Terry Wahls, M.D., is a functional medicine doctor, clinical professor, and a survivor of progressive multiple sclerosis who used her own protocol to heal. This week, we're sharing her expertise in a new series on adrenal fatigue and natural techniques to restore energy. To learn more, check out her new mindbodygreen class, How to Heal Adrenal Fatigue: The Food & Habits You Need for Optimal Health & Energy.
Adrenal fatigue is a growing epidemic—and yet many people who suffer from the symptoms are unaware they have it. To understand why, I need to teach you a bit about your adrenals first.
Adrenals are endocrine glands that sit on top of your kidneys. They secrete hormones in response to messages from your brain. These hormones regulate how our bodies use and conserve salt and sugar. They also regulate our physiology away from doing the maintenance and repair work that our bodies need. Instead, our cellular resources prepare to fight or flee. These changes allow the heart and lungs to be more effective. As a result, we are faster and stronger. Our vision and hearing are sharper. Our blood clots more quickly to stop bleeding from the potential damage caused by fighting or fleeing.
These changes are helpful—acutely. However, if they are never turned off these changes create an accumulation of damage. If the adrenals constantly perceive danger, they keep pumping out high levels of stress hormones. Our cells are continually getting ready to fight and flee. So our body can't perform the repair and maintenance functions that we need to keep our cells healthy. We begin to age more quickly. Fatigue, declining mood, irritability, and increasing pain are the first symptoms that most people will notice. While many things can contribute to these symptoms, adrenal fatigue is a leading factor for most people I see with these types of issues.
Chronically elevated stress hormone production leads to adrenal fatigue as well as a higher risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, mental health problems, and early memory loss. It's a root cause of poor health—but we actually have much more control than we realize.
Why adrenal fatigue is on the rise
Stress is a vital part of life. For example, without weight-bearing exercises, the bones and muscles are replaced by fat cells. Our heart and lungs likewise need exercise to stay strong.
But we also need our brains to experience safety and relaxation, so they can send signals to our adrenals to dial back stress hormone production. When that happens, our physiology shifts to repair and maintain mode. If we do that every day, for part of the day, it restores hormonal balance, helps heal adrenal fatigue, and helps our cells repair and maintain our brains and our bodies.
Too many of us are experiencing perceived threats in our work and family life, without ever experiencing periods of safety and relaxation. We are worried about a poor relationship with our boss, whether our work hours will be cut or our job eliminated, the amount of money our children borrowed to attend college, whether we have enough money saved for retirement, or the threat of violence in the neighborhood.
We have, and always will have, an abundance of perceived threats to our safety. That is part of life.
What we can do to heal
What we can change, however, is how we approach experiencing safety and relaxation. There are many studies that show having a stress-reduction practice can reverse the damage caused by excessive stress hormone production. There are a wide variety of stress-reducing practices that can help normalize our stress hormones and our adrenal glands. Some examples include:
- Spending time in nature
- Moderate exercise
- Tai chi
In my clinic, teaching people how stress and relaxation affect their adrenals is a vital part of our approach to restoring health. If you're suffering from chronic fatigue, poor mood, cognitive issues, or chronic pain or have a chronic health problem, unrecognized adrenal fatigue may be contributing to your current symptoms. But don't despair—there's much that you can do to heal your adrenal fatigue.