This is the third and last installment of our three-part series on adrenal fatigue. Part one discussed our stress response and how it can go awry. It highlighted the four stages of adrenal fatigue and showed how chronic stress can cause chronic disease. Part two launched into the recovery solutions by sharing an eating plan that supports and restores adrenal health. It also covered several different supplements that can improve our stress response and adrenal function. Be sure to read parts one and two to get a broader picture of adrenal fatigue and recovery!
In part three of our blog, we’re adding on the next element of adrenal recovery: self-care. Specifically, we’re discussing ways to lower and avoid chronic stress as well as the importance of maximizing our sleep routine.
Manage Your Stress
Adrenal fatigue is caused by chronic stress so it naturally follows that addressing your stress is a critical element of adrenal recovery. Keep in mind though that stress should not (and cannot) be eliminated. Rather, it needs to be transformed into a positive and effective response. To that end, we need to reframe our thoughts on how we perceive stress, lower our stress before it gets out of control, and adopt life strategies that save you from unnecessary stress. Let’s take a deep breath and cover these topics.
Schedule time for relaxation: This could be anything from journaling, reading, listening to music, meditating, getting outside, talking to a supportive friend, or taking up a relaxing hobby. Schedule these into your day and let others know that you are not available during those times.
Prioritize your responsibilities: First, write out your to-do list in advance, making sure they are all truly necessary. Be realistic with how long your tasks will take so you don’t overfill your day. For larger tasks that take more time, plan out the individual steps and schedule out which steps you’ll do on which days. Oftentimes, seeing a long list of to-do’s in one day can be stressful even if none of them are very big. If this is you, try tackling the quick tasks first in order to make that list shorter. Then you can focus on the larger tasks without the looming fear that the small stuff will go unfinished.
Focus on your daily needs: We all feel less than our best when we are too busy to address our basic needs. Working through lunch, skipping that shower for the third day in a row, or going to bed way too late, all contribute to rising stress. Make a point to fulfill your daily needs even if you have to schedule it in.
Balance your day: It’s easy to get hyper focused in one area of your life to the exclusion of attending to other areas. When our attention is balanced between several areas we find support and fulfillment from multiple sources. This makes it less likely to get overwhelmed when any one area becomes threatened. Examples of areas to focus on are family, friendships, career, personal time, exercising, and hobbies.
Keep things in perspective: Have you ever looked back on an old journal entry or childhood diary and chuckled to yourself about the problems you thought were a big deal? Think back to those problems for a moment. Did any of them turn out as horrible as you had imagined? Humans have a knack for being fatalistic. We tend to underestimate our abilities in the face of overestimated problems. Most problems are only huge because we tell ourselves that they are. In reality, the majority are not worth the extra worry and fear we assign to them. When faced with a problem, take a step back and evaluate it from its broader context. Will it matter in a week? In a year? What is the best way to solve it? Of course, problems are still important. But important things don’t get solved through stress and unimportant things are none of our concern.
Know your limits: Don’t take on more than you know you can handle. And don’t suffer through stressful situations that you have the ability to change. Practice saying no when asked to take on another responsibility or when invited to do something “fun” when you know it will zap your energy. Identify the situations that give you the most stress and approach it from a different angle. For example, limit contact with high-strung or demanding people, order groceries online to save time, or take a longer but less-traveled route to avoid morning traffic.
Accept the things you can’t change: Some things in life are out of our control, such as the behavior and choices of others. This can be a source of stress but recognize that stress won’t solve other people’s problems. Rather, accept the circumstances as they are and choose healthier ways to respond to them. For example, view these situations as an opportunity for personal growth, or channel your anxieties into helping others. Let go of any anger or resentment you might be harboring towards others, as well as any guilt or regret you are burdening yourself with. Talking this out with a trusted friend or therapist can help loosen your grip on uncontrollable circumstances.
Develop Healthy Sleep Habits
As discussed in part one, cortisol is produced at varying levels throughout the day, following your circadian rhythm. This daily cycle is referred to as the cortisol curve. A normal cortisol curve begins rising in the morning, around 6am, peaking about an hour after you wake up (usually by 9am or so). This high level of cortisol provides the alertness you need to start the day. Levels gradually lower from there, tapering off throughout the afternoon. It is not uncommon to have several small pulses of cortisol during this time, depending on need and activity level. Cortisol is significantly lowered around 6pm and is at its lowest point around midnight, allowing you to sleep.
In this way, cortisol regulates our sleep cycles and helps with energy production. When a person has adrenal fatigue or is under constant high stress, their cortisol levels deviate from this natural curve. Depending on which stage of adrenal fatigue a person is in, cortisol can be significantly high (or low) at the wrong times of day. One can imagine how this negatively affects sleep, energy, and focus. Not only does adrenal dysfunction cause poor sleep patterns, but the reverse is also true: poor sleep quality and quantity is directly related to adrenal dysfunction.
The Ideal Sleep Schedule
It’s important to maintain a predictable sleep schedule in order to train your body back into a normal cortisol curve. The healthiest schedule is to go to bed around 10pm and rise around 6-7am. This provides 8-9 hours of sleep per night. Make this a habit and you’ll notice that your body will begin feeling tired, naturally, around 10pm and arise without much persuasion in the morning. Stay alert to how you’re feeling in the morning because grogginess can be a sign that you have low morning cortisol.
Sleeping at the right times, however, is only part of the solution. You also need to have good quality sleep.
Prior To Bedtime
- Avoid stimulating or exciting activities close to bedtime; anything that hypes you up or spins your thoughts. Examples would be a workout, a book, a TV show, an important conversation, checking your finances, etc.
- Use the nighttime setting of your phone or tablet starting 2-3 hours before sleep. All screens should be avoided an hour before bed.
- Begin bedtime prep 30 minutes before your desired bedtime
- Avoid late-hour sleep (going to bed after 11pm)
- Avoid late afternoon or evening naps. Other napping should be less than 45 minutes long unless you are ill or very sleep deprived
- Avoid large meals or spicy foods before bed
- Finish all eating and snacks 3 hours before bedtime
- Avoid drinking more than 8 ounces of fluid before bed
- Try a hot bath or shower before sleep as a higher body temperature helps induce sleepiness and eases tension. Epsom salt in the bath can help
Falling or Staying Asleep
- Don’t stay in bed more than 20-30 minutes trying to fall asleep. It’s better to go into a different (comfortable) room and do a relaxing activity like reading a light, neutral book
- If reading in an attempt to fall asleep, don’t turn on a large light or table lamp. Opt for a small reading light that only illuminates the book. If available, set the light to a warm tungsten rather than bright white
- If it’s difficult to fall asleep, eat a small amount of carbohydrate before bed, such as whole grain bread
- If you wake up in the night with stirring thoughts, keep a notebook next to your bed and write them down to release them from your mind.
- For those prone to nighttime awakenings, eat a small amount of protein and fat before bed, such as cheese or nuts.
Control Your Sleeping Environment
- 15 minutes before bed, switch to small lamps or dimmable lights in your bedroom rather than using the main large light
- Wear blue light blocking glasses 30 minutes before bed
- If you are light sensitive in the early morning, sleep with an eye mask or use room-darkening window coverings
- Use white noise, and air filter, or earplugs to decrease irritating noises
- Avoid being too hot or too cold while sleeping. Adjust blankets or temperature as needed
- Sleep at least 8 feet away from electromagnetic fields produced by clock radios, cell phones, laptops, etc.
- If using an electric blanket, turn it on while prepping for bed then turn it off once you get into bed
Bedding and Pillows
- If allergies are a concern, replace pillows, pillow cases, and mattress covers with hypoallergenic material
- Consider a contour pillow to support your neck and keep you aligned as you sleep. Placing a pillow between your knees will also keep you aligned
Supplements for Sleep
Supplements may be considered to help you sleep. The following list are good options and do not hinder adrenal recovery. Start with one supplement at a time to find the one that works.
- Melatonin (1-5mg) can help you fall asleep, while timed release melatonin (5-20mg) can help you stay asleep
- 5-HTP (100-200mg) an hour before bed
- Taurine (500-2000mg) an hour before bed
- Magnesium glycinate (200-400mg) 30 minutes before bed
As you have seen through our three part series on adrenal fatigue, supporting our adrenal glands and lowering chronic stress is primarily accomplished through diet and lifestyle changes. Our eating pattern and daily routine should always support ongoing health and vitality. It is often necessary to make minor adjustments during times of recovery, focusing on certain nutrients or supplements while avoiding others, for example. Once balance is restored, always return to your health-supportive routine. In this way, you will avoid most (if not all) chronic health conditions and be well equipped to address health issues quickly and effectively.
As with a healthy diet, stress management and quality sleep are key elements in the recovery of adrenal fatigue. These changes need to become habits that you carry throughout life. Not only do they support the recovery of adrenal dysfunction but they also help prevent it. Making these a part of your daily routine will stave off future adrenal crashes and downstream health concerns.