Are you one in five people that feel anxious all of the time or a lot of time? A 2014 survey of Mental Awareness Week in UK shows only one in twenty people never feel anxious. According to Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), women are more likely to feel anxious than men. Wait, there’s more! One-fifth of people who have experienced anxiety do nothing to cope with it. Comfort eating is used by a quarter of those who suffer with feelings of anxiety, and women and children are more likely to use this way of coping.
Is that normal?
We accept these feelings as a part and parcel of our fast paced digital lives. As we go about our routines, we brush these little pesky feelings as a one-off and accept the signs as bad habits, tiredness, sugar cravings, or poor sleep, only to cause further damage in terms of confidence, relationships, health and our lives.
Anxiety is a very real and unpleasant physiological condition and not one that we can brush off. It is created by over-stimulation of the adrenal glands. Adrenal glands are tiny organs sitting just above the kidneys and secrete hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. They produce the hormones Pregnenolone (the Mother Hormone), DHEA, estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). The adrenal glands are your body’s first line of defense against the stresses of daily living – they give orders to the reproductive organs, play a role in thyroid function and metabolism and regulate the fight-or-flight stress response.
Cortisol is the main stress hormone made in your adrenal glands and it’s designed to get you out of danger. When you’re in a stressful situation, you feel the positive effects of cortisol – the rise of energy, the sharp focus, the charge.
Cortisol has 3 main jobs: raise blood sugar (to feed muscles so you can run or fight), raise blood pressure, and modulate immune function.
There are two key points about a healthy stress response that need to be emphasized: first, it takes priority over all other metabolic functions in the body and second, it wasn’t designed to last very long.
Our ancestors used this response to escape life-threatening situations, like fleeing from wooly mammoths. Their adrenals would release adrenaline and cortisol which would immediately increase their heart rate and blood pressure, release energy stores for immediate use, shut down digestion and other secondary functions, and sharpen their senses. Thousands of years later, our bodies still respond the same way, except nowadays we are not running away from anything. In the past there would be acute moments of stress followed by periods of rest, but today we are in a constant state of less-threatening but chronic stress – tight deadlines, a mean boss, bills, demanding partner, your teen hanging with the wrong crowd – the list goes on…
If this were to happen once or twice a month it would be okay, but for most of us it happens every single day with absolutely no let-up. This eventually leads to what is known as the “cortisol switch,” where your body not only recognizes the positive aspects of cortisol but starts recognizing the negative aspects of cortisol too.
Example: You drink a cup of coffee and feel like a rock star for 30 minutes. Ready to take on the world! Then you hit a wall and get all anxious and jittery. Your blood sugar drops and you begin to feel heavy and deflated.
If you have been stressed for several months or years, you probably have chronically elevated blood cortisol levels. Cortisol promotes abdominal weight gain, cravings, and makes weight loss very difficult. High cortisol suppresses your immune system. If your cortisol has been cranked up for a long time, there usually comes a point when your adrenal glands simply can’t pump out enough cortisol anymore; they become exhausted. This stress and total burn out of adrenal glands is known as Adrenal Fatigue or Dysfunction.
How do you identify adrenal exhaustion?
Feeling tired but wired
Not feeling rested after a night’s sleep
Light, broken sleep
Strong cravings for sugar and/or salt
Feeling overwhelmed like you cannot cope with what life throws at you
Feeling tired in the morning but getting a burst of energy anywhere between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m.
Poor memory, brain fog and lack of concentration
Weakened immunity and recurring infections
If the adrenals are constantly over-worked, the entire endocrine system becomes deficient and stops functioning properly. This is why the food you eat and proper stress management is crucial to begin healing your hormonal imbalances. Once your adrenal function is restored, cortisol production is reduced and your adrenals resume normal function and production of hormones.
Sadly, many in the conventional medical world do not acknowledge adrenal conditions unless they are severe diseases such as Cushing’s syndrome (excess cortisol) or Addison’s disease (severe lack of cortisol usually caused by autoimmune disease). Milder forms of adrenal imbalance can definitely impair the quality of your life and produce quite severe symptoms. The first step is to get yourself tested. You are supposed to have higher cortisol in the morning and lower levels in the evening, but this pattern is often reverse in people with imbalanced adrenals.
How to treat adrenal exhaustion?
1. Try to get adequate sleep. People with adrenal fatigue often have poor quality sleep. Your adrenals will greatly benefit if you can unplug and get in bed by 10:30 p.m. The hours before midnight are more restorative to your body.
2. Try to reduce the stress in your life or look for more effective ways of dealing with it. Make self care non-negotiable. Massage, meditation, yoga, counseling, reading, or going for a walk are some ways you can unwind.
3. Steer clear of stimulants. I have nothing against caffeine, but people with adrenal fatigue should really eliminate it out of their diet. It is also best to keep your alcohol consumption to a minimum, especially before bed. It can help you feel drowsy, but it does reduce the quality of your sleep.
4. Minimise your salt and sugar intake. If you often crave these foods in order to keep you going, try to indulge in healthier versions instead. Try swapping a packet of crackers with some olives instead. When it comes to sugar, small amounts of fresh dates, manuka honey or maple syrup are healthier alternatives. These foods are so intense in flavor, that you only need small amounts to appease a sweet tooth. As your energy levels improve, you will stop having these cravings.
5. Make sure you eat enough protein and good fats. This will help to keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day, reducing the energy slumps caused by a blood sugar crash.
6. Most of the Vitamin C in your body is stored in your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands will struggle to function if you don’t consume enough Vitamin C, so be sure to get a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet.
7. Magnesium is calming to the muscular and nervous systems and it allows the adrenals to repair themselves. Taking some magnesium before bed should also help improve your sleep quality.
8. Find out if you have a food allergy or intolerance. Eating foods that your body cannot tolerate is a major physical stress on your body. You may need a nutritionist’s help in uncovering hidden food sensitivities.
Repairing and nourishing these tiny glands would not only protect you from chronic illnesses, but also improve your mood and anxiety. Remember there’s an important difference between giving up and letting go. So let go of the stress. Take the first step with mindful eating.
Featured photo credit: Shutterstock.com/Stockette via shutterstock.com