, it is not smart to bear a child. In a very odd way, your body is always trying to protect you. Your body perceives all stress as the same, and this is a key takeaway from today's post. Remember this next time you yell out your car window at someone who cuts you off (I am SO guilty of this).
In addition to impacting the thyroid gland itself, high cortisol suppresses the immune system making you more susceptible to autoimmunity and viral infections. It can wreak havoc on your gut lining as well, leading to intestinal permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut syndrome which directly links to autoimmune diseases.
How Do I Know If I Have High Cortisol?
You can test it, however your levels change throughout the day to adapt to your individual life. Your cortisol should be highest in the morning, giving you the boost of energy you need for your day, and lowest at night, allowing your body to reset and rest. You can't effectively measure that in a blood test. Cortisol is also present in your tissues so it could be more effective to do saliva testing throughout the day, this is more of a functional medicine perspective and conventional doctors may not provide this kind of testing.
Another way of knowing or suspecting your cortisol might be higher than normal is by checking your blood pressure. The key is to check it while laying down in a relaxed position, and then immediately checking again when standing upright. Your blood pressure should go up by approximately 10 units to support the gravitational change of the body. When our adrenals are overworked, this often does not happen and the blood pressure stays about the same. This is an effective way to discover adrenal issues.
Bend over and touch your toes, stay like this for about 30 seconds. Stand up and see how you feel. Are you dizzy? Is your heart beating faster than normal? Are you seeing stars? That would be your adrenal glands.
One more tell tale sign of adrenal issues or high cortisol is abnormal weight gain, exhaustion after exercise, water retention and bloating, hormonal imbalances, thyroid issues even with balanced TSH and meds, mood swings, slowed healing of wounds, poor immune function, insomnia and even poor hair health!!
SO...What Do I Do?
Well, good question.
I am not going to pretend like I have conquered this one. The number one thing you can do to lower your cortisol production and refocus the adrenal glands is to change the way you view stress in your life. I am working on this every single day, but the truth is, I have road rage, I freak out when a bee is close to me, I sometimes have social anxiety but am very good at hiding it. The key is what you do after the fact. Naturally, you will jump at the sight of a bee but once it has flown away from you it is crucial that you take a second to acknowledge that you're fine, there's no danger and you can be calm again. Seems dramatic, but if you do this in stressful situations you can begin to balance things out. I have recently started to leave earlier for work, giving myself enough time so that when the driver in front of me wants to go 10 below the speed limit I can remind myself to slow down too. I listen to podcasts or calming music in the car and take deep breaths. Taking it one day at a time.
Here are 6 things you can do to reset the adrenals and balance your cortisol production:
1. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE TREATED THE THYROID
First and foremost, make damn sure you are on optimal meds if needed, and that your thyroid panel is looking GOOD. The adrenals and Thyroid are intricately connected so you need to do your part to ensure the health of these glands.
2. EAT AN ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DIET
Cut out processed foods, eat a diet rich in veggies, protein and complex carbs. My suggestion, eat 1/3 to 1/2 of your body weight (lbs) in protein, whether it be protein powder, lean and clean meats, or plant-based proteins! Hold off on carbs until dinner time, eating carbs with dinner is essential to your adrenal health. Go for carbs like organic quinoa, organic brown rice, red lentils, organic chick peas, sweet potatoes, cauliflower and ~small~ amounts of organic potato, around 4-5 hours before bed. Add some adaptogenic herbs into your diet too!! Lessen the caffeine intake as well. Slowly reduce the amount of coffee you drink daily. Try a swiss-water filtered decaf when possible!
3. CONSISTENT SLEEP SCHEDULE
You should be getting a minimum of 7 full, uninterrupted hours of sleep every single night. Having a sleep routine allows the body to relax. My suggestion is go to sleep from 10-11pm every night and wake up at 7am. You need complete darkness while you sleep to produce effective amounts of melatonin, but open the curtains as soon as you wake to naturally rise.
4. FRANKINCENSE OIL ON THE BOTTOM OF YOUR FEET
if you are familiar with reflexology you know that the adrenal gland pressure point if in the middle of the bottoms of our feet alongside the kidney pressure point. Frankincense has been researched to be a great immune system builder and can balance cortisol production. Apply 6 times throughout the day and do not dilute. Hey, I just started doing it and cant promise that it works but it's worth a try.
5. TRY MEDITATING
I recently started meditating and I must say I already feel more in tune with my body and breathing. I even ate all my meals in silence today and felt very present in the moment. I lay down to meditate because when I sit up I tend to focus too much on my back hurting. It's also okay to get distracted, just pull yourself back into the moment when you catch yourself drifting.
6. CHILL OUT WITH THE HIGH INTENSITY WORK OUTS
For a moment last year I really thought I was becoming a fitness ~QUEEN~ and then in the span of one month I put on nearly 20 pounds! I was doing high intensity workouts 5-6 days a week and my body was begging me to stop. Try yoga, lighter weights with more reps, and fast walking. You should still be breaking a sweat but you should not feel like you're dying.
All in all you'll need to reduce the things that are causing you stress. If that means cutting out friends who suck at being friends, or quitting a job and moving back in with family then sometimes its what has to be done for healing. It's all about perception.
Remember, everything that has happened in your life has lead you to this moment.
Thank you for reading,
Diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease and Hypothyroidism, Victoria Gasparini explores the reality of living with chronic illness through her blog, The Butterfly Effect. Victoria seeks to spread awareness of autoimmunity and writes to inspire chronically ill patients to live wholesome lives beyond their health struggles.
You can also find Victoria on Instagram and Facebook