For much of the population, stress is a daily reality. Although the stress response is a natural reaction intended to protect the body from danger, when we are unable to manage stress and let it consume us, our bodies suffer in many ways. As hormone expert Lorna Vanderhaeghe discussed with RadioMD hosts Andrea Donsky and Lisa Davis, the result of too much stress – adrenal exhaustion – has its consequences.
On top of the kidneys sit the adrenal glands which are responsible for the production and distribution of a variety of hormones, including those involved in the stress response. Cortisol is one such hormone, released in response to daily stressors. But in a world of often unrelenting stressful circumstances, the adrenal glands will constantly pump out cortisol until there comes a 'breaking point' in which the they become ‘exhausted’ and unable to send out cortisol at appropriate times. Known as 'adrenal exhaustion', this condition is responsible for a number of frustrating and disruptive symptoms, including interruption of sleep (you can fall asleep just fine, but wake up unable to fall back asleep), difficulty handling stress, irritability, fat gain in the belly, and salt cravings.
Additional symptoms seen in men include erectile dysfunction and breast development, but for women, adrenal exhaustion is a much more serious concern. With the onset of menopause, it is the adrenal glands that become the sole source of female hormone manufacture. “Women only think about ovaries in regards to hormone manufacture,” Vanderhaeghe notes, “but when we go through menopause in particular, those adrenals are going to be the sole major source of hormones in the body, like estrogen and progesterone, testosterone and DHEA.” Thus, the symptoms associated with perimenopause and menopause can be exaggerated if the adrenal glands are already overwhelmed. In addition, the adrenal glands are intimately tied to the thyroid gland, and thus, even for those who do not feel an excess of daily stress, an under-functioning thyroid gland can contribute to this adrenal exhaustion. “If our adrenals and our thyroid are both low then we’re really in trouble, because those are the two glands that help manage and balance all the hormones in the body,” Vanderhaeghe warns.
Although there are saliva and blood tests that can help determine cortisol levels and diagnose adrenal exhaustion, the best way to determine if you are suffering from this condition is by examining the symptoms. Do you fall to pieces easily, or become easily irritated? Have you noticed weight gain the abdominal region, or find yourself craving salty foods? Is your sleep disrupted? Do you require caffeine to get going every day? Do your energy levels slump in the afternoon? Are you becoming intolerant to alcohol? Recognizing these symptoms in yourself is really the best indicator of this condition. Fortunately, it is easily managed.
Lorna Vanderhaeghe’s tips for managing adrenal exhaustion:
1. Recognize your symptoms and make the effort to incorporate change. Get to bed and sleep. Reschedule your daily life so that you are not worn thin. Prioritize your health.
2. Practice stress management through yoga or meditation. Incorporate deep breathing exercises to help manage stress as it appears throughout the day.
3. Supplement with adrenal supportive nutrients. Rhodiola, ashwagandha, and schisandra berries are all excellent herbs for helping support the adrenal glands.
Vanderhaeghe is cautious to note that although maca is often touted as a great herb for energy and vitality, maca is really a men's herb; the majority of research on maca is on its influence on stamina and libido in men. One study in women showed that it made hormone receptors more receptive, and Vanderhaeghe notes, “this could be a big problem, especially if you’re already estrogen dominant with things like fibroids, endometriosis, and heavy periods.” Until there is more research done on women in particular, Vanderhaeghe recommends that women do not supplement with this herb.
Lorna Vanderhaeghe has compiled her wealth of knowledge in the area of women’s health and hormones in an excellent resource, "A Smart Woman's Guide to Hormones" . Much of the information is also shared on her resourceful website, hormonehelp.com. Vanderhaeghe’s mission is simple, “to help women navigate this whole area of hormones […] so that we can feel great and we don’t have to have all these symptoms.” A better understanding of the influence of hormones on our daily behaviors and bodily symptoms can certainly improve quality of life.