By Maureen Williams, ND
As we settle into the rhythms of fall, some of us find ourselves overwhelmed with busy-ness and think back longingly to the relaxed pace of summer. Being over-busy and feeling stressed takes a toll on the body, and in particular the adrenal glands. Supporting the adrenals through diet and supplements can go a long way toward mitigating the toxic effects of stress on our health.

Basic adrenal physiology
Our two adrenal glands sit like caps on top of our kidneys. A primary function of the adrenals is to help the body cope with stress. A drop in blood pressure when we rise from sitting to standing, a dip in blood sugar levels between meals, moving from a warm room to the cold outdoors, and experiencing minor emotional ups and downs are just some of the day-to-day stressors the adrenals help us to manage. They also help us in extraordinary circumstances by secreting hormones that trigger the "fight or flight" response. The major adrenal stress hormones involved in these activities are cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline).

Most of us know what it feels like to have an outpouring of adrenal stress hormones: the heart beats faster, we get chilly as blood gets shunted to the critical organs (the heart and brain), digestive activity comes to a halt, and we feel stimulated and alert. Our bodies are well adapted to being in this state from time to time, but problems arise when we remain chronically under stress. Fatigue is the hallmark of chronic stress. Other common symptoms include sleep problems, anxious or depressed moods, digestive problems, pain syndromes, and more frequent infections.

To test or not to test

Blood tests to measure adrenal sufficiency are not very helpful when looking for clues about the adrenals' involvement in symptoms of a chronic stress reaction. Healthy adrenals work much harder in the morning than they do at night, so salivary tests that look at adrenal hormone levels over the course of a full day are more useful for evaluating overall adrenal function.

Usually we can make an educated guess, based on history and symptoms, about whether the adrenals need support, but sometimes the results from a salivary panel can help us target therapies most appropriately. The following general suggestions can be implemented without adrenal function tests.

Nourishing stress away
The best way to nourish a body under stress is to eat foods that keep the blood sugar stable, because blood sugar ups and downs are especially stressful for the body. At a minimum, this means avoiding sugary foods and drinks, and at best, it means a whole foods diet:

  • healthy proteins like beans, lentils, organic soy foods, fish, and occasional lean cuts of chicken and beef;
  • healthy fats like nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocados, and liquid oils;
  • healthy carbohydrates like steel cut oats, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, and other whole grains instead foods made from grains like breads, pastas, and crackers; and,
  • heaps and piles of fruits and vegetables!

These foods tend to be nutrient dense, supplying plenty of B vitamins and vitamin C, which the adrenal glands use up, as well as anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory chemicals, which protect the rest of the body from the damaging effects of stress. They're also filling-eating three to five times per day should be fully satisfying and is better for you than eating more often.

Consider some botanicals
The plants that have been used traditionally to treat the effects of chronic stress are called adaptogens. Adaptogens keep the adrenal glands from over- or under-responding to stressful situations. Some, like Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), have a mildly stimulating edge, while others, like ashwaghanda (Withanea somnifera), have a more relaxing effect. For some people, taking golden root (Rhodiola rosea) boosts energy during the day and promotes good sleep at night. It has even been shown to improve mood. These botanicals are all considered to be generally safe and can be taken as tea, tincture, or capsule.

Because, ultimately, there is no magical way to undo the chronic stress reaction.

Practice relaxation. Learn to recognize the signals your body gives you when it is experiencing stress, and know how to use your relaxation practice to intervene early. Tone your adrenals with regular exercise-this allows them to relax more completely. Seek help if you need it. Don't let self-care fall to the wayside when you need it most!

Dr. Maureen Williams is an author, researcher, and teacher in the field of natural medicine. She has been in clinical practice since 1995 and currently sees patients at the Victoria Community Health Coop in James Bay.