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We’ve all come to think of stress as a negative thing, but actually our bodies require some degree of stress in order to function appropriately.
Stress in the body can be measured by the hormone cortisol. This hormone is produced by the adrenal glands, but it’s regulated by a number of complex feedback mechanisms. Collectively, these feedback mechanisms are known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis.
While some stress to necessary (cortisol spikes to get us up in the morning, for example), we can run into problems when the HPA axis is stimulated too much and too frequently. This depletes our physiological resilience and metabolic reserve, and can lead to malfunction .
An easy way to understand these concepts is to imagine your health as a bank account. If you make enough deposits (good sleep, eating well, frequent relaxation), you can withstand some withdrawals (late nights, a few glasses of wine, the odd bit of fast food). However, it’s all about balance. If you many too many withdrawals and not enough deposits, your health will start to suffer.
This is the situation with adrenal fatigue. If HPA axis suffers too many stressors (or withdrawals), it loses its ability to function appropriately.
Notice it’s the HPA axis as a whole which is implicated—not just the adrenals. The old view of ‘adrenal fatigue’ was that the adrenals glands simply stopped being able to make cortisol. We now know this isn’t always the case. The symptoms of adrenal fatigue stem from different mechanisms in varying parts of the body, so ‘HPA-dysfunction’ is probably a more accurate term. However, for ease, we’ll continue to refer to ‘adrenal fatigue’ in this article.
HPA-dysfunction occurs when the volume of stress overwhelms the body’s ability to deal with it.
Some perceive this as a mismatch between our ancient genes and modern environment . While our ancestors had to deal with short bouts of stress—the old running-from-a-lion analogy—modern life throws us a host of assaults.
Modern stressors include relationship problems, money worries, a poor diet, toxins, pollution…the list goes on. They may not be a life-or-death situation in the moment, but the chronic, low level of stress they cause can be damaging in the long term.
There are four broad categories of stressors:
Perceived stress, or the biochemical, mental and emotional response to our life and its challenges. This is different for everyone. One person may be able to forget an argument with their spouse quickly, for example, while for another person this would be a severe stressor.
Glycaemic dysregulation, otherwise known as poor blood-sugar control. This is extremely stressful for the body and particularly the adrenal glands, which are involved in blood-sugar regulation. Glycaemic regulation can occur as a result of both what we eat and how we eat.
Circadian disruption, which refers to both the quantity and quality of sleep, and a person’s exposure to light and dark. We’re all rhythmic beings, and our bodies like it when we follow the natural rhythm of day and night. Excess caffeine, jet lag and shift work can all contribute to circadian disruption.
Inflammatory signals, which are released when the body perceives itself to be under any form of threat. This can be from food intolerances, infections, a high toxic load, allergies and even excess weight gain.
As you can see, HPA-dysregulation can be caused by a number of factors. There’s rarely a single cause; instead, people reach a breaking point after weeks, months or even years of too many stressors.
Adrenal fatigue can also be called ‘burnout’. Typical symptoms include:
In worst-case scenarios, HPA-dysregulation can become dangerous and even life-threatening. A person could become dehydrate, lose consciousness and would require immediate medical attention .
If you believe you’re suffering from HPA-dysfunction or adrenal fatigue, you need to take an honest look all the sources of stress in your life—and put strategies in place to reduce them. This generally involves considering four areas:
It’s key to reduce or eliminate foods that contribute to blood-sugar imbalance and inflammation. These typically include products made with white flour and sugar, plus alcohol, caffeine and any food sensitivities that are specific to you.
Certain gut issues can also contribute to ongoing inflammation, so it’s worth investigating your gut health. Infections or a high toxic burden can be further drivers of malfunction.
Once you know your gut is working fine, you need ample nutrients to re-establish physiological resilience and metabolic reserve. A good start is to base your diet around whole, natural foods such as vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, legumes, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, spices and herbs.
Certain supplements can also support the HPA axis. These include :
Supplements can be very effective but they should only ever complement a good diet. It’s also best to seek personal recommendations from a Functional Medicine Practitioner or Registered Nutritional Therapist.
It’s important to be active, but too much exercise can also become a huge stressor for the body . In fact, rigorous training routines can often push people into HPA-dysfunction.
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you feel more or less energised after an exercise session. It you feel drained or depleted in any way, that’s your body telling you that it’s time to scale back. For those experiencing severe symptoms, reducing all exercise to gentle walking may be essential in the short-term.
Activity doesn’t just relate to formal exercise, though. How active is your day in general? If you’re the type of person who’s rushing around, moving from one thing to the next, barely giving yourself time to stop and think…you may be doing too much for your body.
Relaxation is a necessity, not a luxury. Find a quiet activity that you enjoy—for some this could be meditation, while for others it could be reading—and make it a non-negotiable part of your day. Watching stressful TV or reading worrying news doesn’t count!
The importance of sleep cannot be underestimated. Good-quality sleep effectively presses the ‘reset’ button on your hormones, allowing them to start at the appropriate levels at the beginning of each day.
Most people require 7–9 hours each night. As your body likes routine, it’s best to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day. There are lots of ways you can enhance your sleep quality, such as instigating a wind-down routine and optimising the comfort of your bedroom.
The correct exposure to light and dark plays a huge role in this too. In an ideal world, we’d stop all sources of light when the sun goes down and then expose ourselves to the sun as soon as it rises again.
This extreme isn’t possible for most people, but we can still make positive changes. Limiting your screen time at night is a good place to start. If you can get outside as soon as it’s light (or as soon as you wake up), even better.
There’s no such thing as a stressful event—it’s your interpretation of it that matters.
Perceived stress is a key driver of HPA-dysfunction and, in some ways, it’s one of the trickiest aspects to address because it involves changing our thought patterns .
However, that’s not to say it can’t be done. There are a number of effective techniques to combat detrimental thinking, such as meditation, mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy. If a person embraces one of these, it can be transformative.
Of course, sometimes changing our thoughts isn’t enough—and the situation really does need to change. You could change your thoughts towards a difficult boss, for example, but sometimes you also just need to change your job.
Health conditions such as adrenal fatigue can push us to make tough decisions. However, you may look back and see that it was the best thing that ever happened to you.
There are lots of changes you can make yourself to combat the symptoms of adrenal fatigue. Consider your diet, activity, sleep and thoughts—and follow some of the advice above.
We can all benefit from help, especially when it comes to our health. For further guidance, book in for a 1-to-1 consultation or, if you want to take a deeper dive into your stress levels, take a look at our Adrenal stress test.
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