adrenal fatigue: "the storm before the calm"

Hi friends!

It’s hard to believe my six-week break came and went, and now I'm back to school in full swing!  First up is Herbal Medicine – so far it’s kind of like a trip to Hogwart’s!  Very fun.  And that’s really my intention for school during my second and final year – to have fun and enjoy what I’m learning.  To be disciplined with my ‘me’ time, and to focus more on staying grounded and finding a balance for myself, somewhere between feeling good and doing well.  Cause let’s face it, this whole over-achieving and over-extending in order to keep all my proverbial balls up in the air is not a whole lot of fun.  (Please feel free to remind me about this the next time you hear me fretting over my next exam!)

Whether you work full time, part time, you’re a student, a parent - most of us city-dwellers are chronically over-extending ourselves physically, mentally, or both.  And most of us keep burning the candles, expecting our bodies to keep up with what our minds want us to do.  Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable, and you can end up totally exhausted, or worse: sick.  I’ve heard the term ‘adrenal fatigue’ thrown around over the past year, and recently we discussed adrenals in class in a bit more detail, and also learned about some supportive herbs.

So, what the heck are adrenals?  Quick anatomy and physiology lesson:

Your adrenal glands are located on top of each of your kidneys, and they’re responsible for synthesizing the stress hormones that essentially manage and signal the stress response in the body, specifically: epinephrine (adrenaline), norephinephrine, cortisone and aldosterone.  The stress response in the body can be broken down into three stages: the short-lived alarm reaction stage (or “fight or flight” response).  If stress continues, it will take us into the resistance stage.  The resistance stage cannot be sustained forever either, meaning without proper support, our adrenal hormones become depleted and we end up in the exhaustion stage.  Enter: adrenal fatigue.  At this point, your adrenal glands can no longer keep up with the demands of stress placed on your body and you're most likely left with a weakened immune system and inappropriate inflammation in the body, as well as a host of other symptoms.   Adrenal fatigue can set in after prolonged periods of stress, illness, a crisis or trauma, as well as other factors such as poor diet, substance abuse and too little sleep or rest.  

Some stress is necessary – for example the pressure we feel from stress can help us accomplish our goals.  The trick, however, is to make sure that the stress is not prolonged and that you’re taking steps to strengthen your body’s response to stress.   Signs you’re likely headed for adrenal fatigue or are already there:

*  You are always on the go and unable to slow down.  You’re ‘tired but wired’ much of the time.

*  You’re struggling to deal with day to day stress, feeling overwhelmed much of the time, you have a very short fuse and may even suffer from anxiety attacks.

*  Mentally, you’re foggy and are not able to stay focused on one task, you have chronic racing thoughts.

*  You have frequent infections, and it seems to take you longer than others to recover from illness or infections or trauma.

*  You have trouble falling asleep or you fall asleep well but wake up several times during the night and often wake up feeling exhausted.

So, now that you’re here, what can you do about it?  Thankfully, mother nature has provided us with some amazing herbs containing 'adaptogens’, to help. An adaptogen is a herbal action that ‘adapts’ its function to the specific needs of your body in order to support adrenal function and counteract the adverse effects of stress.  How cool is that? 

Ashwagandha and Rhodiola are two adaptogenic herbs that are great for adrenal support.  Both can be taken in either tincture or capsule form.  Try to find a herbal dispensary in your area.  Gaia Gardens and the herbal dispensary at Finlandia are both great places here in Vancouver and the people who work there are great resources and will help you with dosing and also put together anything you ask for. 

Ashwagandha is an ancient herb commonly used in Ayurvedic healing and is widely used to combat the effects of stress as well as improve the immune system.  It also has anti-inflammatory benefits.  Ashwagandha is a safe herb; however, it should be avoided during pregnancy.  In addition to balancing the nervous system, Rhodiola is known for increasing energy, helps with depression and also supports the immune system.  

If sleep is something you struggle with, you could make yourself a relaxing tea with lavender, passion flower, chamomile and lemon balm, all of which act to relax your nervous system. Again, you can get these dried herbs from either Gaia or Finlandia and mix them yourself in equal parts.  You should steep 1 tbsp at a time for your tea and this particular tea should be drunk before bed.  Some quick notes about these herbs:

Lavender: relaxant, helps with digestive healing, sleep and exhaustion. If lavender is too floral for you to drink, you can also spritz your pillow with a lavender essential oil infusion or drop some essential oil in your bath.  Avoid excessive use during pregnancy.  

Passionflower: relaxant, helps with irregular sleep, anxiety and depression.  

Chamomile: helps with digestive healing and is also anti-inflammatory.

Lemon balm: relaxant, helps with digestive healing, anxiety and depression.

Traditional Medicinals is an organic brand of tea that has a wide range of infusion blends and is another great and very convenient option.  I love having their chamomile and lavender blend before bed.

There are also lifestyle choices we can make to support our adrenal function.  Personally, I measure my level of stress in relation to how grounded I feel.  Keeping up with work, and school, and exercise and friends, I often find myself sending my energy outward and upward and it doesn’t take long before I find myself feeling overwhelmed and stressed.  Beyond the standard “exercise, eat well, practice yoga, meditate, get lots of sleep and avoid sugar, caffeine, drugs and alcohol” spiel, the following are some tips that I practice regularly to stay grounded:

·  1.  Practice saying ‘no’.  If you are using the word ‘should’, chances are you’re pushing yourself to do something your body instinctively knows it doesn’t want to do.  This could be deciding whether to accept a social invitation or whether or not to head out for a run.  There are times when it’s appropriate to push ourselves, and times to listen to the voice inside that’s telling us to slow down.  If the word ‘should’ sneaks in there, that’s usually a clue to listen up.

·  2. Spending time in the home we’ve created for ourselves can be incredibly grounding.  Schedule a chunk of time for yourself in your calendar each week where you spend time at home.  Maybe you light candles or incense, listen to your favourite music, read a book, spend time with your kids, or with your pet, or maybe you lie on the couch watching Netflix.  Whatever it is, make it non-negotiable time for yourself to do exactly what you feel like doing.  I encourage you to think small.  You’ll be amazed how the smallest things can make a huge difference to your sense of well-being.

   3. Commit to taking a break from social media each week – maybe that’s a day on the weekend, or an evening during the week.  Scrolling through our friends’ highlight reels on Facebook and Instagram can make us feel like we’re not doing enough or experiencing enough and all of a sudden we start “should’ing” ourselves into a tailspin.  Everyone’s experiences and lives are different, and focusing our energy inward instead of outward on what others are doing can really help us to feel grounded in our own present moment experiences.

Finally, a shout out to all you fellow exercisers out there: keep in mind that while exercise is incredibly beneficial for the body, excessive and high-impact exercise is very stressful on the body and a surefire way to lead us right into adrenal fatigue.  So make sure you’re resting at least one day a week and consider some supportive herbs.  Taking rest days will not affect your athletic performance in a negative way; in fact, you’ll be amazed at how strong you feel after you’ve given your body and mind an opportunity to recharge.

Stay tuned for a future post on digestive herbs!

Help yourself,