Your Complete Guide to Healing “Adrenal Fatigue”
- Published on: 17 July, 2018
- Last update: 06 April, 2019
Now that my 5-part “truth about adrenal fatigue” (and how I’m healing it) series is complete, I wanted to provide you guys with one single blog post where you can read all of my tips and reflections in one place. Be sure to start with the intro article HERE, which I didn’t include below because it’s a loooong background post that goes deep into what “adrenal fatigue” really is from a biological standpoint. If you want to know what’s really going on in the body when it feels like your nerves are fried and you can’t get your mojo back, read that post first. However, if you’re someone who is tired of suffering from burnout and needs answers ASAP, you can simply read on to understand what the heck you can do to start feeling better (and start living your life again!) I promise it is possible, even though it will take some dedication on your part in terms of tasks such as going to bed early (even when it’s boring), or doing a little detective work/food journaling to figure out your individual allergies & sensitives (which can wreck your sleep quality without you even knowing it).
Below you will find the 4 categories that I found most important when healing my adrenals (sleep rhythm, deep sleep aides, food/supplements, exercise), along with the solutions to improving each of these aspects of your life so that your body can thrive once again! x
CATEGORY #1: SLEEP RHYTHM
Sleep is the #1 most important area to address when your adrenals are stressed. Those with adrenal issues have trouble getting to sleep, trouble staying in a deep sleep, and/or don’t wake up feeling refreshed. Your zZz’s may be very light or easily disturbed, and one of my symptoms was having to pee 386289756 times before bed and in the middle of sleep.
This is because we’ve been in fight or flight mode for too long and can’t turn it off. The body’s Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA axis) is dysregulated – usually overactivated and needs help calming down even if we’re exhausted (“wired but tired”). The HPA axis communicates with the immune system as well, so this overactivation can easily play a role in autoimmune conditions. Better sleep + HPA axis regulation = the better your autoimmune symptoms too! Likewise, anything that helps autoimmune symptoms (such as healing leaky gut and identifying food allergies to lower gut inflammation) will in turn support deep sleep and normalize the HPA axis.
1. RESET YOUR CIRCADIAN RHYTHM
….Because it’s easiest to get tired and fall into a deep sleep when you are in harmony with the environment’s photoperiod aka light/dark cycle.
This is the very first step I took, and the best part is, it’s free! Going to bed early isn’t fun, so this took discipline. But once you get past the hump, you will naturally crave sleeping before 10 (in fact, you won’t be able to keep your eyes open!) I stopped using screens, including TV, past 7:30pm as they are extremely stimulating and the blue light blocks melatonin production. To fill the time I listened to music, audiobooks or podcasts, sang, read books or meal prepped and tidied up.
I made sure I was physically in bed at 9:30pm with an aim to fall asleep before 10. I had to take melatonin 3 times the first week to force my body to sleep because I was so wired! I don’t recommend using melatonin longer than a few days. However in the beginning, when you take it at the time you want to retrain your brain to fall asleep, it can help readjust your internal clock. I then set an alarm for dawn and made sure I woke up early with the sun, which is important for my next tip! Some days I couldn’t wake up with the sunrise because I was so exhausted and my adrenals needed more rest. Always listen to your body and if you need that extra hour or two, take it. At first I watched the sunrise as many times per week as I could (3-4), but as I’ve gotten stronger it’s now 5 or 6! That magical hour before everyone is up is extremely calming, healing, and resets your hormones. Waking up at this time puts you in alignment with nature’s clock and prompts your body to make cortisol in the early MORNING when it should. This is how I’m fixing my “inverted” circadian rhythm where I was very slow to release cortisol in the morning but got a “second wind” at 9pm.
2. PHYSICALLY WATCH THE SUNRISE + SUNSET
This made resetting my circadian rhythm 100x easier. Watching the sunrise and sunset with your own two eyes sends waking + sleeping signals to your brain so that half the work is already done for you.
When you’re on vacation at the beach all day, staying somewhere tropical with less artificial light, don’t you get into the best sleep cycle? Our ancestors would have been outside all the time, and as kids we played outdoors until the sun went down which naturally tired us out and helped us live in alignment with the photoperiod.
Your eyes need to see the light to make the right hormones!
Besides resetting your internal clock, early morning light influences the hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism. A small study out of Northwestern University showed that early morning sun exposure may actually be linked to a slimmer, healthier body. According to this study’s findings, people who got most of their sun exposure in the wee morning hours had significantly lower body mass index (BMI) than people who got later morning or afternoon light. Plus, more morning sunshine means more melatonin production at night; it’s directly connected!
3. FOOD ALLERGIES & GUT INFLAMMATION CAN KEEP YOU AWAKE
Like I said, an overactive HPA axis can also overactivate your immune system. This means your body may experience inflammation/food intolerances to perfectly healthy foods, especially if leaky gut is a factor. I embarked on the Autoimmune Paleo Diet (AIP) to calm down my immune system, ameliorate gut inflammation, and to serve as an “elimination diet” so I could identify my individual food triggers.
AIP cuts out every major food allergen for a set period of time, then reintroduces them slowly one by one. A week into this, I had the best sleep of my life. My friend tried to wake me up one night by physically shaking me and I didn’t budge haha!
That means for me, food sensitivity (and thus gut inflammation) was affecting my sleep and my brain by causing brain fog and anxiety. Cutting out every allergen possible as an experiment showed me how good I could feel and allowed me to pinpoint how every reintroduction either supported that baseline OR negatively affected it. I already knew I was sensitive to gluten and dairy, but discovered I also couldn’t sleep and got an itchy scalp after consuming nightshades (especially tomatoes) which I was eating daily! I’m still reintroducing and found I’m also sensitive to corn, cashews & peanuts. I am now continuing to eat low carb modified AIP with my successful reintroductions, because it visibly lowers inflammation in my body and makes me feel my best.
If you don’t eat this way, that’s totally cool and you can absolutely heal. I would suggest doing an elimination diet that fits with your dietary preferences (this one has excellent modifications for vegans/vegetarians), then switching to whatever way of eating lowers YOUR inflammation the most. We are all different when it comes to this with different ancestry, insulin sensitivity, carbohydrate tolerance, etc. The goal is to simply lower body-wide and gut inflammation via diet so that the adrenals can calm down and heal.
CATEGORY #2: DEEP SLEEP AIDES
Once I started going to bed early, I wasn’t always staying asleep all through the night… and had the pesky disturbance of having to pee all the time. The food/gut inflammation aspect that I just went over above was a major factor in combating this, but I also began using natural sleep aides to get me past this hump. These were absolutely life-changing for this process and have completely changed the way that I look at true, restful sleep!
1. HERBAL NERVINES & RELAXANTS: “SLEEP JUICE”
As I mentioned, having to pee several times a night was one of the biggest issues that kept me from getting a full helping of rejuvenating rest. An overactive bladder that appears specifically at night is often a result of that overactivated HPA axis, which tricks your nervous system into thinking it’s still daytime (as we’re not in a deep enough slumber). Your body never gets the signal to stop trying to pee and shut down/repair instead. My solution, thanks to my teachers, was a blend of herbs that readjust your circadian rhythm and support deep REM sleep. These include: valerian, hops, skullcap, lemon balm, passionflower & california poppy. They also reduce stress and calm a frazzled mind, like the to-do list you suddenly start making when you close your eyes! I perfected the formula into a blend I call “sleep juice” and took 1 dose one hour before bedtime, then another dose 10 minutes before I hit the sack. I finally stopped peeing and started experiencing that sleep-so-good-youre-drooling! I’m beyond excited to announce that I’m launching “sleep juice” (along with 5 other incredible liquid formulas) at the end of July/early August.
[Update 2019: Sleep Juice is officially available in my herbal apothecary!]
These herbal sleep aides are an excellent alternative to melatonin as they are non-habit forming and safe for long term use. As you’ll remember from the “sleep rhythm” section, I only took melatonin a few times the first week to reset my body’s own production of the hormone. I never recommend taking it for longer than that!
2. BLUE BLOCKING GLASSES AFTER SUNSET
Just like I mentioned, the reason I had to take melatonin the first week of resetting my circadian rhythm was because my body wasn’t trained to produce its OWN melatonin at bedtime. Melatonin is an insanely important hormone that actually cleans up cancer cells while you sleep, and the blue light from our phones, televisions, lamps and even street lights can block its production. The easiest way to avoid this blue light is to wear orange colored “blue blocking glasses” right after sunset, and use candles or Himalayan salt lamps around your home. It’s especially important to wear these glasses if you’re watching a show or using your phone before bed!
You can get orange construction glasses on Amazon for under $10, but I chose a fancy pair of Swanwick Sleep aviators so I could wear them out if I had to run errands at night! Click here to check them out. They’re obviously a lot pricier than the construction glasses, but are designed exactly for this purpose and do a much better job at blocking the blue light. Plus, they’re super high quality, right on trend (hello colored 90s glasses), and most people assume you’re making a fashion statement when you walk around wearing them in Whole Foods haha.
3. BLACKOUT CURTAINS OR A SLEEP MASK
Blackout curtains for your bedroom are the absolute best option that will give you the deepest, most restorative sleep of your life.
I live in a studio apartment with huge industrial windows, so that unfortunately wasn’t an option for me. I opted for an extra large silk sleep mask (also from Swanwick) that instead blocks all light from your eyes. Again, no light = your melatonin production is protected! If blackout curtains are applicable for your bedroom, you can get them at a great price on Amazon or bed bath and beyond. Light works like a drug in the body, and if your body senses it while you’re sleeping, cortisol shoots up and melatonin goes down.
CATEGORY #3: FOOD & SUPPLEMENTS
In the first category (sleep rhythm) I already covered the topic of gut inflammation and food allergies (plus the AIP elimination diet I did to identify these triggers) so no need to repeat myself there. Instead, here’s a list of all the food and supplement tips I’m utilizing to maximize my energy levels and heal from ‘adrenal fatigue’!
1. CUT OUT CAFFEINE & STIMULANTS –
This was extremely difficult because I was relying on coffee just to feel human in the morning. The first 2 weeks I felt like a zombie and wanted to give up but I promise if you push through, you will start to feel natural stable energy that comes from your own body. If you’re someone who can “never fully wake up”, my teacher says either licorice root (do not use if you have high blood pressure) or rehmannia root tea (safe for all) are excellent adrenal adaptogen replacements.
2. POTASSIUM RICH FOODS –
Cooked spinach has far more potassium than bananas, so I upped my leafy greens. They also provide trace minerals which are essential for adrenal support! The RDA for potassium is 4700mg (😳) which is 11 bananas, so many of us don’t get nearly enough of this nervous-system-strengthening mineral.
3. BLOOD SUGAR REGULATION –
This was a big one we covered in class when discussing regulating the HPA axis & getting the body out of fight or flight mode. Cutting out sugar for good truly started my path to healing; I not only craved less junk but also found myself craving less ‘junk’ in other terms like binge watching TV. Up your healthy fats and do not be afraid of protein! When you get off the blood sugar rollercoaster, you regulate hormones and remove a huge source of stress.
4. ADAPTOGENIC HERBS –
As a 2019 update, I wanted to share that I’ve actually come out with a blend of the adaptogens that I’ve used during this entire recovery process (and aptly named it, Adrenal Recovery Formula!) These herbs include ashwagandha, eleuthero root, cordyceps, schizandra, and of course the ginseng family. Adaptogenic herbs increase non-specific resilience to stressors and help to reestablish our intrinsic physical, mental, and emotional adaptive capacity. They also have a modulating, normalizing, or regulating effect on the HPA axis, which is exactly what we’re looking for here. ARF is a great tool to use if you’re looking to handle stress better and reset your circadian rhythm, as the herbs I used (such as ashwagandha) tend to be especially helpful with the latter. Both Nick and I find that it helps us wake up earlier, and we’re naturally tired around 9pm when it’s time for bed.
5. ADDRESS MAGNESIUM DEFICIENCY –
A top contributing factor to HPA axis dysregulation and the body being “wired but tired” is magnesium deficiency. I have seen over and over again that there’s no possible way to get enough from diet due to depleted soils, therefore I highly recommend utilizing an epsom salt bath, topical magnesium spray, or oral supplement each night before bed. I have a magnesium spray and powered tea kit in my shop if you’re interested in the one that I use!
CATEGORY #4: EXERCISE & TIMING YOUR WORKOUTS
The final category of my adrenal tips is all about what exercises I’ve been doing to balance my HPA axis, and perhaps more importantly – when I’m doing them! These are the most important changes I made to my exercise routine that worked for me:
1. GO EASY ON YOURSELF –
When you’ve been in fight or flight mode for too long, your first goal is to calm that overactive HPA axis and get to a place where your body feels safe again. The more I worked out past my limits to try to slim down, the puffier I looked. This type of weight gain is not about calories in/out, it’s about HORMONES. Daily exercise is 100% essential so I don’t mean sit on the couch, but instead try low intensity walking for 45 min/day. This is the perfect mix of HIGH OXYGEN + LOW STRESS. I now add in pilates (or restorative yoga) for muscle toning and stretching.
2. EXERCISE IN THE MORNING –
Even if it’s only 20 minutes! I know this doesn’t fit everyone’s schedule but I woke up extra early if I had to and made sure that I got right outside for a brisk walk. This also exposes your eyes to early morning light which I talked about in part 2. Like I mentioned, my cortisol was testing low in the morning, which is why I was sluggish and craved coffee. This could be 2 things: a) my cortisol production in the morning truly *was* low because my circadian rhythm was inverted and I was peaking at night; or b) my total cortisol was actually HIGH but after prolonged stress I became cortisol resistant and it wasn’t getting to my cells.
Exercising in the morning tackles both of these common issues:
In terms of (A)…
Movement that’s in line with the natural sunrise/photoperiod prompts your body to release cortisol at the proper time and resets your circadian rhythm. When your circadian rhythm is inverted, you need to readjust it manually and the best tools are early morning light + early morning exercise.
In terms of (B)…
Morning exercise can get your cortisol down when it’s been high for so long that you’re developing cortisol resistance and it’s now “low” on a cellular level (the cells can’t “hear” it anymore just like insulin resistance). Back in the day, humans only engaged their fight or flight response in very particular scenarios, so we’re wired to have this quick period where cortisol and heart rate shoot up as we run from a predator or hunt for food. After running away from said predator (and exerting an immense amount of energy), we would come to rest and our cortisol would quickly drop and stay down for the rest of the day. The body is designed to lower cortisol levels like this only after that energy is exerted. Unfortunately, because we’re constantly stressed yet sedentary in our modern world, a lot of us are sitting around with too much cortisol in our system all day long, which is what leads to that weight gain (especially around the middle) that won’t come off. By exercising specifically in the morning, you can strategically plan the quick cortisol release to mimic your natural circadian rhythm, and then your cortisol is dialed down for the entire rest of the day so that you can relax and burn fat!
3. EXERCISE OUTDOORS –
Aim to workout outside as much as possible, especially in open spaces like parks or fields. With adrenal issues, you’re overthinking all the time. Your brain is scattered everywhere. You’re constantly analyzing things & trying to fix a problem because your body is physically in survival mode (you’re the person that notices the tiniest issue in the room and is thrown off by even the slightest messy or chaotic environment!) All of this thinking overactivates the HPA axis. By moving your body outside in open spaces, you free and relax your mind which allows your adrenals the space and stress relief they need to heal.
WISHING YOU A BEAUTIFUL JOURNEY TO RECOVERY
Thank you so much for reading this article, and I hope you find these tips helpful for your journey towards recovery. Living in our modern world of constant stimulation and stress can be extremely confusing to our bodies, and there are so many factors that play a role in how and why we reach the stage of total “burnout.” If you are suffering right now, I just want you to know that I understand how debilitating it can feel. However, I want to reassure you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and your body CAN heal. It’s all about getting back into line with the nature and the environment, getting outside and off our phones, eating the foods we were meant to eat, and making sure we sleep properly & care for ourselves. You have no idea how resilient you are. You’ve got this and I’m here for any questions you have along the way. Feel free to leave any comments below so that I can answer them in a future post!