No matter who you voted for—or didn't vote for—in the recent election, you, like many Americans, may be experiencing a much higher-than-normal level of stress these post-election weeks. You're not alone. There are people, communities, workplaces, and families who are feeling the effects of the national divide, as both supporters and opponents of the newly elected president, Donald Trump, go after each other on the national stage, in our communities, and even at our family gatherings.
We are also knee-deep in the holiday season, with the inevitable holiday dinner political arguments, not to mention the associated holiday cooking, cleaning, entertaining, shopping, decorating, and financial strains.
A long and contentious election season, coupled by the holiday season, means that many of us are teetering on the edge, and if we’re not already crashing, we’re headed for an adrenal crash.
What do I mean by an adrenal crash?
Conventional medicine only acknowledges extremes of adrenal imbalance, for example Addison's disease, a life-threatening autoimmune condition that causes a complete lack of the key adrenal stress hormone, cortisol. Then there's Cushing's disease, where an extreme excess of cortisol causes weight gain, swelling, and even a hump on your upper back. Integrative physicians, however, recognize that beyond Addison’s and Cushing’s, there are more subtle forms of adrenal dysfunction—loosely, an “adrenal crash”—that can dramatically impact our health.
When our adrenals are healthy and functioning well, we wake up with our highest amount of cortisol, which then slowly drops to its low point around bedtime. Then it builds back up again while we are sleeping. It should follow a smooth curve that repeats itself each day. Cortisol is the stress hormone that helps us deal with regular stress. (Adrenaline is the fight-or-flight hormone that floods our system when we are facing a more urgent or dangerous short-term situation.)
But when we are dealing with chronic stress—whether it's emotional and life stress, or physical stress, such as chronic disease, untreated long-term infections, or nutritional deficiencies—the cortisol curve can get skewed. Cortisol may be low when it's supposed to be high, and vice versa. Or it may be low—or high—all the time. Or it may spike up and down inexplicably throughout the day.
This leaves you in a state of adrenal imbalance.
Checklist: The Signs of Adrenal Imbalance
Are you experiencing the signs of adrenal imbalance? Here's a checklist of common symptoms:
____ You feel excessively fatigued
____ You have non-refreshing sleep (you get sufficient hours of sleep, but wake fatigued)
____ You have trouble falling asleep
____ You wake up in the middle of the night, and find yourself unable to go back to sleep
____ You wake up too early, and tired, but can't go back to sleep
____ You feel energetic at night, and exhausted in the morning
____ You feel overwhelmed by or unable to cope with stress
____ After a stressful physical or emotional experience, you feel run-down and especially exhausted
____ You feel exhausted after exercise, you're slow to recover after exercise
____ You have poor resistance to respiratory infections, you tend to catch everything going around
____ You have difficulty recuperating from illness
____ You are slow to recover from injury
____ You have difficulty recuperating from jet lag
____ You generally feel rundown or overwhelmed
____ You have cravings for salty foods
____ You have excess mood responses after eating carbohydrates and sugar
____ You feel most energetic in the evening
____ You have difficulty concentrating, and feel brain fogged
____ You have particularly low blood pressure
____ You feel momentarily lightheaded after standing up
____ You are extremely sensitive to cold
____ You have chronic food or environmental allergies
____ You feel "tired but wired"
____ You have cystic breasts
If you have even one or two of these symptoms, you may be already taxing your adrenals, and could be in the midst of—or headed for—a more severe adrenal imbalance.
6 Ways to Stress-Proof Your Life and Health
Are you showing signs of stress and adrenal imbalance? Here are six things you can start doing today to take care of yourself.
1. Get Enough Sleep
You do it everyday, but unless you are getting at least 7 hours per night, you're not doing it right. Sleep is not only important for us to be energetic, clear-headed, and focused. It is also essential for healthy immune system functioning. Skimp on sleep, and you are more likely to get infections that you might normally be able to fight off. The time when you sleep is also the time your body's "hormone factory" goes to work. Overnight, your body is hard at work, rebuilding your adrenal hormone cortisol, as well as thyroid hormone, and growth hormone. At the same time, the hours when you sleep are also a time when your metabolism shifts from fat storage to fat burning.. If you eat too close to bedtime, your body will spend time digesting that food, and storing it as fat. If you cut off eating earlier in the evening, and allow around a 12-hour break between your evening meal and your breakfast, your body can get the message that it's time to shift into fat-burning.
2. Stress-Proof Your Eating
I’m not asking you to become a vegan, or to subsist on kale and quinoa. But there are some ways you can make some simple changes and substitutions that can greatly de-stress your diet.
- Consider a low-sugar, carbohydrate-controlled diet to balance your blood sugar.
- Eat grass-fed organic meats versus grain-fed, and hormone-free and organic foods whenever possible.
- Incorporate more "good fat" – like olive oil, avocado, and healthy nuts – into your diet, to replace unhealthy saturated fats.
- Minimize or eliminate processed foods, refined sugars, refined carbohydrates and high fructose corn syrup
- Minimize or eliminate all forms of sugar, including sweet soft drinks and coffee drinks.
- Eliminate artificial sweeteners and diet drinks.
- Drink plenty of clean water.
- Get more fiber - ideally 25-30 mg a day.
- Minimize your caffeine intake.
- Don't drink excessive alcohol.
- Don't eat too much at any meal.
- Avoid eating after 8 p.m.
One important thing you can do without changing even a thing you eat: mindfulness when eating. Try these easy-to-follow practices:
- Take three deep cleansing breaths before each meal and snack.
- Take a deep breath between bites.
- Eat slowly, and chew your food thoroughly.
- Don’t multitask while eating. This means you shouldn’t eat standing up, in your car, while reading, while watching TV, or while talking on the phone.
3. Find Your Go-To Relaxation Response
Stress reduction does not mean you have to sit in the lotus position chanting or meditating for hours a day. But it does mean more than laying on the couch and watching television. As regularly as you brush your teeth, you should also practice a stress reduction activity that works for you.
There are three types of relaxation-response activities, and it doesn't matter which ones you choose. The key is committing to a daily regular practice, even 15 minutes a day.
- Mind — mind-based stress reduction includes some of the most familiar stress reduction activities, such as meditation, but also in this category: prayer and breathwork (such as pranayama, or Transformational Breathing).
- Body - movement-based stress reduction includes tai chi, qi gong, meditative walking, gentle mindfulness-based yoga (but no twisting yourself into a pretzel!).
- Manual - hand-movement-based stress reduction includes needlework, beading, and crafting, woodworking, gardening, petting or brushing your dog or cat, and the increasingly popular adult coloring books.
You don't need to be a gym rat or go to spinning class five times a week, but you do need to move every day. If exercise makes you feel good, and adds energy, keep doing it. But if you feel exhausted after exercise, or it takes several days to recuperate, try more gentle movement, such as walking, yoga, or my favorite mindful movement "workout," T-Tapp.
5. Take News and Technology Breaks
If you find yourself getting upset or emotional by the latest news, that's a clear sign that your adrenals could use a "news" fast. Start by setting aside even a few hours to stay away from the news, television, the web, and your cell phone. You may even want to work up to a full weekend without news or technology. At minimum, think about avoiding television and radio news — which carry a greater ability to generate a high-stress flight-or-flight response — and get your news by reading newspapers or online.
6. Change Your Attitude
A crucial part of helping to protect and support your adrenals is eliminate unnecessary obligations by learning to say "NO!" Many of us are hardwired to say yes to every request, leaving us with no time to do the things that take care of ourselves, like prepare healthier meals, get enough sleep, practice stress reduction, and move. Remember, if you set aside time to take care of yourself, it is the truth if you say, "No. I'm sorry, I can't. I already have something planned, and won't be able to do/attend/help with that."
Also, remember that multitasking has been proven to be more stress-inducing, less effective, and less productive than tackling one task at a time. Give it a try. Tackle one task and finish it, before moving on to the next, and see if it works for you.
Let's face it. There are people in your life—whether they are friends, family or coworkers, or even our politicians and public figures—who stress you out, and/or who drain your energy. First, do what you can to avoid these "stress carriers" and "energy vampires." Second, when they can't be avoided entirely, set up a more impenetrable stress and energy boundary by using easy and always-available techniques like breathwork and guided meditation.
Note: When all else fails, I recommend a cute animal video. It actually works. This is one of my favorites...
Mary Shomon is a New York Times bestselling author of 13 books on hormonal and immune system health and diet. She is also the Thyroid Expert at Verywell.