We already know that stress is counterproductive to our health and well-being, and negatively impacts our hormonal and adrenal health. But many of us are struggling to find ways to *actually* reduce stress without resorting to unhealthy coping techniques.
That’s why I decided to make a list of my top real-world tips that I use to help rein in stress and anxiety and support adrenals. (And, if you’re new here, even though list-making may have you picking up on some distinctly Ross vibes, typically I’m way more Monica.)
Why Even Care About Adrenal Health?
First, let me give you a quick primer on our stress response: We have a stress response system called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA-Axis for short). When we’re presented with a stressor (whether that is a hungry tiger, like our ancestors would have had to contend with, or a nasty email from our boss) our HPA-Axis sets off a series of signals to release chemical messengers (e.g. hormones) like cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine/adrenaline. This is all part of an adaptive response to help our body respond to threats. It has served human-kind well to date, helping our ancestors flee dangerous situations to preserve life. Unfortunately, our modern environment isn’t a great match for this adaptive response. Our HPA-Axis is being constantly triggered by stressful stimuli, even things as seemingly benign as light exposure at night (more on that later in this article). Ultimately, this means that our adrenal health suffers.
Stress is a leading factor to a myriad of dis-ease, including a sad scalp. It robs our body of important nutrients needed for beautiful hair to grow and it causes the hair’s growth phase to be blunted so the follicle enters an extended rest phase. In case it’s unclear what this means for your hair: less growing, more resting = thin, sparse hair. Stress can also contribute to hair loss by messing with our hormones (including sex hormones and our thyroid) which can also affect our hair in some pretty serious ways.
Opportunities to feel stressed-out abound. Not only are many of us dealing with considerable stress in our day-to-day lives, but turning on the news (especially as of late) can take our stress up to a whole new level.
How To Support Adrenals
Here is a list of real-world tips that I use to help rein in stress and anxiety, and support my HPA-Axis and adrenal health. I try to incorporate these regularly, but am especially mindful during times of acute stress (like when you go to Target and all the toilet paper is sold out).
How to reduce stress and support adrenal health IRL:
- Under-eating is a source of stress on our bodies. We want to make sure that we are eating enough total calories – – regardless of what we *think* our fitness goals should be. Under-eating also puts a cap on the amount of stress-supportive nutrients that we are able to consume through our diet. Could you be eating too little?
- Prioritizing proteins and fats with each meal, and avoiding highly processed foods that have a high-glycemic load, is another way we can support our bodies during periods of stress. These habits help to keep our blood sugar stable and help support adrenal health.
- Eating foods that are high in vitamin C can be another way to support our adrenal glands. Not only is vitamin C needed for the production of adrenal hormones like cortisol, but it also helps protect against oxidative damage during times of stress. Remember that it is whole fruit, not fruit juice that we want to be consuming. Fruit juices are far too sweet and have a negative impact on our blood sugar.
- Use a high-quality salt. When our adrenal glands are over-taxed, their production of a hormone called aldosterone can decrease. Aldosterone is a salt-retaining hormone and when it decreases, the amount of sodium in our blood can also go down. I prefer to use Redmond Real Salt versus sea salt because it is mined – – avoiding contamination of microparticles of plastic found in sea salts.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol. I know that this may be a suggestion that you are tempted to gloss over, but hear me out. Caffeine is a stimulant and it places additional stress on already weary adrenal glands. Alcohol can have a destabilizing effect on our blood sugar (not good, as we were just discussing) and can compound inflammation and hormone imbalances.
- Limit nighttime light exposure by wearing blue-light blocking glasses in the evening, downloading blue-light blocking apps on phones and tech devices, and/or using red or amber light bulbs (especially in areas where we want to promote rest, like the bedroom). Light exposure at night messes with our circadian rhythm: the sleep-wake cycle that our body (including our hormones) run on based on the cues (like light) that it receives from our environment. If we want to support adrenal health and sleep great, limiting light at night is an incredibly important habit.
- Get natural light exposure during the day. This goes hand in hand with the last tip. Just like it’s important to limit nighttime light exposure to promote rest, our bodies need the light cue that it’s time to be awake during the day. Ideally, we would be able to throw open the shades in the morning and tons of natural light would flood our environment. If you live somewhere where that’s not always the case, there are certain light devices that you can invest in that will do the trick. (These can also be helpful when you travel to potentially mitigate some of the effects of jet-lag).
- Moving our bodies every day. Some of you might read this and think that I’m saying you need to be hitting the gym more. Far from it! It would be much better for our health to prioritize regularly moving our bodies throughout the day (for example, getting in +8,000 steps per day, using a standing desk) than it would be to be largely sedentary throughout the day and then engaging in strenuous physical activity. Unfortunately (or fortunately), that’s just not what our bodies have adapted for. In addition to moving throughout the day, when I’m feeling stressed, I also like to practice more restorative exercises like yoga, or going for a walk or bike ride outdoors.
- Mediate. Everyone can do it and you don’t have to be “good at it” to practice this every day. I use apps like Headspace and Insight Timer to make meditation a part of my daily routine. Even just a 10-minute daily meditation will have benefit.
- Prioritize sleep! This is really important that we put rest at the top of our to-do list when we’re stressed. Here are some tips for getting your best night’s sleep.
- Take a break from social media and/or the news. Yes, it’s ok to give yourself permission to unplug. Maybe just try it for one day and notice how it makes you feel.
How Do you Know If Your Adrenal Health Has Already Been Compromised?
With the constant inundation of triggers to our HPA-Axis, it unfortunately comes as no surprise to me when prospective clients tell me they’re experiencing symptoms like these:
- Strong cravings for caffeine, sugar, salt
- Trouble recovering from workouts
- Needing coffee in the morning in order to function
- Having trouble falling asleep at night
- Feeling tired and wired
- Feeling dizzy when standing up
- Low stress tolerance
- Extra abdominal fat
- Poor memory
- Low libido
- Poor immune response
- Low body temperature
The best way to assess adrenal health is through a test that looks at samples of free as well as metabolized cortisol throughout a 24-hour period. Salivary and serum tests won’t be able to provide the level of detail that’s often needed to understand our adrenal health from all angles. That’s why I prefer the at-home urinary test called DUTCH (Dried Urinary Test for Comprehensive Hormones). This test can be accessed through functional medicine practitioners and is one that I routinely use for my clients.