Let's begin with the basics, what are the adrenal glands? The adrenal glands are walnut shaped organs that sit on the kidneys. They are responsible for producing and secreting hormones that regulate our metabolism, our stress response, our reproductive health and blood pressure. These hormones are secreted in a manner that is tightly regulated and has widespread effects throughout the body.
The adrenals can be profoundly impacted by stress both physical and emotional. Prolonged stress, even low level (i.e work, school, home life), poor sleep patterns, overuse of stimulants(i.e caffeine) and chronic illness could impact the adrenals enough to trigger a state of hypo-functioning. This state of hypo-functioning or insufficiency is known as adrenal fatigue and it can lead to decreased hormone levels in the body. The nature of the function of the organ leads to a series of symptoms that may not exactly present as a physical illness, but a general feeling of being "unwell". The symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue can have a slow insidious onset or occur after a stressful event such as childbirth or an acute infection such as pneumonia or influenza.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue can manifest as:
o Decreased ability to cope with stress, feeling overwhelmed.
o Chronic racing thoughts, decreased concentration, brain fog, fuzzy thinking, low mood, irritability.
o Decreased libido(sex drive), aggravated premenstrual syndrome symptoms, menstrual cycle abnormalities.
o Constipation, weight gain, or inability to lose weight, particularly in the abdomen and thighs.
o Decreased secretion of digestive enzymes, decreased gastric motility leading to gas, bloating, indigestion and decreased nutrient absorption from food.
o Increased infections and delayed recovery.
o Inability to fall asleep, inability to stay asleep or never feeling rested after a normal night of sleep.
o Abnormal blood pressure changes and low energy.
Testing for Adrenal Fatigue:
Cortisol (the major stress hormone produced by the adrenals) is a good measure of adrenal health and most often times used to evaluate the function of the adrenals. I generally run a salivary cortisol test. It is a take-home kit that measures salivary cortisol at four different points during the day. It provides the most detailed summary of adrenal function. I may also test for different hormones associated with adrenal health such as sex hormones.
Naturopathic Treatment of Adrenal Fatigue:
1. Nutrition (Diet and Supplements): Eating a diet rich in nutrients to replenish and nourish the adrenal glands is paramount. It is important to eliminate things that tax that adrenals such as refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, and caffeine. B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc are important micronutrients required to replenish the adrenals.
2. Botanical Medicine: Adaptogenic herbs are a group of herbs traditionally used to help improve the body’s response to stress, they have been shown to:
- Help normalize levels of stress hormones.
- Decrease symptoms of stress and improve resistance to stress
- Decrease fatigue and improve energy production, metabolism and tissue repair.
- Increase endurance, stamina, cognitive function & mental concentration and alertness
- Improve sleep quality
- They increase recovery from illness
*Remember to always consult your naturopathic doctor or primary care practitioner prior to taking an adaptogen.
3. Stress Management: Finally if the root cause of the adrenal fatigue was prolonged stress of any degree, it is crucial to address immediately. This could be done by implementing self-care routines, counseling for emotional stress, or identifying triggers for stress and finding the coping strategies that will minimize their effect on the stress response.
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