Simple Ways to Manage Adrenal Healthby Amylee Amos MS, RDN, IFMCPLifestyle
The adrenals are two glands that sit on top of the kidneys. They are known as the stress glands, because they respond to both physical and mental stress. They do this by producing neurotransmitters and hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that allow the body to react to the stressor. For example, the adrenals are responsible for the fight or flight response, a response that has allowed us to survive.
The trouble is, we have overworked our adrenal glands with constant stress. Our adrenal glands were never meant to work as hard as they do. Our bodies are in constant demand of cortisol, the stress hormone, as a result of our stressful lifestyle, and that comes at a massive price. Conditions like cognitive decline, hormonal imbalance, fatigue, insulin resistance, and thyroid dysfunction all share a similar root cause: adrenal overload.
And not only are we exposed to physiological stress that the fight or flight response was designed for, but we’re also exposed to massive psychological stress. In fact, psychological stress rather than physiological stress has a greater capacity to elevate and maintain stress chronically, contributing to the development of chronic disease (1). Adrenal overload is contributing to chronic disease, making stress reduction essential to health. The point is, if we want to reverse or prevent chronic disease we absolutely must manage our adrenal health, and we can do that with lifestyle interventions.
We can manage our adrenal health by reducing stress. So all you need to do is reduce stress- how easy! (kidding). Nothing is more easier said than done than reducing stress. We’ve heard it a thousand times, we know stress is bad for us, but how can we possibly reduce stress when stress is inevitable? The thing is, relaxation is a skill that must be learned and practiced. It’s not something that we just do. Part of stress reduction is practicing techniques to direct the mind and body away from stress and into a restful state.
Here are some simple ways to get started:
This includes physical, emotional, and mental rest. Rest can mean taking a pleasure break during your work day to do something that brings you enjoyment and breaks up your routine. Alternatively, take a rest from stressful situations. If you have a person in your life that causes you regular stress, make an effort to avoid contact.
Start a meditation practice. You can get going using an app on your phone and take a few minutes out of every day for mental rest through meditation. Breathing and meditation has been shown to improve adrenal health and reduce cortisol levels by up to 20% (2). Whatever type of rest feels good to you is best, just make sure that you’re taking some quality ‘me time’ everyday.
Make sure that you are keeping up with your sleep. No task left undone at night (or Netflix show) is more important that you giving your body proper sleep. Physiological repair occurs during sleep. This repair opposes the catabolic effects of elevated cortisol, allowing your body to recover from damage occurred throughout the course of the day. A regular sleep deficit, meaning going multiple days without adequate, restorative sleep, raises cortisol levels and impairs adrenal function (3). Getting 7-8 hours of restful, restorative sleep is imperative for optimal health.
Whether you’re at home or driving in your car, turn on your favorite tunes! Music therapy has been seen to reduce cortisol levels both before and during periods of stress up to 66% (4). Make a playlist of all of the songs that put a smile on your face or that remind you of a wonderful, happy memory. And while you’re listening, sing along! One study found that just 1 hour of singing increased positive affect, decreased negative affect, and decreased cortisol levels (5). Playing some great music takes no time at all and is a great way to naturally reduce stress and manage your adrenal health.
Who doesn’t love to laugh? I think most of us inherently know that smiling and laughing is good for the soul. The act of smiling itself can make you feel more uplifted. But who is laughing when they’re feeling stressed out? Well, it turns out, it doesn’t even have to be natural laughter for you to get the stress reduction benefit. One study simulated laughter (so they basically just told people to force laughter) during 15 minute daily sessions for four weeks (if you can’t picture how awkward it is, start laughing hysterically right now, and then imagine that a study coordinator was either right in front of you or on the phone waiting to make sure you laughed for a full 15 minutes). They found that even though it was simulated, the laughter improved mood, symptoms, social interaction quality, and role limitations due to physical health in the participants (6).
These are just a few, very simple ways to manage adrenal health and lower cortisol levels in our ever stressful world. Try implementing all of these, and make an effort to reduce your stress. It’s not a luxury to take time for yourself to relax, it’s a necessity. We need to focus on training our bodies to get used to relaxing, because we have done a great job of training them to stress. Break the cycle of stress and start taking care of your adrenals today.
- Sapolsky, R.M. Stress, Stress Related Disease, and Emotional Regulation. In J. Gross (Ed.) Handbook of Emotional Regulation. (pp. 606-615) New York, Guilford, 2007.
- Turakitwanakan, W. et al. (2013). Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, 96 Suppl 1: S90-5.
- Samel, A. et al. (2004). Sleep deficit and stress hormones in helicopter pilots on 7-day duty for emergency medical services. Aviat Space Environ Med, 75(11): 935-940.
- Khalfa, S. et al. (2003). Effects of Relaxing Music on Salivary Cortisol Level after Psychological Stress. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999: 374-376.
- Fancourt, D. et al. (216). Singing modulates mood, stress, cortisol, cytokine and neuropeptide activity in cancer patients and carers. Ecancermedicalscience, 10: 631.
- Heo, E.H. et al. (2016). The effects of a simulated laughter program on mood, cortisol levels, and health-related quality of life among haemodialysis patients. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 25: 1-7.