THE BLOG

Heal Your DNA With T&A: Adrenal Resilience

05/21/2015 12:59 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

Part 3 of 3

This final issue will focus more on your adrenals and how they can change the expression of your genes.

Every person living today is the descendant of thousands of generations of survivors. Hardwired within us is the ability to adapt to difficult situations and make it through, even when the odds are against us. We are able to survive hardship, thanks to a unique, operational mode, called the stress response. This response is a set of changes that allows the body to put more energy on the survival tasks at hand by diverting energy away from maintenance and repair.

The stress response causes us to:

  • feel anxious to spot danger more quickly
  • store body fat in case there is no food tomorrow
  • sleep more lightly, so predators won't catch us
  • become less fertile because babies take a lot of energy
  • feel more tired, so we conserve our fuel
  • create inflammation in case there is trauma
  • feel hungrier than normal in order to store food

Any of this sound familiar? These are the biggest symptoms modern humans struggle with on a regular basis.

When our ancestors were safe and had plenty of food, they rarely spent their time in the stress response. The adrenal glands are the main organs that regulate this, and they work in concert with the hypothalamus and the pituitary in a system known as the HPA axis. We know that even before a baby is born, the amount of stress experienced by his or her mother and father can change how easily the HPA access can trigger the stress response. [1] Stress experienced in an individual's life, especially when they are young, can also cause their genes to become more stress-responsive. [2]

If you can change your genes to become more stress-resilient, you may notice: [3]

  • more energy
  • easier weight loss
  • less pain
  • better sleep
  • fewer hormonal symptoms
  • better digestion
  • more resistance to colds and flu
  • less anxiety and depression

How can you help your adrenals become more stress-resilient so you can have these benefits? Think of your adrenal glands as a jack-of-all-trades. Along with managing stress response, they also manage your blood sugar and when you wake and sleep. The easier these other jobs are for them, the more stress-resilient they can become.

Balancing Your Blood Sugar

When your blood sugar level drops, your adrenals have to make extra cortisol to prevent it from going too low. This is the same thing that happens when you're frightened or stressed. How do you keep your blood sugar from dropping? First, avoid the things that make it unsteady.

Many start their day with a large dose of caffeine. The reason that caffeine gives people energy is because it causes them to convert muscle to sugar and to empty fuel stores in the liver and muscle. This reaction is identical to what happens both when you drink a sugary drink and when you face a sudden stressor. If your health is good and your stress resilience is high, then this is harmless. If you feel you are not as stress-resilient as you would like to be, avoiding caffeine can help by making your blood sugar steadier.

Since low blood sugars are hard on your adrenals, some are surprised to learn that eating processed sugar can cause low blood sugar. White refined sugar, in its many forms, can cause a dramatic spike in your blood sugar, which leads to a drop-off roughly 20-30 minutes later. The sugar found in whole fruits and complex carbohydrates, like vegetables, grains and beans, is much more slowly absorbed and does not cause this problem.

If sugar and caffeine are two things that disrupt your blood sugar, think of protein as the main thing that helps it. Examples of protein include fish, shellfish, poultry, meat and nonallergenic protein powders. When we consider protein per calorie, many foods that are often thought of as high-protein foods no longer seem useful. These lower-quality proteins include dairy foods, nuts, seeds, beans and grains. These are not bad foods, but when you want protein to help your blood sugar, they will not be your most effective choice. Protein helps throughout the day, but the protein you eat for breakfast helps more than at any other meal. Aim for a minimum of 24-34 grams of protein with your breakfast to keep your genes stress-resilient throughout the day.

Since your adrenal glands also control your daily rhythms, the more regular your schedule is, the better they do. Parents with young babies take great lengths to be sure that naps, meals and playtime occur at the same time each day. You can use the same strategies to help yourself. Start by making it a habit to wake up at the same time each day of the week. Next, get a regular rhythm of eating a solid breakfast within an hour of being awake. After that, make a ritual of winding down in the evening with a cup of chamomile tea. It can help safely restore your natural sleep rhythm and allow your cortisol to reset. [4]

We have been led to believe that stress is the killer we can't control. It is a killer, and we cannot avoid all of the causes of stress, but, with simple strategies like these, we can easily transform how it affects us.

References:

1. Spijker AT, van Rossum EF. Glucocorticoid sensitivity in mood disorders. Neuroendocrinology. 2012;95(3):179-86. doi: 10.1159/000329846. Epub 2011 Nov 8. Review.

2. Reynolds RM. Glucocorticoid excess and the developmental origins of disease: two decades of testing the hypothesis--2012 Curt Richter Award Winner. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Jan;38(1):1-11. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.08.012. Epub 2012 Sep 19. Review.

3. Aguilera G. HPA axis responsiveness to stress: implications for healthy aging.
Exp Gerontol. 2011 Feb-Mar;46(2-3):90-5. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2010.08.023. Epub 2010 Sep 9. Review.

4. Zick SM, Wright BD, Sen A, Arnedt JT. Preliminary examination of the efficacy and safety of a standardized chamomile extract for chronic primary insomnia: a randomized placebo-controlled pilot study. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011 Sep 22;11:78. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-11-78.