The adrenal glands play a major role in maintaining balance within your body. These glands sit like little hats on top of the kidneys. Don’t let their size fool you; these glands are responsible for an array of bodily functions including blood pressure, blood sugar and sex hormone regulation. The first half of this article will explore the role of the adrenal glands within the body. The second half will show you how to maintain their health before and during pregnancy.
Stress and the adrenals
As I stated above, the adrenals help to maintain an internal balance. When you’re under stress (physical, mental or emotional), your body naturally goes into “fight or flight” mode; preparing you to either flee or fight for your life. One of the jobs of the adrenals is to secrete hormones to help counteract stress, such as adrenaline.
The adrenals are made up of two parts, the medulla and the cortex; each part performs separate functions. The medulla is the inner part of the adrenal. It secretes the hormone adrenaline, which helps your body to adjust during high stress situations by increasing your heart rate and by speeding up blood flow. The cortex produces cortisol which reduces inflammation within the body.
The adrenals were not designed to handle the daily assault of stress that comes from modern day living. If you are consistently under stress, your adrenals will desperately try to maintain balance by pumping out necessary hormones. However, these glands will eventually tire out from being overworked, ultimately leading to adrenal fatigue. More and more people are suffering from lowered adrenal function or adrenal fatigue and they aren’t even aware of it. One of the most common symptoms of adrenal fatigue is a constant tired feeling. If it takes you hours to “wake up” in the morning and/or you are dragging in the afternoon, these are strong possible signs for adrenal stress. Other signs of adrenal fatigue include:
- Frequent salt and sugar cravings
- Difficulty staying asleep, second wind at 2 am
- Low libido
- Lowered immune system
- High and low blood pressure
- Mental fog
- Lower back pain
Exercise is a necessary part of good health, but when done excessively it can make the situation worse by causing the adrenals to pump out more hormones.
Adrenals: Blood pressure and blood sugar
Healthy blood pressure is one of the vital signs of life and helps to deliver blood flow to all of the organs. Blood pressure that is too high or low can cause organ damage. When your body is under stress, the adrenal cortex releases cortisol as a coping mechanism. Cortisol temporarily raises blood pressure. Frequent stress will raise your cortisol levels, elevating your blood pressure.
Aldosterone is the hormone that helps regulate levels of sodium and potassium in your body. It helps you retain salt, which aids in controlling your blood pressure and balances of electrolytes in your blood. Eating a very low salt diet will lower your aldosterone levels resulting in muscle weakness, fatigue and low blood pressure. Signs of low aldosterone are salt cravings, something that pregnant women often experience.
Your adrenals also play an important role in maintaining blood sugar. In order to stabilize blood sugar, you need to maintain a healthy balance between two hormones, glucagon and insulin, which are produced by the pancreas. Protein promotes the glucagon production; carbohydrates promote insulin. When you’ve eaten an excessive amount of carbohydrates, the body produces large amounts of insulin and little glucagon. High levels of insulin cause you to store more fat.
When insulin levels are elevated and glucagon is low, the adrenals compensate by producing more cortisol to help raise blood sugar. Increased cortisol causes inflammation in the body which can result in conditions like high blood pressure.
Now do you understand how important your adrenal health really is? Stress and poor diet can wreak havoc on your adrenals, causing a vicious cycle of inflammation, blood pressure and blood sugar problems.
Pregnancy and the adrenals
Mothers experiencing adrenal exhaustion will give birth to babies with weakened adrenals. These babies will have a lowered immune system and will be more susceptible to frequent infections. Their sleeping patterns will be affected as well and they will be more prone to waking up often throughout the night.
Poor adrenal health can cause elevated blood sugar, which can lead to gestational diabetes. Lowered adrenal function can also cause preeclampsia and elevated blood pressure in pregnant women.
Weakened adrenals can also predispose you to stretch marks. The adrenal cortex releases glucocorticoid hormones during times of stress. The hormone affects collagen repair, making the skin more prone to stretch marks. Keeping your adrenals in tip top shape will keep these hormones at healthy levels, which may reduce your chances of developing stretch marks.
Elevated glucocorticoid hormones can also increase the chance for preterm labor. This is one of the reasons why pregnant women are advised to reduce their stress levels.
If you want to ensure your adrenal health, reducing stress when you are already pregnant is not the answer. Depending on your current adrenal health, rebuilding your adrenals can take several months and up to two years to fully recover. You should be as proactive as possible in reducing your stress levels prior to becoming pregnant.
Pump up your adrenals naturally
Now that you understand how adrenals can affect your health, I’m sure you want to know the steps that you can take to keep them healthy. These are steps that you should take as soon as possible, especially if you are thinking about conceiving.
1) Exercise: Less kickboxing, more downward dog If you suspect your adrenals are weak, the last thing you want to do is to prepare to run a marathon. If you are an adrenaline or high intensity junkie, you definitely want to slow things down at the gym. Instead of filling up your workout schedule with kickboxing, balance out your routine with some yoga or meditation classes. Pilates classes are also a good option as the exercises are low impact and increase flexibility and strength. Tai chi and walking are good alternatives to high impact aerobics. Whatever your preference, keep active, as too little exercise can impair adrenal function.
2) Nutrition: The adrenals need these specific foods to help them perform at their best: salt, fat, water, vitamin C and protein. If you have ever experienced frequent salt cravings, this is your body’s way of telling you that your aldosterone levels are too low. Remember, I mentioned that aldosterone helps to regulate sodium levels in the blood. The adrenals need salt, but regular table salt will not do. Unrefined sea salt, such as Celtic sea salt not only has the sodium that your adrenals crave, but it provides trace minerals that your body needs. Since the salt is unrefined, it has a more pronounced flavor so you don’t need to use as much.
The adrenal cortex contains a large amount of vitamin C and therefore needs a constant supply. Citrus fruits, berries, peppers and tomatoes are excellent sources of vitamin C.
B vitamins, particularly pantothenic acid (B5) are needed to maintain healthy adrenals and a healthy nervous system. Foods rich in B vitamins include organ meats (offal),spinach, parsley, broccoli, berries, peaches, beets, turnip and mustard greens, asparagus, avocados, salmon and grass fed meats. Raw milk is also rich in vitamins C and B.
Protein and fat sources should come from pastured meats, organs and saturated fat. Always make sure to eat the fat with the meat (yes, even the chicken skin). Cholesterol is the precursor to the steroid and sex hormones produced in the adrenal glands. Most of our cholesterol is made within our body, but the rest we get from eating saturated fat.
3) Nix your caffeine fix: Caffeine weakens your adrenals. Instead of morning java, opt for herbal tea or water with lemon first thing in the morning. Energy drinks are equally terrible. For an afternoon pick-me-up, make a berry smoothie with raw milk and raw egg yolks instead; your adrenals will thank you.
4) Supplements: In addition to the above, supplementation is also critical for strengthening adrenals. Adrenal glandulars help to heal your adrenals. Drenamin, by Standard Process, is a great glandular supplement. Adapotogens, such as Rhodiala, help your adrenals to resist stress and fatigue. Both are safe to use before and during pregnancy.
5) Get plenty of sleep: Remember, all the nutrition in the world is wasted without proper rest. Pregnant women and those trying to conceive need a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night.
Article by Taheerah Barney at 360nourishment.com