Functional MedicineGet to the root cause of medical problems
Why we address adrenals at Ageless Wellness
The adrenal glands are two organs that sit on top of your kidneys and produce the hormone cortisol. Dr. Jamie Walraven and the staff at Ageless Wellness Center in Peachtree City recognize that maintaining healthy adrenals, and a healthy production of cortisol, is vital to proper regulation of a wide range of processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. It also has a very important role in helping the body respond to stress.
“We often think of stress as just being mental or emotional, but stress can also be physical, both internal or external,” Walraven explains. “Stress to your body correlates to increased cortisol demand. It’s what helps you fight inflammation, heal from an infection, stay up late to prepare a report or deal with other stresses on the job.” Cortisol is also vital to what’s known as our “flight or fight” response, an evolutionary trait that helps us to survive difficult or dangerous situations.
“When cortisol is produced to combat stress, it tells your brain to quit thinking of anything that is not pertinent to your fight or flight response,” Walraven explains. “Picture it like you’re a zebra that’s grazing on grass and a lion jumps out and is about to eat you. The zebra perceives that as stress, stimulating cortisol to pulse all over the body. It automatically says you don’t have time to stop and think or even eat anymore, you just need to run!”
Once the fight or flight instinct goes away, the body shifts back into a more relaxed state with proper food digestion that refuels the body. The problem, Walraven says, is that many humans, unlike zebras, tend to stay in that fight or flight response state.
“We don’t shift out of that rest and digest state enough,” she says. “We worry about the future or ruminate about things in the past. We don’t sleep well. We don’t eat well. We don’t spend enough time in that rest and digest phase.”
According to Walraven, we can have internal stressors that we don’t even know about. One of the most common is gut inflammation.
“A leaky gut is very common and can be a significant part of inflammation on a daily basis,” she says. “That can lead to vitamin deficiencies and increased toxicities, which then contribute to increased stress response, chronic pain or poor sleep habits.”
When addressing clients with adrenal issues, Walraven says it’s important to look at the person as a whole.
“I like to say everything affects hormones and hormones affect everything, and that is true for cortisol. It’s very difficult to balance someone’s sex hormones if they’re having significant adrenal issues. Hormonal imbalance such as being menopausal can contribute to additional stress on your adrenals. But the converse is also true, and adrenal stress can contribute to hormonal imbalance at any age, even in the premenopausal stage.”
To determine health of the adrenals, Walraven performs a simple saliva test. The patient takes home a self-test kit that contains four tubes, and saliva samples are taken at four times throughout a single day — in the morning, at noon, late afternoon and night. That’s because your body produces most cortisol in the morning and it decreases through the day. The samples are then sent away, measuring the levels of cortisol.
Symptoms that can be associated with increased levels of cortisol may including feeling overly sensitive to everyday things in life, Walraven says.
“Your adrenal response may be over exaggerated, and there tends to be some weight gain and difficulties sleeping. The real major symptoms occur when you stay in overdrive for too long and your body can’t keep up with the demand and you go into adrenal fatigue. That’s where even though your body is demanding high amounts of cortisol, you can’t meet that demand and you actually have low levels of cortisol. When you have really low levels of cortisol all day, we call that adrenal exhaustion.”
Cortisol production is also related to the immune system. Being in adrenal fatigue makes a person more susceptible to infections that they are not able to fight off as well. It may take longer to recover from injury, or even from a workout.
“It can be a vicious cycle where things are getting worse and you’re feeling worse,” Walraven says. “If you don’t recognize it and do something to get out of that cycle, it just perpetuates the problem.”
Some people also realize weight gain, particularly around the middle, because cortisol is telling your body that you’re under stress and may be about to go through a famine. It makes your body more insulin resistant so that it stores up carbs more easily.
To make cortisol, your body uses progesterone, pregnenolone and DHEA. Often if someone is in adrenal fatigue, their progesterone is low which further imbalances hormones. Our bodies produce only so much pregnenolone, so when the adrenals are working really hard, pregnenolone is being depleted.
DHEA also turns into testosterone as women, who get 80 to 90 percent of their testosterone from the adrenals. Men on the other hand get just 10 to 20 percent of their testosterone from the adrenals.
“If you have adrenals that are really in high stress and pulling DHEA down to make cortisol, that can correlate with low testosterone,” Walraven explains. “So part of the way that we can help the adrenals heal is balancing or replacing hormones including pregnenolone, progesterone and DHEA.”
Adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, ginseng, rhodiola and licorice root can also help the adrenals heal.
“There’s a whole lot of adaptogenic herbs that can help whether the adrenals are performing too high or too low. Usually we would use that in a combination of supplements.”
Additionally, the adrenals can begin healing just by addressing the various causes of stress in life.
“We spend a lot of time talking about how to manage stress. A lot of people say they feel like they’re handling stress pretty well, but the adrenals are saying otherwise.”
To help the body handle stress better, Dr. Walraven recommends everything from essential oils to meditation.
“Anything that help somebody de-stress is going to be beneficial. And we don’t want do this now just to fix things, we want to incorporate this into your life long-term so that you can have healthy adrenals long-term.”
For more information about our adrenal treatment or to make an appointment, call 678-364-8414.