by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
One of my patients recently said to me “I’m so tired of being tired!” and “I’m so tired of talking about being tired!” and “I’m tired of saying I wish I had the energy to…” Then through teary eyes she asked “What’s wrong with me?”. This patient is like so many I’ve seen recently – women do so much today – have more responsibilities than ever before – most are busy from the time they get up until the time they go to bed with little, if any, time built in for self-care. No wonder women feel tired! By the time many seek help, they just want to feel better – some are not even interested in getting to the root cause.
All of my patients breathe in a sigh of relief when I assure than that as long as other major health issues are ruled out, we can absolutely have them feeling vibrant and full of energy.
I usually recommend a series of simple tests for patients who come to me with these symptoms. These tests evaluate cortisol and DHEA levels as well as stress markets. At Women to Women we find that the results are astonishingly consistent – less that 25% have cortisol levels which indicate healthy adrenal function, while more than 75% show impaired adrenal function – there are women who are wake up feeling tired and without any increase in energy throughout the day, there are women who wake up with very high energy levels (sometimes even before the sun rises) but who can’t stay awake after 3pm and then there are those who can’t seem to wake up in the morning, but are wide awake at 2am. This wide spectrum of adrenal function is a pattern I’ve seen for many years with women – its known as adrenal dysfunction.
Adrenal dysfunction tells us that the adrenal glands are either under producing or overproducing stress hormones. The effects can be baffling and concerning for women – a feeling of weakness, overwhelming fatigue, immune system weakness, moodiness or depression, insulin resistance, muscle and bone less, hormone imbalance, hair loss, autoimmune disorders, and many other health concerns.
Our adrenal glands help us to have a healthy – sometimes lifesaving – stress response, which wasn’t designed to last very long.
These two walnut shaped glands are located on top of our kidneys where they act as small centers of hormone production. The very innermost section of each gland produces adrenaline and noradrenaline. The adrenal cortex, the layers outside the center, produces the hormones DHEA, cortisol and our sex hormones – estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
Our adrenal gland’s primary purpose is to give us the energy we need when facing a threatening situation – the ‘flight or fight’ response is often used as an example. When this happens, our adrenals immediately increase production of adrenaline and cortisol. This causes our heart rates to increase, our metabolism and digestion to slow down, and our senses to sharpen. We need all of these systems supported during times of intense, immediate stress – and these amazing glands respond to every kind of stress – emotional, psychological, physical, environmental, even infectious! When we have chronic, unrelenting stress, our adrenals don’t give up on us! They keep producing what we need – and the domino effect in our body begins. Fatigue, weight gain, moodiness, hormone imbalance, thyroid imbalance and irritability may follow.
Our adrenals were designed to override other body functions – and they were designed to push and pump stress hormones non-stop!
To understand how adrenal imbalance develops, it is helpful to consider the original, evolutionary function of the adrenal glands. The adrenals are walnut-sized glands located on top of each kidney, where they serve as important manufacturing centers for many of the body’s hormones. The innermost section of each gland produces adrenaline (which you may know as epinephrine), and noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine). The layers outside the center, called the adrenal cortex, produce several other hormones, including cortisol, as well as DHEA, and the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
Along with several other key responsibilities, your adrenal glands’ primary purpose is to help you survive in the face of a threat, rallying all your body’s resources into “fight or flight” mode by increasing production of adrenaline and cortisol. Healthy adrenals instantaneously increase your heart rate and blood pressure, release your energy stores for immediate use, shut down digestion and other secondary functions, and sharpen your senses. But since they are programmed to respond to every kind of stress — physical, emotional, perceived, psychological, environmental, infectious, or any combination of these — a woman under chronic stress can strain her adrenal glands. Stress comes not only from a dramatic life event, but lack of sleep, financial worries, chronic dieting, infection, digestive issues, reliance on stimulants such as alcohol or caffeine, unresolved emotional issues and other worries or concerns. When the adrenals are chronically overextended, she can end up with issues like thyroid imbalance, weight gain, insomnia and severe fatigue.
Let’s emphasize two points about this healthy stress response. First, it takes priority over all other metabolic functions. Second, it wasn’t designed to last very long. It is important to remember that the hormone cortisol converts fats and proteins into energy – just what we need during those stressful times! But prolonged high levels of cortisol are actually damaging to your body. Digestion, metabolism and mental clarity are impaired, normal cell regeneration and healing slow down, healthy muscle and tissue are compromised, healthy endocrine function and immune function are compromised, and hormone production is impacted.
The cumulative effect of high cortisol levels can take a toll on even the healthiest of bodies. We’ve talked about fatigue, weight gain and sleep issues – but there are other symptoms, too. Adrenal imbalance may also be a factor in depression, fibromyalgia, arthritis, hypo-thyroidism, hair loss and acne.
I’ve helped patients thousands of patients regain healthy adrenal function. There are four easy steps to start with – things you can do every day – addressing the root causes of your adrenal imbalance.
Before you get started, it is important to rule out the possibility of any serious underlying medical condition – have a full medical exam to rule out this concern.
To start healing your adrenals, eat regularly and choose your foods wisely! Make every bite count – choose nutrient rich foods, ones which haven’t been processed and do not contain sugar. Blood sugar spikes and drops create stress for your body. I encourage my patients to eliminate gluten from their diets as well. Eat five to six times a day and include protein, a complex carb and high quality fat every time you eat. A healing body needs good nourishment!
Build in time to get more rest! Now’s a good time to commit to getting seven to nine hours sleep a night. Practice good sleep hygiene – create an environment that welcomes a good nights’ sleep. Turn off all electronics an hour before bed – allow your mind to slowly unwind and your body will follow!
Think about what causes your stress and think about ways to put some stress reduction measure in place. For some, this may mean taking on less…for some others it may mean setting aside time each day to problem solve. Some women find that exercising helps – the hormones which are released during exercise help many women feel better, but some of my patients report that the focused time during exercise gives them the time and uninterrupted attention to think about potential solutions to their stressors!
I urge you to consider talking a high quality multi-vitamin to close any gaps in your nutritional needs. Its more difficult that that ever before to get all the nutrients our bodies need from our daily diets. A body healing needs support – a multi-vitamin rich in vitamins and minerals combined with an omega-3 fatty acid supplement – also known as fish oil – are great building blocks to start with.
In most cases women report feeling better in a few weeks and return to feeling ‘like themselves’ in just a few months. In some instances, women may require more support such as low dose compounded DHEA or other herbs. I urge you to work with a practitioner if you feel you may need more support – some of the more advanced treatments can have adverse interaction if not used properly.
Our bodies have an amazing ability to heal when given the right support! Regaining your energy, your clarity and your vitality is a must!