When it comes to energy, vitality and many other aspects of your health, your adrenal glands pack a hefty punch. Only the size of a walnut, these two mighty glands are part of your endocrine system and they sit just on top of your kidneys. They produce an array of hormones (chemical messengers), which include our stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, sex hormones such as progesterone and hormones that help control blood pressure, fluid balance and salt retention in the body—just to name a few.
If we live a high-stress, fast-paced lifestyle, or live our lives on an emotional rollercoaster, our adrenal glands can get a walloping. In the last one hundred years or so our way of living has taken a radical change. Yet in terms of evolution, this is just a tiny speck of time and biologically our body has not yet had a chance to evolve to cope with our modern lifestyle.
To our body, any kind of stress, be it because we’re in immediate danger or simply feeling financial, relationship or work pressures, is interpreted as a direct threat to our life. Its protective mechanism is to fire off the stress hormone adrenaline which is designed to get you out of danger. Caffeine has the power to activate this biochemical response, sending a message to the pituitary gland in your brain that it needs to send a message to the adrenal glands to make stress hormones: adrenaline and/or cortisol.
Adrenaline makes your heart race, your thoughts race, and gives you a jittery feeling that can make it difficult to feel calm and centred, despite your best efforts. It also diverts blood flow away from your digestive system to your arms and legs—because if you’re in danger you need a powerful blood supply in your periphery to help you get away quickly. You also need fuel to help you escape, and the most readily available, fastest-burning fuel inside the body is glucose (aka sugar) which we get from carbohydrates.
Your liver and muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen, and adrenaline communicates to your liver and muscles when energy is required. Glycogen is converted back into glucose, and this glucose is released back into your blood. Your blood glucose (i.e. sugar) subsequently shoots up, ready to fuel your self-defence or your escape. And you feel amped up, although many people today don’t identify this, as they have become accustomed to it being their norm. This biochemical response can also mean that we crave sugar since elevations in our blood sugar lead to “crashes”. This creates a fatigued state that makes you feel as though only more caffeine or high-sugar food can fix it.
Signs that you’re adrenal glands need support
Fatigue, energy spurts and crashes, sugar cravings, poor quality sleep, anxiety, shaky hands, feeling as though your heart is going to beat out of your chest, digestive upsets such as reflux, bloating and IBS.
You can already start to see a picture of how our adrenal glands are affected by everyday living—and this is not even the entire story. If our body continues to perceive that it is in danger, it may lead to additional cortisol (our long term stress hormone) production, which brings with it a whole new array of health concerns.
If you’re feeling that your adrenal glands are getting a workout and might benefit from some support, you might like to reduce your caffeine consumption for a while (aim for one coffee a day maximum or omit it entirely). Additionally, we can communicate to our body that it is safe with slow, diaphragmatic breathing (with an emphasis on slower exhalation than inhalation) so try incorporating a breathing exercise into your daily routine. Remember too that unscheduled time to rest (beyond sleep) is essential for our health so try to include a small pocket for downtime each day.