May 20, 2011

Heal Your Adrenals in 5 Steps: Yoga, NYC, No Sugar, Forgive + Dump Caffeine

Your adrenals, under normal circumstances, release cortisol and DHEA (the main stress hormones), and epinephrine and norepinephrine (neurotransmitters). You’re designed to make a lot in the morning, and very little at bedtime.

Problem is this: often the pattern – peak cortisol and DHEA in the morning, low at night – is not what I find in my patients who struggle with fatigue, low libido and a thickening waist. Instead, most folks with symptoms of wonky adrenal glands have a low cortisol in the morning and high cortisol at night. Some are resistant to cortisol and produce higher and higher amounts of cortisol in response to stress.

How does it feel? You wake up and don’t feel restored, even if you got your full 8 hours, and at night, you get a second wind. That second wind propels you to get your stuff done – which often leads to staying up way late such as midnight, 1am. Unfortunately, this depletes your adrenals even further, because your adrenals get healed at night. Night time is when the repair occurs.

Dysregulated cortisol has other effects too on the rest of your hormones – it blocks thyroid hormone production, and blocks the progesterone receptor, so that your normal soothing mechanisms just don’t work.

If you’re not sure – measure those hormones! You can ask your doctor to measure your cortisol and DHEAS or do it at home at Canary Club.

Here are some of the interventions proven to make a difference in your stress hormone levels – things you can do to get your adrenals to make just the right amount of hormone, not too much and not too little.

  1. Yoga. We know that cortisol gets modulated by practicing yoga. If you have high cortisol, yoga will lower it. Yoga also releases GABA, which is nature’s valium. You make a ton of it in pregnancy, but all of us can get the radiant, buoyant feeling simply by practicing yoga regularly.
  2. NYC. I just returned from a trip to New York City, and yet again had the experience of feeling more enlivened and inspired than I have in years, all against the background of a busy life of a working mom. While it’s not the highest quality data, which in my book are randomized trials, I collected my cortisol before and after my trip. Before the trip, my blood cortisol  in the morning was 19.6. Sky high. Tired but wired. After the trip, morning 12.5 micrograms/dL. I’m not alone in this experience. In an informal and unscientific survey of 25 friends, 96% report a boost in joy from a trip to New York. Of course, I’m not saying this only happens in New York. Point Reyes works equally well for my body as a Rejuvenation Station. Maybe Bermuda works for you.
  3. No Sugar. High cortisol floods the blood with glucose. Over time your body becomes resistant to insulin. Result? You gain weight. You develop hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. You crave more sugar. One way to get this vicious cycle under control is to stop eating sugar. Choose low-glycemic foods, and sufficient protein (3/4 to 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass).
  4. Forgive. I’ve recently become a scholar of the Stanford Forgiveness Project and Fred Luskin, PhD. He has proven that deep forgiveness lowers anxiety, blood pressure and anger. Both anxiety and anger correlate with cortisol levels, so I hypothesized there is a direct link. Lo and behold! Forgiveness does lower cortisol! This has been demonstrated in several populations. Forgiveness, using the paradigm that Fred describes on his website, significantly lowers stress and (!) increases sales in the corporate environment.
  5. Dump Caffeine. Most of my patient self medicate their low morning cortisol with a big ‘ol cuppa joe. Not just any cup of coffee, but here in the Bay Area, it’s Blue Bottle or Peets. Not a little euro cup but a gigantic supersized bowl. Caffeine raises your cortisol. I’m not saying caffeine is universally bad, but if you already have a problem with cortisol, I’d rather we find you more honest ways of raising your cortisol, your energy (such as items 1-4), as opposed to relying on fake energy (coffee, Red Bull, chocolate, etc). You might sleep better too, and that is delicious for your adrenal glands.

I’m not saying this is easy – in fact, I offer an entire cleansing program of which getting off caffeine and sugar is the main feature. Group support is sometimes helpful at turning around disordered adrenal function. Or take a yoga class. Or meditate, the ultimate goal of yoga.

Wishing you a normal cortisol for you – not too much, not too little. Namaste!

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Sara Gottfried, MD  |  Contribution: 1,600