Adrenal Glands and Stress

Here’s a quote from Maureen Killoran, LPC: “Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response to what happens. And response is something we can choose.”

But can we really choose?

Do you all know what the adrenal glands are and what their job is in the body?

They protect the body from stressful situations, they lower inflammation, they support your immune system and they regulate some important minerals as well. They are constantly in communication with other glands, especially the thyroid gland, and parts of your brain to manage our reactivity to the outside world. Pretty important job.

Yes, stress is ever present!

Yes, our adrenals are the glands responsible for secreting the hormones cortisol and catecholamines in response to stress but the adrenals are only one key gland in the endocrine system and most importantly, the stress response and stress resilience begins in the brain!

It isn’t called the “HPA axis” for nothing. The HPA axis is the super duper important feedback loop between parts of your brain and your adrenal glands, which sit atop of your kidneys. H is for Hypothalamus, P is for Pituitary and A is for Adrenal.

So how can we choose to respond to stress? There are two key areas that must be addressed simultaneously. We must address the mind and brain health as we simultaneously learn healthy adrenal habits. This includes learning about healthy sleep habits and about all the nutrients that support our adrenals biochemically–helping us minimize our sensitivity to stress. 

First, the brain part. The #1 thing I teach my patients. YOU must learn to recognize stress in your life. I don’t mean externalize all of those negative feelings onto your boss, your spouse, your kids, whomever, and run around screaming how stressed out everyone is making you. Sound familiar? It does to me. Hee hee.

I mean learn to identify those times when you are feeling stress in your body. Your hair trigger reactions to the small shit in life. If your not a regular meditator and exerciser I guarantee that you aren’t as good as catching those fractions of seconds those moments when you can stop and find yourself able to witness what your reactions to stressful situations are. It takes time and practice to find those in between moments where you can actually choose. If I can do it, anyone can.

Second and third, you gotta move your body and you gotta give your mind a chance to off-load the millions of thoughts that run thru our clever little heads all day long. (P.S. this is why if you aren’t sleeping well you aren’t coping with stress well either! dreams are psychic off-loading in our sleep)

Anyhoo all the meditation and exercise in the world isn’t going to help you nearly as much as it should if your body has been dealing with chronic stress for so long that you are depleted of certain nutrients. Are your adrenals depleted? Are your neurotransmitters depleted? Are your thyroid hormones depleted? Maybe all 3?

The good news is there’s a few super-duper important nutrients that support both the adrenals and the brain and about 200 other biochemical reactions between.

Your diet should be rich in the following key nutrients for the entirety of HPA axis health:

  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • Vitamin B6

I could write a book on any one of these nutrients but the bottom line is if your eating a diet specifically designed for your individual biochemical makeup, genetically and metabolically, you should be getting these key nutrients from your diet.

There are certain genes that predispose you toward making more of one type of stress hormone (cortisol) or another (catecholamines) or affect the way your body uses these stress signalers. Given that, there are ways in which we support adrenal health differently for different individuals.

Tips that are good for everyone regardless of genetics…..

My #1 Tip for fast acting adrenal support. Get yourself some holy basil essential oil. Put 2-3 drops in your palms, rub together, place palms over your face and breathe Slowly and deeply for 1-2 minutes.

This has an immediate effect on your brain and its communication with the adrenals.

My #1 long term benefit for the adrenals is “get thee to bed early.” I know this is a drag for many of you party animals out there but Chinese medicine tells us that every hour you sleep before midnight is worth 2. So can you get to bed by 9am and do your partying at 6am the next morning. Ha!

My #2 tip for long-term adrenal health: sleep in complete darkness. Be sure to have heavy drapes or blinds that block out any light if you live in an area with street lamps. Be sure your alarm clock isn’t by your bedside. Be sure your phone is out of your bedroom altogether.

My #3 tip for long term adrenal health is a meditation practice. When you practice meditation long enough you’ll notice those times you feel more or less unable to manage anxiety and depression. The world we live in is changing dramatically and irreversibly. In my honest opinion we are all dealing with some combination of anxiety, stress, and depression. So my last tip for today and is to accept that we have very little control over very little in our lives. So let go. And recognize as my husband likes to say- we are just chimps wearing clothing living between two ice ages. Don’t take all of life’s little stressors so seriously (there are plenty of big ones that deserve your attention). Hold your loved ones close and live in gratitude for what you have. That’s gonna help your adrenal glands more than anything!