The adrenals are two small glands, located on top of each kidney, that release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These “stress hormones” impact many important functions throughout the body. They help establish your stress tolerance, tame inflammation, regulate blood sugar and body fat, control potassium and sodium levels (impacting blood sugar), and even influence sex drive and aging.
You may have heard that the stress hormone cortisol is “bad.” This is misleading — while high levels of cortisol are problematic, what could be equally or more problematic is having low levels of cortisol.
Cortisol is a hormone that is required for life — we could not live without it, and it is an important anti-inflammatory hormone.
Adrenal dysfunction generally occurs when your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is unable to effectively manage your stress response. The HPA axis describes the interactive feedback loop that takes place among these three endocrine, or hormone-producing, glands. If the communication between these three breaks down, your adrenals and their ability to produce important essential hormones can be jeopardized.
Chronic stress is one of the most common causes of adrenal dysfunction. Our bodies are well-equipped to respond to acute stressors (like being chased by a bear or getting out of the way of an oncoming car), where we experience the activation of the fight-or-flight response, followed by a return to the rest-and-digest state.
However today, our paleolithic bodies built for hunting and gathering are living in the 21st century, where we experience a never-ending presence of stressful, yet non-life-threatening, situations that can lead to the constant activation of the stress response.
When this happens, our body’s energy is shifted from activities not essential to survival (like digestion and procreation), and instead focuses its resources on meeting demand for cortisol and adrenaline.
With enough chronic stress over time, the HPA axis becomes overwhelmed and stops sending messages to the adrenals.
Other common causes of adrenal dysfunction include sleep deprivation, blood sugar dysregulation, and chronic inflammation (which are all forms of stress on the body).
Symptoms of poor adrenal function may include the following:
- tired and wired
- trouble sleeping
- midnight waking
- no energy in the morning
- can’t fall asleep
- belly fat
- short fuse
- coffee cravings
- hair loss
- severe fatigue
- memory loss
- frequent sickness
- crying spells
- lack of motivation
- salt cravings
- low sex drive
- unstable blood sugar levels
If you’re experiencing these symptoms or if they developed after experiencing a period of acute or chronic stress, sleep deprivation, an infection, or toxic exposure, chances are that you have some level of adrenal dysfunction.
The Adrenals and Menopause
Adrenal hormones impact a variety of important functions in the body, including sex hormones. The adrenals are responsible for creating the great-grandmother of all sex hormones – pregnenolone. Pregnenolone is crucial for fertility and hormone production of DHEA, progesterone, and cortisol. DHEA is the grandmother hormone and makes testosterone and estrogen. So, an interesting thing happens when there is stress in the body and more cortisol production is needed. The body diverts pregnenolone from converting to progesterone and it is converted into cortisol – this is also known as the “pregnenolone steal”.
This diversion of pregnenolone can cause a decrease in progesterone and DHEA levels, which can then cause a decrease in estrogen and testosterone. This is one of the main reasons why a woman who is under stress of any kind may have trouble getting pregnant. It’s really a safety mechanism by the body to prevent a pregnancy when there is stress.
During perimenopause, the ovaries slow their production of estrogen and progesterone, and the adrenal glands take over hormone production. When we’re experiencing high amounts of stress and our adrenals are already taxed, the “pregnenolone steal” takes place, and it’s no wonder that they have a hard time keeping up on hormone production. When the adrenals are unable to produce enough sex hormones, it can contribute to the many troublesome symptoms women tend to see in menopause like fatigue, mood changes, sleep challenges, low libido, and hot flashes.
This is why adrenal dysfunction can exacerbate menopause symptoms. In fact, many of the symptoms of menopause and adrenal dysfunction are very similar.
By addressing the root causes of adrenal fatigue, menopause symptoms can be improved or even eliminated as well!
The Safety Theory
As I mentioned earlier, in the face of threat, the body will downregulate our metabolism to conserve resources. Then our fight-or-flight stress response takes over and releases extra levels of cortisol. This response can help our survival when used in response to immediate and short-lived threats, but can lead to stress-related symptoms when the perceived threat lingers and we don’t feel safe.
My bestie Izabella Wentz (you may know her as the Thyroid Pharmacist) has coined her own “Safety Theory” which explains that adrenal, immune, and thyroid issues develop as an adaptive mechanism to protect us in times of perceived danger. These conditions help us survive in times of high stress, but in order to feel our best and thrive, we need to figure out what is setting off the danger signals so we can turn them off.
The good news is that there are many things you can do to make your body feel safe by sending it “safety signals”. When we do this, we can reduce the symptoms associated with adrenal dysfunction and menopause.
The ABCs of Adrenal Support
Izabella always recommends the ABCs of adrenal support as a starting point to give the body what it needs to thrive – adaptogens, B vitamins, and vitamin C.
Adaptogens are defined as a substance that can raise the body’s resilience to various types of stress, including physical and emotional stress, which makes them incredibly helpful for supporting adrenal function.
In order to be considered an adaptogen, an herb must possess several qualities. First, it must be nontoxic at normal doses. Second, the herb should help the entire body cope with stress. Third, it should help the body return to balance regardless of how the stress is currently affecting the person’s function. In other words, an adaptogenic herb needs to be able to both tone down overactive systems (normalize too much cortisol production) and boost underactive systems (increase cortisol production) in the body.
Some examples of adaptogens that both Izabella and I love include: American ginseng, ashwagandha, eleuthero, holy basil (tulsi), maca, reishi, and rhodiola.
B vitamins play an important role in cell metabolism, thyroid function, and adrenal function. All of them are necessary throughout every step of the stress response, from supporting energy production (the stress response requires a lot of energy!) to adrenal hormone production. B vitamins become depleted during high cortisol production, and deficiencies in pantothenic acid (B5) and biotin (B7) in particular have been linked to decreased adrenal function in animals and humans.
Vegans and vegetarians are at the greatest risk of vitamin B12 deficiency because it must be consumed (the body can’t synthesize it) and it is only found in animal foods, such as meat and dairy products, but people with autoimmune and gut issues also have higher rates of vitamin B12 deficiency.
You can bump up your B vitamin intake by consuming more foods high in B vitamins like meat, seafood, poultry, leafy greens, and sunflower seeds. A supplement containing a broad spectrum of B vitamins can also be helpful for people with adrenal imbalance.
The adrenal glands rely on vitamin C to function and manufacture cortisol, which makes it essential for adrenal healing and restoring balance to the HPA axis. Because it gets burned up quickly due to chronic stress, proper replenishment is essential. Vitamin C also helps support the immune system, collagen production, and the eradication of viruses. A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C also scavenges free radicals, which are unstable oxygen atoms that damage other cells or parts of cells, such as the mitochondria.
Incorporate more vitamin C into your diet by increasing your consumption of fruits and veggies. Supplementation can be helpful here as well.
Mitochondrial Support for Energy and Brain Fog
As you start to build safety signals for your body with the ABCs, the next place to focus on is the mitochondria, also known as the powerhouse of the cell that generates the energy our body needs. When we support mitochondrial health we are giving our body a major safety signal. Healthy mitochondria support adrenal function, which will help support the body in its transition through menopause.
Supporting the health of the mitochondria is also key for mental clarity (bye brain fog!), which if you’ve experienced adrenal dysfunction, thyroid challenges, or menopause, you know can be one of the most annoying symptoms.
Here are Izabella’s recommended strategies to support optimal mitochondrial function:
- Eat plenty of healthy fats: The mitochondria require fatty acids from fats to make ATP (a.k.a. energy!), so a fat deficiency can actually cause energy deficiency.
- B vitamins: B vitamins keep the mitochondria running, acting as cofactors or coenzymes for all of the processes that occur in the mitochondria. If B vitamins run low, everything slows down.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is needed to break down fatty acids and turn them into energy.
- Magnesium: Magnesium helps mitochondria repair damage caused by stress, optimizing the production of energy.
- Multitasking adaptogens: Ashwagandha, eleuthero, and rhodiola rosea have been found to enhance mitochondrial function and work best in synergy as part of an adrenal support blend.
- D-ribose: In addition to being wonderful for hydration, D-ribose helps support ATP production.
- Carnitine: is a key mitochondrial nutrient with multiple benefits, adding it to the mix can support the mitochondria and help turn the corner on exhaustion and cloudy thinking.
Transform the Adrenals for Menopause, Brain Fog, and Energy
I know firsthand what it’s like to experience adrenal fatigue, and if I had known then what I know now, my journey probably would have looked a lot different! I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to have resources like Izabella and her latest book, Adrenal Transformation Protocol.
Adrenal Transformation Protocol outlines a simple four-week program to help you balance your stress response and gradually build up your resilience, to prevent excess stress from overwhelming your adrenals and wreaking havoc on other things in your body, like hormones.
The book builds upon her very successful Adrenal Transformation Program, which has helped over 3000 people overcome symptoms of adrenal dysfunction. Check out some of the participants’ incredible results:
- 92% had reduced mental fog
- 89% reported reduced fatigue
- 86% reported reduced anxiety
- 81% experienced less trouble sleeping
- 81% improved their libido
- 78% reduced feelings of depression
If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms due to menopause, adrenal dysfunction, or thyroid problems, the strategies in Adrenal Transformation Protocol can help you overcome them and feel your very best.
In the book, Izabella goes even deeper beyond the ABCs of adrenal support and mitochondrial support, for a comprehensive protocol designed to send your body the safety signals it needs to help you feel calm, strong, excited about life, and brilliant once more! Beyond the protocol, she even includes an Advanced Stress Symptom Solution Guide, which can help you troubleshoot any persistent symptoms with actionable steps to eliminate them.
If you want to give your body optimal support during times of stress, or during major transitions like menopause, I highly suggest checking out Adrenal Transformation Protocol. I know it’s something I would have loved to have during my adrenal fatigue journey.