The Connection Between Gut Health and Adrenal Dysfunction
By Nichole Krueger | November 6, 2023
I think it’s safe to say that stress is just a part of modern life, and it affects our well-being in many ways. It finds its way into every area of our life, from meetings at work to a quiet Sunday evening at home. What many might not realize are the connections that tie stress, gut health, and adrenal dysfunction together. In this post, we’ll uncover the surprising links between these seemingly unrelated areas and shed light on how their balance or imbalance can have HUGE impacts on your health.
The Link Between Gut Health and Adrenal Dysfunction
Stress isn’t just a mental or emotional experience; it impacts the entire body. The gut, often called the “second brain,” is particularly vulnerable to the effects of stress. When stress persists, it can disrupt the delicate balance of the gut microbiome, setting off a chain reaction that ultimately leads to adrenal dysfunction. Surprisingly, your gut and adrenals share a common language, and this connection is crucial for maintaining overall health.
Signs of Adrenal Dysfunction
Adrenal dysfunction, also referred to as adrenal fatigue, adrenal insufficiency, and HPA Axis dysfunction, refers to a condition that can significantly impact your overall health, energy levels, and vitality. It’s essential to recognize the stages of adrenal dysfunction to address them effectively. Let’s explore the stages!
Normal adrenal function
When your adrenal glands are functioning optimally, they will output the most cortisol in the morning, which helps us to get out of bed and gives us energy for the day. As the day goes on, cortisol gradually declines, until there is miniscule amount secreted at bedtime, allowing you to unwind, relax, and hopefully get restful sleep. But when we experience prolonged stress, our adrenal glands can become dysfunctional…
Stage I: High cortisol stage
In this stage, your adrenal glands are excreting high amounts of cortisol. Your body is producing excess cortisol all day long, including at night when you should be winding down and sleeping. This can create feelings of anxiousness, irritability, restlessness, and a wired (but tired) feeling during the day.
Cortisol is catabolic, meaning it breaks the body down. This leads to joint and muscle pain, low libido, digestive issues, sleeplessness, and sugar cravings. Unless this is addressed, the body will progress to Stage II in efforts to protect itself from the damaging effects of cortisol.
Stage II: Rollercoaster cortisol stage
The body starts to self-protect and communication between the brain and the adrenal glands begins to breakdown. The body is still under stress, but has gone “mom deaf” and no longer mounts the same emergency response each time stress is perceived.
Total cortisol may be normal, but the rhythm is off, such as depleted cortisol levels in the morning and too much later in the day. When the rhythm is flipped like this, people often have a hard time getting going in the morning, and then have too much energy when it’s time to rest. They are alert at the wrong times, sleepy at the wrong times, which leads to anxiety, poor energy, and insomnia.
Stage III: Cortisol deficiency stage
This is the most advanced stage of adrenal dysfunction, where cortisol levels are low all day long and the communication pathways are completely disrupted. In this stage, people are often tired all day long – they wake up tired, drag through the day, and crash into bed at night.
The body needs to be given the time and the nutrients to heal, but that doesn’t happen, so it’s common to see diagnoses at this stage – an autoimmune diagnosis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, Hashimotos, depression, anxiety, or inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.
Impaired Gut and Adrenal Dysfunction
The interplay between an impaired gut and adrenal dysfunction is a two-way street, with each condition feeding into and exacerbating the other. We’ll explore the ways in which an unhealthy gut negatively impacts adrenal function and vice versa. From dysregulated cortisol rhythms to systemic inflammation, we’ll unravel the intricate connections that can wreak havoc on your health. PMID: 36806451, PMID: 31043907
Let’s dig into how this works:
Stress and Gut Health
Chronic stress, whether it’s due to work pressures, emotional turmoil, or other factors, can trigger a “fight or flight” response in the body. This stress response, controlled by the adrenal glands, involves the release of cortisol and other stress hormones. While this response is essential for short-term survival, chronic stress can lead to overproduction of cortisol, which can have detrimental effects on the gut.
Excess cortisol can disrupt the balance of the gut microbiome, leading to dysbiosis, a condition where harmful bacteria outweigh beneficial ones. It can also increase gut permeability, often referred to as “leaky gut,” allowing harmful substances to enter the bloodstream and trigger inflammation.
Gut Health and Stress
Conversely, an imbalanced gut can contribute to stress and exacerbate adrenal dysregulation.
Effects on Stress Levels
A compromised gut can impact the production and regulation of neurotransmitters (your brain chemicals) like serotonin and dopamine. These play a crucial role in mood regulation. An unhealthy gut can lead to imbalances in these neurotransmitters, potentially causing symptoms of anxiety and depression, which are often linked to chronic stress.
Inflammation and the Gut-Brain Axis
The gut is closely connected to the brain through the gut-brain axis. Inflammation in the gut, as seen in conditions like leaky gut and inflammatory bowel disease, can trigger inflammatory signals that affect the brain and contribute to stress and mood disturbances.
A compromised gut can also impact nutrient absorption, leading to deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals. These nutrient deficiencies can further exacerbate adrenal insufficiency and stress.
Nutrients such as B vitamins, magnesium, and vitamin C are vital for adrenal health and the production of stress hormones. When the gut is unable to absorb these nutrients efficiently, it can hinder the body’s ability to manage stress.
Persistent gut infections, such as those caused by parasites, yeast, or harmful bacteria, can be a source of chronic stress for the body. The immune system’s response to these infections can overwork the adrenal glands, leading to adrenal dysfunction.
An imbalanced gut can disrupt the endocrine system, affecting hormone production and regulation. This hormonal dysregulation can contribute to both stress and adrenal dysfunction.
Tips For Balance
Regaining balance and supporting both gut and adrenal health is possible through a combination of practical and holistic strategies. Below you’ll find 14 actionable tips that can empower you to nurture your well-being:
- Stress Management Techniques: Incorporate stress-reduction practices into your daily routine, such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, vagal toning, or progressive muscle relaxation. These techniques help regulate the stress response and promote relaxation.
- Balanced Diet: Adopt a well-balanced diet rich in whole foods, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Prioritize nutrient-dense foods to support adrenal and gut health.
- Hydration: Stay adequately hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Proper hydration is essential for optimal bodily functions, including digestion and hormone regulation.
- Regular Sleep Patterns: Prioritize quality sleep by maintaining regular sleep patterns and creating a conducive sleep environment. Aim for 8-9 hours of restorative sleep each night to support adrenal recovery. And remember: every hour of sleep you get before midnight is worth 2 hours of sleep to your adrenals!
- Caffeine Moderation: Limit or avoid caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening. Caffeine can disrupt sleep and overstimulate the adrenals.
- Limit Sugar and Processed Foods: Reduce your consumption of sugary and processed foods, as they can contribute to inflammation and gut imbalances. Focus on whole, unprocessed foods instead.
- Probiotic-Rich Foods: Incorporate probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi into your diet to support a healthy gut microbiome.
- Prebiotic Foods: Consume prebiotic-rich foods such as garlic, onions, leeks, and asparagus to nourish beneficial gut bacteria.
- Supplements: Consider targeted supplements under the guidance of a healthcare practitioner. This may include probiotics, digestive enzymes, and adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha or rhodiola.
- Mindful Lifestyle Adjustments: Embrace a mindful and balanced lifestyle. Prioritize self-care, engage in hobbies you enjoy, maintain social connections, and set realistic goals to reduce chronic stress.
- Exercise Wisely: Engage in regular physical activity, but avoid overexertion. Incorporate both gentle to moderate walking and strength training into your routine, but be mindful not to overstrain your body.
- Avoid Overworking: Balance work and personal life to prevent overexertion and excessive stress. Set boundaries and take breaks when needed.
- Regular Check-Ins: Consult with a healthcare practitioner for regular check-ups and monitoring of your adrenal and gut health. Individualized guidance can help identify and address specific issues.
- Counseling and Therapy: Consider therapy or counseling to address underlying emotional stress and trauma that may contribute to adrenal dysregulation.
Want to learn more about my approach to supporting the gut & adrenals? Book an initial consult call here.