Sunday, September 2, 2018

Healthy Adrenal glands - Why we can't live without them

I hope this long holiday weekend is allowing everyone some time to rest and rejuvenate!  I see a lot of patients in my Functional Medicine practice that have adrenal dysfunction and regular down time is essential to preventing adrenal meltdown and self-care is part of the restoration plan when the adrenals are already in trouble.

These two tiny glands sit on top of the kidneys and are divided into the cortex and medulla. The adrenal cortex makes your steroid hormones. In a previous post, I displayed a chart of these hormone production pathways. Glucocorticoids like cortisol and corticosterone, mineralocorticoids like aldosterone and the sex steroids - progesterone, DHEA, testosterone and estrogens - are all produced by the adrenal glands, although the majority of testosterone and estrogens are produced in the reproductive organs.

When overly stressed, the 'raw material' (cholesterol) used to make the steroid hormones will be allocated primarily to make cortisol. Long-term overproduction of cortisol can lead to weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, lowered immune function, difficulty sleeping or a host of hormone imbalances.

Eventually, if chronic overproduction continues, some people develop a deficiency in cortisol which leads to chronic fatigue, low blood sugar, salt craving, low blood pressure or the inability to cope with even the smallest amount of stress. Along with low cortisol, most of these people also suffer from low DHEA which is an important precursor to testosterone and estrogen.

Research is ongoing to find out all of the ways DHEA impacts our functioning but one way that is emerging is to decrease inflammation that promotes the loss of neurons in the brain. DHEA may also be an important source of hormones for women after menopause. I always check DHEA levels in my patients and don't recommend taking a supplement of DHEA unless you have been tested and know you are deficient.

Your functional provider should also assess your levels of estrogen and testosterone and progesterone if adrenal dysfunction is suspected. If there are any memory issues, pregnenolone (precursor to progesterone) should also be assessed. After we finish hormones I will post on memory loss and how to reverse or avoid it! For now, let's focus on how to preserve your adrenal glands.

I wrote about developing a mindfulness practice in a previous post and want to also mention meditation. I think of meditation as an exercise for the brain. While the brain is developing the ability to focus on something mundane and non-threatening, the adrenal glands are having some 'down time' which builds resilience. I recommend a free app like 'Stop, Breathe and Think' or 'Insight Timer' to get started.

You can also use magazines or books like these pictured to help you keep it interesting and grow your knowledge of the various ways to engage in meditation. Some think because they pray they don't need to meditate but I remind them that praying is actively engaging in an activity that might bring more worries and is a way of asking instead of receiving. I think of mediation as listening and receiving wisdom, along with being a mini-vacation for the adrenal glands.

One of the most important ways to preserve the adrenal glands is to get enough sleep. Having a routine and getting to bed and to sleep allows your body to replenish and restore itself, particularly the brain and adrenals. If you've burned the candle at both ends for too long you may need to get 8-10 hours nightly for a minimum of two weeks before you begin to feel rested after a good night's sleep.

If you fall asleep but are awakened throughout the night you may need to have your adrenal function assessed to see if you need to take supplements to help your adrenal glands and improve your ability to stay asleep.

Having good 'sleep hygiene' will help you get better quality sleep. This means setting a certain time to wind down and prepare for bedtime. I have an app on my laptop called 'f.lux' that reminds me when my bedtime is 3 hours away and blocks the blue light from the screen that can stimulate the pineal gland and impair it's ability to make melatonin, a hormone essential to good sleep.

I have patients who benefit from having a certain bedtime ritual. This can mean taking time to soak in Epsom salts, journaling, using essential oils in a diffuser or listening to soothing music. My ritual includes reading something that won't stimulate my brain too much. Right now I'm re-reading the Harry Potter series - non-stimulating because I know what's coming - but sometimes I read meditation magazines.

So in summary, to keep your adrenal glands humming along you will need to meditate regularly, develop good sleep hygiene and get at least 8 hours of sleep each night, practice mindfulness and self-care and find activities you like and do them regularly and identify those things that bring you negative energy and avoid those things. If you are struggling then don't delay in getting your adrenal glands tested so you can begin the process of repairing them. There are herbal teas like 'Stress-Ease' from Traditional Medicinals that can help, along with adaptogenic herb supplements to prop up your adrenal function but they should be part of an overall plan to pamper your adrenals.

I leave you today with a Sabbath Meditation:

Take a comfortable seat and close your eyes. Take five deep cleansing breaths - focus on the air movement and the way the body expands during inhalation and draws in on the exhalations. Begin to relax your face, neck, jaw and move down your body until all tension is released.

After the five breaths, begin to focus on the concept of a day of Holy Rest. Release any need to 'do' something to be worthy and realize that just 'being' in the Presence of your Maker is enough. Let your soul relax. Contemplate letting go of doing, letting go of acquiring, letting go of making, letting go of expectations. Allow yourself to sit in the Divine Presence and just be. Receive the Divine Qualities that are being offered to you. Feel Divine Unconditional Love showered upon you. Open up to Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Compassion. Receive Peace.

As you become full to overflowing extend these Qualities to those in your life, blessing them with the Blessings you have received. Once you have blessed your loved ones, extend those blessings to your community, then to your country and then to the entire world and out into the Universe.

End your meditation by returning to the breath. Take five deep cleansing breaths, focusing on the movement of the air and the way the body expands during inhalation and draws in on exhalation. Bring your awareness back to your body and slowly open your eyes.


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