by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN, NP
Chronic stress is a major culprit in women’s lives, contributing to ongoing cycles of fatigue, poor nutrition, waves of exhaustion, mood swings, and hormonal imbalance. When I ask my patients what they think is the reason for their symptoms, their answers have one common thread: too much responsibility that is impossible to manage. Trying to help themselves through each day, many women find themselves overloading on caffeine, sugary snacks, alcohol, and even sleep aids to manage stress, all of which can disrupt our body’s normal rhythms.
Research shows that when we experience chronic stress, our adrenal glands, or the tiny glands that moderate the stress response as well as regulate other hormones, will suffer. The adrenals, which are the size of walnuts, have an enormous job. They produce many hormones that regulate our body’s functioning, including cortisol, a hormone activated when our stress levels rise, signaling our body to enter a heightened state of emergency. But high cortisol levels are intended to be short term, not remain elevated. Since our adrenals do not know the difference between stressors, they can continue to work hard to do their jobs, whether we are stressed due to a true emergency or are simply stressed out.
When our cortisol levels stay elevated, it interferes with many functions in our body, including immune function, digestion, sleep, and even the ability to produce other essential hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and thyroid hormones. This can lead to high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess abdominal fat, and inflammation. In the meantime, our health is compromised, along with our moods, and even our sex drive.
When the adrenal glands continue to be compromised long term, they have a decreased ability to produce cortisol, and instead produce extra adrenaline, causing us to feel irritable, shaky, lightheaded, and anxious. Adrenal fatigue is a syndrome that can, over time, cause low blood pressure, allergies, and pure exhaustion.
These issues, although very concerning, can also be relieved when adrenal dysfunction is healed. And the good news is, it can be healed. Along with decreasing chronic stress, adjusting our emotional responses to stressors, and changing what, when and how we eat, we can reverse adrenal fatigue. Let’s take a look at some of the dietary approaches we can utilize to not only support our adrenals, but also improve our energy and promote better sleep.
First: Time Your Meals and Snacks
When we go for long periods without food, our adrenal glands work hard to release more cortisol and adrenaline, to try to maintain the body’s normal functioning. When our blood sugar dips for extended periods, this creates a stress reaction, taxing the adrenals. It’s important to know that our body always needs energy, even when we are sleeping. Cortisol works to moderate blood sugar in between meals and at night, so regulating our cortisol levels by eating timely, healthy meals and snacks is key.
Cortisol levels follow our natural circadian rhythm. It begins to rise around 6 am, peaks around 8 am, and then throughout the day naturally rises and falls as needed. It tapers off at night, and reaches its lowest levels while we are sleeping.
Timing our meals, and how much we eat, can help regulate cortisol and its natural cycle. Eating larger meals earlier in the day naturally helps support cortisol levels, while eating smaller, lighter meals at the end of the day helps maintain hormonal balance.