Stress, Sleep and the Adrenals

We all want to feel good. Taking care of your adrenal glands by sleeping enough and reducing your stress will pay dividends to your immune system.

What Are Your Adrenal Glands?

The adrenal glands are two glands that rest on top of the kidneys, and they’re in direct communication with the brain, specifically the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. 

Stress and Your Adrenal Glands

To understand how chronic stress affects the body, it’s important to understand the function of adrenal glands. As part of the endocrine system, the adrenal glands are responsible for what is known as “fight or flight.” The hypothalamus in your brain basically decides if you’re safe or in danger…so you have this loop between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. When your brain perceives there’s lots of stress or danger, “fight or flight” tells the pituitary gland to make more stress hormones, which then talks to the adrenals and says, ‘make cortisol’ or ‘make adrenaline,’ also called epinephrine. This is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis. 

This loop mechanism dates back to our earliest ancestors who depended on “fight or flight” to deal with predators. Now days, stimuli that activate an adrenal response are different, and can also be more persistent, keeping a person on edge throughout the day. For example, if you feel irritated after a long day at work, this extends into the night preventing the desired restful sleep. Why does this happen? When your body produces too much cortisol, it’s not producing enough melatonin and serotonin, the hormones responsible for repair and good sleep. If you don’t create enough of these hormones your body isn’t repairing on a regular basis, and the strength of your immune system suffers. 

Sleep and Your Adrenal Glands

There are a variety of approaches when it comes to supporting your immune health, but perhaps the most obvious and least explored impacts are lack of sleep and chronic stress. Inadequate sleep is less than 7 hours per night. In fact, eight hours of sleep per night is ideal.

When clients tell me they aren’t sleeping, sleep hygiene moves to the top of the priority list because I know I’ll only get so far helping people reach their health goals if they aren’t getting enough sleep.

If a person isn’t sleeping well, they’re more likely to be overweight, depressed, and have inflammation in their body – which is the root cause of all chronic illness. There’s a deep relationship between general health, immune health, self-care and sleep, with sleep being an extremely important part of that.

Specific to the immune system, the sleep-wake cycle (aka: circadian rhythm) drives an increase in the circulation and tissue recruitment of critical white blood cells and is accompanied by enhanced ability to fight off inflammatory damage and infection.

A Vicious Sleep-Stress Cycle

Inadequate sleep at night increases the body’s levels of stress hormones. The brain chemicals connected with deep sleep are the same ones that tell the body to stop the production of stress hormones. As a result, when you don’t sleep well, your body keeps pumping out those hormones. The next day, you feel more stressed and find it harder to fall asleep that night, and so on.

Natural Support For Sleep

Sleeping properly is the first step to supporting the adrenals and a healthy immune system. Natural sleep supplements include: 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and melatonin.  

5-HTP: a chemical byproduct of the amino acid L-tryptophan, which synthesizes proteins and the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin plays a significant role in sleep, mood and pain.

GABA: an amino acid that acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system (CNS). GABA is among the most abundant neurotransmitters in the CNS, particularly in the cerebral cortex where thinking occurs and sensations are interpreted. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, it prevents neurons from firing. When GABA levels are low, neurons fire too frequently, creating an over-stimulating effect. Supplementing with GABA in turn creates a calming effect that promotes sound, restful sleep.

Melatonin: a hormone released by the pineal gland located in the brain which helps regulate the circadian rhythm. Melatonin can be an effective tool for people travelling across five or more time zones in order to avoid jet lag. Planes already carry germs, but then add discomfort from sleeping in a seated position and the resulting sleep deprivation are a recipe for catching something as soon as you land. Melatonin may curb this.

Here are 6 other supplements I love to support sleep. 

Natural Support For Stress & Adrenals

Adaptogens: These herbs help the body adapt to stress and exert a normalizing effect upon the processes. They’re particularly effective at supporting adrenal function. Tulsi (aka: Holy Basil) is known for its involvement in cortisol in the body. Balanced cortisol levels are associated with healthy energy levels and help the body to maintain restful sleep at appropriate times, which ensuring proper hormonal support during waking hours. I really like this blend, Stress-Adapt Day, which contains holy basil and four additional adaptogens. 

Adreno-lift: Adreno-Lift is an herbal formula containing a variety of herbs that work synergistically to support the adrenal glands.

Don’t let life get the best of you, both emotionally and physically! Ease the burden of stress and improve your sleep habits to make the changes your immune system will thank you for.

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods 

Reference: Whole Foods Magazine

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