For many people, unexplained weight gain, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, and depression are often associated with a thyroid condition. While I am a functional medicine practitioner who specializes in thyroid health, I happen to also see a huge number of patients who think their thyroid may be the culprit when they are actually suffering from adrenal issues.
The adrenals are often linked to weight gain, which is not something that is talked about nearly enough. The weight gain is almost always right where we don't want it — right in our midsection! This is usually connected to a cortisol imbalance, which is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is released when we are under stress. On top of excess cortisol packing on the weight exactly where most of us are trying to lose it, cortisol imbalance and adrenal dysfunction can also be the cause of many other unwanted symptoms, such as fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
When talking about the adrenal glands, it is important to know that having an adrenal issue does not necessarily mean you have adrenal fatigue. The term adrenal fatigue gets used too often when most people actually have high cortisol levels.
The great news is that there are a number of natural ways you can support your adrenals and balance cortisol levels to help support a healthy weight and reduce unwanted symptoms. Let's take a look at a functional medicine approach to supporting your adrenal glands naturally.
1. Support Blood Sugar Levels
One of the biggest things I work on with my patients happens to be blood sugar support. This is important no matter what kind of hormone imbalance you may be suffering from. Blood sugar balance is so important because when our blood sugar levels drop, we are more prone to dealing with anxiety, and our bodies tend to go into this fight-or-flight response. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can also be a risk factor in itself for high cortisol levels and any other hormone imbalance. This is the absolute last thing we want when we are trying to restore normal cortisol function.
Supporting blood sugar levels with diet is one of the first steps you can take. Try eliminating processed and sugary foods and beverages from your diet, and stick to anti-inflammatory foods with lots of fiber and healthy fat. I also always tell my patients to avoid eating any carbohydrates alone. I recommend eating carbs with some protein and healthy fat to avoid a spike in blood sugar.
2. Support a Healthy Circadian Rhythm
Getting enough sleep is a critical step in supporting adrenal health and balancing cortisol levels. With a healthy circadian rhythm, cortisol levels will be higher in the morning, then slowly reduce throughout the day and drop when it is time to sleep. When you are dealing with chronic levels of stress and your cortisol levels are out of whack, you may find it difficult to sleep at night, and then when you finally do get to bed, you may feel exhausted when you wake up. By reducing stress, eating a more balanced diet, and implementing some of the steps below, you should be able to help restore a more normal circadian rhythm to help you get a better night's sleep.
3. Avoid Blue Light at Night
Blue light is the light that comes from things like our cell phones, TVs, and computers, and more times than not, we are exposed to these sources of blue light all day. Getting too much exposure to blue light at night can cause our circadian rhythm to be thrown off balance. These lights can trick our body into thinking it is still daylight instead of nighttime, keeping our cortisol levels too high to allow us to go to sleep. Our bodies will produce more cortisol instead of melatonin. To help prevent this, try to avoid all sources of blue light at nighttime. If you have to use your phone or computer at night, there are some blue light reduction apps you can download to reduce your exposure.
4. Get Enough Sunlight During the Day
There is just something about getting outside that makes us feel better! No one wants to be cooped up inside all day or stuck behind a desk at work. Try to get outside for at least 15 to 20 minutes each day to get some fresh air and sunlight. Sunlight helps to boost our vitamin D levels, which is important for mood and hormone balance, but you may also notice that some good old fresh air helps reduce your overall stress levels. You'd be surprised how getting outside for even half of your lunch break will have you feeling rejuvenated when it comes time to get back to work.
5. Try Mindfulness Training
Mindfulness training is a great way to help train yourself to just be present in the moment without judgment. This can help shut out any unnecessary stress and just help you regroup a bit to take on whatever is ahead of you for the rest of the day. To practice mindfulness, simply sit in a comfortable position and just be present with your thoughts. If any judgment sets in, just let it go. By practicing mindfulness daily, you can help yourself become more mindful in other areas of your life as well, which is always very helpful when it comes to stress reduction. You can also practice some deep breathing daily, which is excellent for helping to promote relaxation and helps to kick in the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help naturally relax the body.
6. Try Adaptogenic Herbs
I love recommending adaptogenic herbs because they help the body restore balance. They can be used for either high or low cortisol, as they respond to the situation in the body and help promote balance. They can also help balance hormones and even reduce inflammation, which are both key to balancing cortisol levels. Some great adaptogenic herb options include ashwagandha, astragalus, and holy basil.
There are so many great natural steps you can take to help support optimal adrenal health. However, I do like to stress the importance of getting the proper testing to see if you are dealing with either high or low cortisol, as both can be an issue. There are so many great tests available today that will tell you exactly what is going on with your cortisol levels so that you can start supporting your hormones and adrenals . . . and start losing weight naturally and feeling your best! For now, get started with some of these tips on balancing your cortisol levels naturally to see how much of a difference it can make in your health.