I think most would agree, the Holiday Season is both wonderful and stressful. So much anticipation, so much preparation, so many expectations, so many activities -- it’s physically & emotionally exhausting and can, in fact, end up being quite depressing, especially when it’s all over. It’s even worse if you enter it already stretched too thin. Overworked. Overwrought.
Our bodies were designed with a special system to help us adapt to stressors in our environment. It’s referred to as the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA) or, more commonly, the “fight or flight response”.
In short, the perception of a threat to our well-being sets off a cascade of neurochemical and hormonal changes intended to allow us to survive. The brain (which includes the Hypothalamus & the Pituitary) tells the Adrenal glands (located on top of our kidneys) to secrete the hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. Among other things, cortisol & adrenaline's jobs are to increase our heart rate & blood pressure in order to shunt blood to our limbs so we can run to escape the threat. The system was created for a time when threats were occasional and mostly environmental (think Bengal tiger with an appetite). Once the threat had passed, the cortisol & adrenaline are restored to their normal levels until the next threat. But it was not designed for the kind of unrelenting stress that occurs in modern life. Now, the cortisol especially can rise and not have the opportunity to self-correct. And, if the stressors persist and persist, the adrenals can become “burned out” and unable to sustain the output of cortisol leaving us exhausted and “unable to cope”.
I learned about all of this long before I began my training in Naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University in 1984. My Internal Medicine MD father had happened onto the concept of adrenal exhaustion in the ‘60s while trying to help a young mother. Having studied with Dr. John Tintera in NYC for years (author of "Hypoadrenocorticism", 1955. No longer in print) he learned much that transformed his practice into one of Preventative Medicine & he never turned back.
The symptoms of adrenal fatigue syndrome occur when the adrenal glands are functioning below normal levels. Most commonly they include a deep fatigue not improved by sleep, difficulty functioning without the use of stimulants such as coffee or colas, impatience, anxiety, being upset by the slightest thing, not being able to make decisions or think clearly, becoming frequently sick with infections of one kind or another, becoming increasingly sensitive to your environment and even digestive issues like gas, bloating, IBS, and heartburn.
If you are wondering whether you have Adrenal Exhaustion, go to http://www.adrenalfatigue.org/take-the-adrenal-fatigue-quiz and take Dr. James Wilson’s Fatigue Questionnaire.
If you think what you’ve read applies to you, here are some suggestions that may help:
- Eat regularly spaced meals
- Increase protein
- Decrease refined carbohydrates, including alcohol
- Increase complex carbohydrates (apples, berries…winter squashes, sweet potatoes, root vegetables, lentils, beans (in hummus & chili!), whole grains (brown rice, quinoa) Hint: they all have more Fiber - your new health BFF
- Good oils, nuts, seeds (olive, almond, walnut, sesame, caraway)
Adaptogenic herbs such as Aswaghanda root, Rhodiola root, Eleutherococcus (Siberian Ginseng) root -- Singly or in combination.
Avoid taking licorice root, adrenal glandular or tyrosine unless your Cortisol and Adrenaline levels have been actually tested and found to be low. If they are not low, you risk a racing heart or heart palpitations. And, Licorice should NEVER be used by those with High Blood Pressure! "DGL", a product used for gastritis or heartburn, has had the glycyrrhizic acid removed and does NOT elevate blood pressure.
Nervine herbs such as Passionflower, Skullcap, Oats, Chamomile and Lemon Verbena (my personal favorite)
L-Theanine (amino acid derived from green tea). Helps elevate the amino acid GABA which has a stress protecting effect.
Pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5) is specific for adrenal fatigue.
Vitamin C (helps adrenal recovery & increases immune protection)
Magnesium (especially if there is also muscle spasming and/or constipation)
The human body is a machine that performs optimally with routine sleep. Rest is good for adrenal recovery.
Oversleeping is not. It usually indicates additional neurochemical or hormonal involvement such as low serotonin or low thyroid.
Daily if possible. In the morning preferred.
As to “fatigue tolerance”, i.e. if you are more tired from your exercise than you were, you’re doing too much. By the way, that symptom alone indicates adrenal fatigue as a prime suspect.
-Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.)
Consider purchasing a Lightbox if symptoms are noticeably worse when the days are short and the hours of light are too few for some.
-Evaluate your Life
What would you like to change? Is that possible? If so, get busy doing it. If not, get busy accepting whatever it is.
Keep in mind the Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
-And, in my 30 years of practice, I've seen great benefit from these attitudinal shifts:
Actively pay attention to what you have to be THANKFUL for.
Especially on THANKSGIVING and during the HOLIDAYS: That’s what they’re for
Think a lot about what you Do have & little about what you Don’t (or what you Cannot Change).
Actively Appreciate who & what’s around you. Express your gratitude.
Set out each day with the goal of seeing how many people you can make smile everywhere: at the checkout, the bank, crosswalks, intersections, elevators, stairs, gas stations…it’s contagious.
Cultivate a Sense of Humor
Choose to focus on the Absurd to be found everywhere.
In general, if your symptoms are much better inside of a month after having employed some of the suggestions above, then begin tapering any herbs or supplements. If you remain much improved once you have weaned off of everything, then Carry On.
If you do not, then you should be tested using a 4 sample saliva test (that you can collect in the comfort of your own home) to see where your actual cortisol levels are at particular times of day so the corrective suggestions can be more specific and timed. If this interests you, please contact me. I carry the test kits in my office.
The conventional blood test for Cortisol is not helpful here. It only applies if the adrenals are so pathologically damaged that Addison’s or Cushing’s diseases have developed. You would likely already be in the hands of specialists by now.
It’s also possible that levels of neurochemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA, epinephrine, norepinephrine should be checked. This is done by a specialty lab by using saliva & urine (that you can also collect in the comfort of your own home). Again--call me for these special Kits and/or to schedule an evaluation: 978-456-7789.
Most of all, take the time to be an integral part of your Holidays, not just a conductor orchestrating the perfect performance piece from afar. Don't exhaust yourself by creating an over-the-top experience for your family and guests. They'll appreciate it much more if you're part of the festivities and you will have created something that you actually remember having enjoyed. You might start by reconsidering attending "Black Friday" rituals. Be safe, be kind to yourself and enjoy the best Holidays ever.