If we live a high-stress, fast-paced lifestyle, or live our lives on an emotional rollercoaster, it can take a toll on our body. In the last one hundred years or so our way of living has taken a radical change - but in terms of evolution, this is just a tiny speck of time, so biologically our body has not yet had a chance to evolve to cope with our modern lifestyle. To our body, any kind of stress, be it because we're in immediate danger or simply feeling financial, relationship or work pressures, is interpreted as a direct threat to our life. This is because our body's primarily wired for survival, which makes perfect sense when you think about it.
Its protective mechanism is to fire off the stress hormone adrenalin which is designed to get you out of danger. If we're living life at a million miles an hour, rushing around trying to get through our endless to-do list and feeling as though we're not getting anywhere, our adrenal glands can get a walloping.
Only the size of a walnut, these mighty glands - you have two - are part of your endocrine system and they sit just on top of your kidneys. When it comes to energy, vitality and many other aspects of your health, your adrenal glands pack a hefty punch. They produce an array of hormones (chemical messengers), which include our stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, sex hormones such as progesterone, hormones that help control blood pressure, fluid balance and salt retention in the body--just to name a few.
Signs that your adrenal glands may need support
Fatigue, energy spurts and crashes, sugar cravings, poor quality sleep, anxiety, shaky hands, feeling as though your heart is going to beat out of your chest, digestive upsets such as reflux, bloating and IBS.
Adrenalin makes your heart race, your thoughts race, and gives you a jittery feeling that can make it difficult to feel calm and centred, despite your best efforts. It also diverts blood flow away from your digestive system to your arms and legs--because if you're in danger you need a powerful blood supply in your periphery to help you get away quickly. You also need fuel to help you escape, and the most readily available, fastest-burning fuel inside the body is glucose, often referred to as sugar, a carbohydrate. Your liver and muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen, and adrenalin communicates to your liver and muscles when energy is required. Glycogen is converted back into glucose, and this glucose is released back into your blood. Your blood glucose (i.e. sugar) subsequently shoots up, ready to fuel your self-defence or your escape. And you feel amped up, although many people today don't identify this, as they have become accustomed to it being their norm. This biochemical response can also mean that we crave sugar as elevations in our blood sugar lead to "crashes" creating a fatigued state that makes you feel as though only more caffeine or high-sugar food can fix it.
As a side note, caffeine has the power to activate this biochemical response, sending a message to the pituitary gland in your brain that it needs to send a message to the adrenal glands to make stress hormones: adrenalin and/or cortisol. And it is through this mechanism that caffeine can elevate our body's stress response and put additional pressure on all of our body systems.
You can already start to see a picture of how our adrenal glands are affected by everyday living--and this is not even the entire story. If our body continues to perceive that it is in danger, it may lead to additional excess cortisol (our long term stress hormone) production, which brings with it a whole new array of health concerns.
If you're feeling that your adrenal glands are getting a workout and might benefit from some support, you might like to reduce your caffeine consumption for a while (aim for one coffee a day maximum or omit it). Additionally, we can communicate to our body that it is safe with slow, diaphragmatic breathing (with an emphasis on slower exhalation than inhalation) so try incorporating a breathing exercise into your daily routine. The way you feed yourself is the most basic, fundamental way you demonstrate care for yourself and if we amp up our intake of nutrient-dense foods we provide incredible support for our body systems since they thrive on nutrients. So the simple act of eating more vegetables (opt for a range of colourful plants as they all contain different and equally important nutrients) and reducing our consumption of highly-processed foods that aren't so nourishing can make the world of difference to how our body functions.
Nutrients that support adrenal health include vitamin C, B-group vitamins and magnesium. Vitamin C rich foods include broccoli, capsicum and citrus fruits, and B-group vitamins are found in wholegrains, liver, nuts, legumes, and some vegetables. Magnesium is found in dark leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds.