Reversing the Effects of Stress:
How to Heal Adrenal Fatigue and Restore the Body’s Health
BY DR. LIBBY WEAVER
healing adrenal fatigue and reversing the effects of stress requires deep, nourishing self-care and relaxation… which makes for a fun process of rejuvenation.
Cortisol—Friend or Worst Nightmare?
Cortisol is your long-term stress hormone and a massive contributor to adrenal fatigue. Historically, our only longterm stress revolved around food being scarce. Long-term stress came in the form of floods, famines, and wars. During such times, we didn’t know where the next meal wascoming from. Today, in the Western world, our long-term stresses are more likely to be financial stress, relationship concerns, and uncertainty, or even worries, about our health, or the health of a loved one, but also body weight. For so many people, their first waking thoughts involve, “What will I or won’t I eat today?” or “How much exercise can I get done today?” and the consistency of these thoughts causes regular adrenal stress.
If cortisol tells every cell of your body that food is scarce, and your metabolism slows down as a result, and you continue to eat and exercise in the same way you always have, your clothes will slowly get tighter. With adrenal fatigue causing cortisol to tell every cell in your body to store fat, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to decrease body fat until the cortisol issue is resolved. We must get to the heart of the stress and either change the situation or change the perception.
Prolonged Stress Leads to Adrenal Fatigue
The next biochemical stage of stress that can occur, especially if the stress has been prolonged, may involve cortisol falling low. If you have had a high level of cortisol output for many, many years, your adrenal glands may not be able to stand the tension, or have the resources to sustain such continual, high-level cortisol output and the metabolic consequences this drives. The adrenal glands were never designed to maintain this pattern of production and so cortisol output plummets. In general terms, you “burn out.” In more recent times, this has become known as adrenal fatigue, because the major symptom is a deep and unrelenting fatigue.
You actually feel worse after exercise when you are adrenally fatigued, whereas exercise typically energizes us. Frustration mounts because you believe that exercising and eating less are the only solutions to weight loss, yet you can’t bring yourself to do either despite every good intention. Every time you eat something sweet, you eat too much, or another month goes past without much movement. When you reflect on this, you feel guilty, you might say mean things to yourself—and you may silently lose hope. You now think, “Who cares?” whenever you feel like eating something that won’t really nourish you, and the not-so-great eating continues, especially an excess consumption of carbohydrates as you desperately search for energy. During adrenal exhaustion, your clothes keep getting tighter and this just adds to your stress. The vicious cycle is self-perpetuating.
As you can see, cortisol plays many roles in our body, and healing adrenal fatigue symptoms to bring our cortisol back to optimal levels is essential for us to be able to access body fat to burn it, to feel content, have good energy, and keep inflammation and pain at bay.
How Your Nervous System Affects Your Health
At the heart of all of my strategies for adrenal fatigue treatment is the desire for you to rest and to rest well, in a restorative and revitalizing way. Rest must follow action for us to have optimal health and excellent fat burning, and very few people these days truly rest, although we might believe we do. A part of our nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS); is active when we truly rest. This is the “rest and repair” arm of our nervous system, but the opposite arm of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), can dominate. For now, all you need to know is that if you do not lose weight from high-intensity exercise, it is likely that your SNS is dominant, which is common with adrenal stress. If you do shift weight from this type of exercise, then your nervous system is likely to be well balanced.
The Importance of Breathing Well
The other reason for this relatively brief section about the nervous system here is to make you aware of the cornerstone of all my adrenal fatigue treatments and, just as importantly, explain why I will insist on this if you take nothing else away from this: it has nothing to do with food, and it is absolutely free to everyone. It is breathing, and for some, it can be the key to shifting body chemistry from fat storage to fat burning. How is this possible?
The role of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is to perceive the internal environment and, after processing the information in the central nervous system (CNS), regulate the function of your internal environment. The name “autonomic” implies that it is independent of the conscious mind.
Think about a family of ducks and their newborn ducklings. Just like ducklings, the autonomic nervous system will always follow the leader, and the breath is the only part of the autonomic nervous system that can be controlled consciously. Your breath leads. Your body follows. The way you breathe offers your only access to your autonomic nervous system, and because we breathe 5,000 to 30,000 times a day—or 200 million to 500 million times in your lifetime—it has the potential to influence you positively or negatively in many ways- and yes, this means you can treat adrenal fatigue with your breathing.
Nothing communicates to every cell of your body that you are safe better than your breath. If you breathe in a shallow way, with short, sharp inhalations and exhalations, then you communicate to your body that your life is in danger. You have just learned about the cascade of hormonal events that follows such alarm and the role these hormones play in switching fat burning on or off. How you breathe is also a fast track to the symptoms of anxiety and, potentially, panic attacks, regardless of what led you to breathe in a shallow way in the first place, whether it was an event, a deadline, the perception of pressure and the consequent “need” to rush, or the lifetime habit of your nervous system. Long, slow breathing that moves your diaphragm communicates the opposite message to your body—that you are very safe. Nothing relieves adrenal fatigue and down regulates the production of fat-storage stress hormones more powerfully.
So, solution number one is to practice diaphragmatic breathing, making sure your tummy moves in and out as you breathe, as opposed to your upper chest. To begin your adrenal fatigue treatment, schedule this deep breathing at first until it becomes your new way of breathing (unless you literally do need to escape from danger such as slamming your foot on the brake, if another car suddenly drives out in front of you).
The Importance of Laughter
Another free and powerful tool for treating adrenal fatigue is laughter. If we see life as tough, full of hard work, pain, and drudgery, it will be precisely that.
Humans have the ability to see only their perspective in the world, rather than the world as it truly is. We see the world through filters, yet we don’t know they are there. I am not denying that life can be tough at times or that being honest with ourselves if we do feel down and out about life is not a good thing. The adrenal stress, and our problem, comes when we see the world this way and believe that it will never be any different. For then it won’t be.
Think about it. A belief in the permanence of doom is dangerous for every hormonal signal in your body—and as powerhouse of hormones, your adrenal system is highly affected. Do your absolute best to shift your thinking to see life as an adventure, a journey and a gift, full of opportunity, a process through which we can contribute. Too many people are out of touch with how privileged their lives are given that all of their basic needs are met, as for too many people across the globe this is still not the case. Some of the greatest, most moving stories I have ever heard have involved someone turning a horrific hardship into their greatest opportunity. Keep this in mind while working on your adrenal exhaustion treatment.
Signs of Stress Hormone Production and/or Adrenal Exhaustion
+ You feel stressed regularly and like you are on red alert
+ You gained weight during or after a stressful period; you may have lost weight initially during the stress, but then regained that weight plus more
+ Body fat has increased around your middle and the back of your arms, and you have grown what I lovingly refer to as a “back verandah”
+ You crave sugar
+ You love coffee and energy drinks—anything that contains caffeine
+ You startle (jump) easily
+ You don’t sleep well
+ You often wake up feeling unrefreshed
+ You sometimes wake up feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus
+ You feel better if you can sleep until 8 or 9 a.m., rather than arising between 5 and 7 a.m.
+ If you don’t go to sleep by 10 p.m., you get a second wind and end up staying awake until at least 1 a.m.
+ You regularly feel tired but wired
+ You retain fluid
+ Your face looks “puffy” or swollen at times (and other causes have been ruled out)
+ You are a worrier; you don’t relax easily
+ You are a “control freak”
+ Your body feels heavy and achy at times, even though you don’t have a medical condition that warrants this
+ Your blood pressure is high
+ Your blood pressure is low or at the low end of normal
+ You get dizzy easily, but particularly when you go from sitting to standing quickly
+ You feel anxious easily
+ You tend to experience low moods with no known other cause
+ Your breathing tends to be shallow and quite fast
+ You experience “air hunger” (and other causes have been ruled out)
+ You struggle to say “No”
+ You laugh less than you used to
+ You feel like everything is urgent
Stress Hormones Solutions
Just as important, if not the most important aspect of preventing adrenal fatigue for a balanced and appropriate stress hormone response, is the application of the emotional health strategies as well as conscious breathing. I know breathing sounds too simple to treat adrenal stress but diaphragmatic breathing (making your tummy move in and out as you breathe, as opposed to your upper chest) can literally change your life. And I don’t say that lightly.
+ Practice restorative yoga, Pilates, tai chi, or qigong a minimum of twice a week for four weeks. Develop a daily practice for outstanding results. My favorite is a practice known as Stillness Through Movement. Commit to a breath-focused practice.
+ Spend five minutes daily focusing on and giving voice to all the aspects of your life for which you are grateful; you can’t be stressed when you feel grateful.
+ With the guidance of an herbalist, take some adrenal fatigue supplement herbs. Not all herbal medicine is created equal, however, so you want to ensure the brand you take is reputable. Check that it has been tested by a high-level quality-control system and that the active ingredients said to be in the product are indeed present, as well as no contaminants. Herbal medicine can be taken in a liquid tincture form or as tablets. The majority of the following adrenal exhaustion herbs are adaptogens, meaning they help the body adapt to stress by fine-tuning the stress response.
+ Withania (Ashwagandha) for the worriers
+ Rhodiola for the drama queens or occasionally for the worriers
+ Siberian ginseng (eleuthero) for the fatigued feminine
+ Panax ginseng for the utterly fatigued (short-term use only)
+ Licorice, especially if your blood pressure is on the low end of normal
+ Dandelion leaves, especially if you retain fluid
+ The adrenals also love vitamins B and C, and to fight adrenal fatigue I usually supplement both: the Bs in the form of a multivitamin or a straight B-complex, plus 4–5g per day of vitamin C, preferably in powdered form with added calcium and magnesium, with the doses split over the day. If you are on an oral contraceptive pill, stick to 2g of vitamin C per day.
The Restorative Power of Good Food
Although I often recommend supplements of herbs and/or nutrients for adrenal fatigue, never underestimate the healing and restorative power of food the way it comes in nature. Taking supplements is not a reason to eat a poor-quality, low-nutrient diet. I simply recommend supplements where appropriate and especially to assist in fight against adrenal exhaustion and the restoration of health. There is no pill that can make up for a lousy way of eating.
This piece on adrenal fatigue and stress is excerpted with permission from Accidentally Overweight: The 9 Elements That Will Help You Solve Your Weight-Loss Puzzle by Dr. Libby Weaver.
About The Author
Dr. Libby Weaver (PhD) is a leading nutritional biochemist, an eight-time #1 best-selling author and an international speaker. Dr. Libby graduated from the University of Newcastle in Australia with a Bachelor of Health Science Nutrition and Dietetics with Honors, and a PhD in Biochemistry. She combines this knowledge with two decades of clinical practice working with patients from all walks of life, from stay-at-home mums to Hollywood stars. Visit her website here: drlibby.com