Taking Care of You
Stress, of all types, causes us to go into survival mode. Our ego and fear keep us in survival mode. We think we need to fight and struggle in order to survive each day. We look for and anticipate the next stress coming. In actuality, what we need is a release, a reset, to shift the pattern out of stress mode and into living authentically, powerfully, and freely. Our bodies know how to shift out of stress mode, just as a dog shakes off stress. The way our bodies do it is through shaking, vomiting, crying, singing, and yawning.
We need to learn to harness stress and our stress response by giving ourselves the right amount of support. It also means we need to allow our bodies to do what they naturally do to resolve stress—breathe, yawn, sing, moan, vomit, pee, poop, cry, and feel love and gratitude. It’s in the rawness of being human and doing what humans do that stress recovery happens. If we resist and prevent ourselves from doing these fundamentally human activities, the stress remains, and it ends up causing other issues, blockages, and restrictions of energy and processes. Here’s what you need to do instead:
- Recognize that you are human and that you are loved and deserving.
- Let go of identification with anything other than being human (a diagnosis, a title, or a role).
- Allow yourself and your body to be in this moment, and trust that your body knows what it needs to recover from stress.
- Accept support from loved ones, yourself, and your environment to harness the power of stress recovery.
- Give your body the nutrients, food, water, rest, energy, and plants/herbs that it needs because it has been depleted by stress.
To pull yourself out of adrenal distress and prevent it from happening again, you need to figure out how to fit self-care into your daily routine. After talking and writing about diet, sleep, stress recovery, and exercise for years, the author realized one day that it all fit into one healthy acronym: C.A.R.E.
#1 C for Clean Eating
Your days are packed with activities, and you are aware of your own tendency to put your business ahead of your own needs. Therefore, you should prepare food ahead of time and have it available to grab every three to five hours to reduce the temptation to skip meals. Because your cortisol and adrenaline levels are already high, it’s important for you to avoid extreme fasting, intermittent fasting, and even a ketogenic diet until after you get your body out of stress mode. Stick to meals that contain a slightly higher percentage of protein, along with low glycemic carbs, and fat, at regular intervals throughout the day to give your body the signal that stress has subsided and that it’s safe to bring your cortisol and adrenaline back to optimal levels. Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol will only work against you. At the same time, prebiotics can work for you by helping to prevent a cortisol spike in the morning.
You might add a second, small dinner containing carbs and protein to your meal plan to keep from snacking on popcorn or ice cream late at night while finishing up a report or catching up on laundry. Food cravings and high-carb snacks will only further disrupt your blood sugar, cortisol, and sleep patterns. Stay in front of cravings by planning ahead and eating half-sized meals throughout the day and up to about three hours before bed. Then stop eating and give yourself an intermittent fast until morning. This will help reset your circadian rhythm. If you absolutely need to eat something in order to get to sleep, then choose protein—a protein shake is perfect here. Stay away from sugar, which will only perpetuate the unwanted pattern.
Sluggish and Stressed
With your combination of high cortisol and low adrenaline, it’s best for you to avoid extreme diet plans, fasting, or calorie restriction. Stick to meals that contain a consistent amount of carbs, protein, and fat at regular intervals throughout the day and stop eating about three hours before bed. Morning is especially important for you because it gives you a chance to reset your stress pattern. Make sure to create a calm morning experience, with stress recovery activities.
and don’t fast for too long; you’ll likely do better with a meal containing protein and carbs soon after you wake. Delay caffeine for an hour or so if possible, and keep it to a minimum to allow your adrenals to recover. As your system calms down and comes out of stress mode, you’ll be able to support your energy with real adrenaline, so aim for that rather than temporary adrenaline boosts.
#2 A for Adequate Sleep
In your case, the most common scenario is waking up too early in the morning. This can be due to elevated cortisol alone or a combination of elevated cortisol and adrenaline that increases in the early hours. Think of this imbalance as your body trying to protect you from stress. It ends up waking you up, often with a rush of anxiety or a long list of things to do. Your heart may be racing, or you may get heart palpitations, and your mind just won’t allow you to go back to sleep.
Use magnesium threonate to decrease adrenaline that is too high. And use phosphatidylserine combined with herbs, such as banaba leaf or magnolia root, to calm down the cortisol production and reset the HPA axis. Depending on the severity of your sleep problems, you may need to take doses before you go to sleep, as well as when you wake up, and increase the doses until you are finding that you are sleeping longer (not waking up as early). Gradually, as you sleep later and your levels optimize, you won’t need to continue taking these supplements unless the stress is unrelenting, in which case you can continue for as long as needed.
Stress recovery techniques will also be helpful before you go to sleep and when you wake up. Meditation, for example, and really any form of mindfulness or relaxation technique, including deep breathing or biofeedback, can be helpful to counteract the stress signal to your brain. You’ll essentially be retraining your nervous system to recognize that this is the time to relax and recover.
Remember that your issue is that cortisol and adrenaline are increasing in the evening, instead of following a nice downward trend toward sleep. It’s almost like you’re living in the wrong time zone or your body thinks you’re working the night shift. In fact, your body might literally lose track of day and night. This is simply an effect of stress.
You need to restructure your whole day. Yes, you should focus on daytime rather than nighttime. If you’ve been exercising for long hours, it may be time to take a break because a long run or training session can actually increase your cortisol level right up to when you’re ready to sleep. Are you stressed at home, at work, or in your relationships? Was there a death in the family, a move, a divorce, a deadline? These are the types of stresses that can cause your body to lose track of your circadian rhythm. Are you skipping meals all day? Do you have digestive issues, joint pain, or other inflammation in your body that needs to be addressed? Your body is telling you it is time to address these problems, and not just with pain meds and antacids. You need to get to the root of the issue.
If your situation is severe, it’s important to work with a practitioner who can guide you to do specialty tests for food sensitivities, imbalanced gut bacteria, mycotoxins, and genetic variations, in addition to cortisol and neurotransmitters, so that you have the information you need to create a strategic plan to recover. Getting your sleep back on track starts with balancing your blood sugar levels during the day by eating consistent meals that you can digest easily and that don’t increase inflammation in your body. Stay hydrated throughout the day, and practice stress recovery activities.
Sluggish and Stressed
While you may sleep just fine, having high cortisol in the morning, even without high adrenaline, can still cause you to wake up early. You may wake to a boost of energy that you welcome because it contrasts with how you feel the rest of the day. Or you may wake to a rush of stress and worry as soon as you open your eyes. Before long, as the cortisol awakening response completes and your cortisol levels begin to decrease or even drop, you may feel like you’ve run out of steam, especially because your adrenaline is also low. Be careful not to overdo caffeine, which could disrupt your ability to fall asleep at a good time in the evening.
Like the Stress Magnet, you may need to take a supplement at bedtime to prevent cortisol from rising so much in the early morning. That’s the best way to get ahead of the cortisol before it has a chance to rise too high. You can also take a dose immediately upon waking, to continue to signal your body that you don’t need so much cortisol in the morning. Gradually the HPA axis will reset, and you’ll feel better in the morning—with energy but without such a rush of stress. That’s when you’ll be able to start supporting your adrenaline levels, so that you are getting energy from healthy adrenaline instead of from unhealthy cortisol.
Be sure to include stress recovery activities before you go to sleep, and plan on a meditation when you wake in the morning, to further signal to your body that you don’t need so much cortisol to protect you.
#3 R for Recovery
You should take part in stress recovery activities when your cortisol is high. If you wake up with high cortisol, that’s the perfect time to meditate, journal, or spend time in nature. If your cortisol starts to rise at midday, plan a break for at least fifteen minutes to take some deep breaths, listen to music, or call a friend. Knowing your pattern can help you give your body what it needs, and when it needs it most. I know it can feel like you can’t possibly fit one more activity into your day, so start with a few minutes of “you time,” and remind yourself that taking breaks has been shown to improve productivity.
Your cortisol increases in the evening, so you should focus on stress recovery activities at night. Make an extra effort to turn down the lights and turn on a progressive relaxation meditation. Your body needs a stronger anti-stress signal in the evening to let it know that you don’t need more cortisol before bed. You may want to try journaling and/or biofeedback and measuring your heart rate variability to see the difference they make in turning off your sympathetic nervous system. Turn on calming, healing music and let your mind drift to sleep.
Sluggish and Stressed
Having high cortisol with low adrenaline means you are a perfect candidate for stress reduction. You may find that you absolutely love meditation and yoga, because they provide a much-needed break for your body from all the cortisol. The challenge is that low adrenaline can cause you to have low stamina. If you get exhausted from your chosen activity, it just means you need to choose a shorter amount of time and perhaps something less strenuous to start with. Instead of raking all the leaves in the yard, start by picking the dead leaves off your plants and giving them water. Notice the leaves and how the plants respond to light. Be present in the moment without imposing expectations on yourself. Watch and listen to the birds outside or put on music that makes you feel good.
#4 E for Exercise
Take it easy. While, yes, exercising is a good way to relieve your stress, doing too much will work against you. Aim for ten to fifteen minutes of getting your heart rate up each day. If you tend to have high cortisol in the morning, wait until midday to exercise, but don’t do it too late, either. You may actually find that you’ll prefer two sessions of fifteen minutes each at different times of day. Stretching or yoga could be one session, and a HIIT workout could be the other.
The main thing for you is not to exercise in the evening, because it could increase your cortisol more at night, which could prevent you from falling asleep. And it would be better to exercise in the morning, to help reset your circadian rhythm and give you a boost of cortisol at the right time of day. Getting outside in the morning light will also help reset your sleep-wake cycle. Maybe go for a fifteen-minute walk or swim. If you are exhausted from not sleeping, you may need to start with five minutes of gentle movement. Don’t push it. Take it one day at a time and gradually your body will shift your cortisol output so that it is stronger in the morning than in the evening.
Sluggish and Stressed
As with the Stress Magnet, a ten- to fifteen-minute workout at midday—not when your cortisol is already high—would be perfect for you. This could be walking up a hill or stairs or using an elliptical trainer at the gym. If you want to do more, combine gentle stretching or yoga with a LIIT workout, so that you’ll feel like you did more, without raising your cortisol too much. You’ll know when you’re ready for more when you don’t feel worse the next day.
Phase #1 Getting Out of Stress Mode
An example protocol is to begin Phase 1 by taking magnesium threonate to decrease adrenaline levels, and you may need to take it twice or even three times per day. Vitamin C can also help decrease adrenaline levels at 500 mg twice per day. Add in phosphatidylserine along with ashwagandha, banaba leaf, or magnolia root at the time of day when your cortisol is too high, or a few hours prior to that increase. For example, if your cortisol is higher than optimal when you wake in the morning, then you’ll plan to take phosphatidylserine and banaba leaf (or another herb to decrease cortisol) upon awakening. However, you’ll get the best results if you also take them before you go to bed at night, to prevent cortisol from rising too high and/or too early in the morning. If, instead, your cortisol begins to rise higher in the afternoon, right when it should be decreasing, then you’d take these supplements a few hours prior to the increase, and you might repeat the dose a few hours later.
In your case, cortisol is high at night, so in Phase 1 you’ll want to supplement with ashwagandha (or another herb) and phosphatidylserine in the evening and may repeat the dose at bedtime, which has been shown to help decrease cortisol production by resetting the stress signal from the brain. Start with low doses and gradually increase until you find the doses that are most effective for you. You’ll know it’s working when you feel more relaxed in the evening and find it easier to go to sleep and stay asleep. You will also want to take magnesium (threonate or glycinate) in the evening to prevent adrenaline from waking you.
Sluggish and Stressed
Your cortisol is high at certain times of day, but your adrenaline is low. In Phase 1, you need to get your cortisol levels into an optimal range. Follow the same instructions as for Stress Magnet and Night Owl in terms of taking phosphatidylserine and herbs that lower cortisol, at the time of day that your levels are too high. If this is all day long, repeat your doses every three to six hours.
Phase #2 Balance: Optimize Cortisol, Adrenaline, and More
In Phase 2, you may find that you need to support your adrenal gland function with nutrients and herbs, but only if your levels have decreased and are below optimal. Otherwise, during Phase 2 you may be continuing to monitor and prevent cortisol and adrenaline from rising again. You may also use Phase 2 to start working to rebalance other hormones that have been disrupted by stress, such as thyroid hormones, insulin, ovarian or testicular hormones, and so on. You’ll also want to work on healing your digestion. Now that your cortisol (and adrenaline) is out of stress mode, they will actually help to rebalance other systems in your body and maintain a healthier state.
In Phase 2, you may need to address cortisol levels that are too low in the morning. This is not always the case, but if you’ve been in the Night Owl pattern for a rather long time, your adrenals may actually be completely lopsided from making cortisol at night instead of in the morning. Once you’ve calmed your system and decreased cortisol and adrenaline at night, you’ll be ready to increase cortisol and adrenaline in the morning. Go slowly, so as not to shift things too quickly. Your body will guide you. Little by little, you’ll be able to reteach your body how to have a morning cortisol response and how to make cortisol trend downward in the evening.
Sluggish and Stressed
When you get to Phase 2, you’ll be ready to start supporting adrenaline production with tyrosine and perhaps other nutrients and herbs to help your adrenal glands recover. It’s tricky because you want to support the production of adrenaline, but you don’t want to increase cortisol too high and swing right back into stress mode. So just go carefully, use tyrosine without herbs, and notice if symptoms return; if they do, you can adjust doses accordingly.
Phase #3 Resilience
By the time you get to Phase 3, resiliency, it is all about maintaining your progress and preventing stress mode from happening again. At that point, you’ll want to focus on C.A.R.E. that helps you respond and recover from stress, but without causing more stress to your system. It’s about finding that perfect balance and about hormesis and homeostasis—you need to provide just enough of a challenge for your body to continue to function and allow you to do what you’d like to do in life, but not so much of a challenge that it throws off your homeostatic balance point. That is resiliency. That is your goal.
C: Have mini meals on hand to eat every three to four hours throughout the day. Have carbs from veggies, fruit, or gluten-free grains along with protein and healthy fats.
A: Put on blue-light-blocking glasses in the evening. Meditate before bed at or by 10 PM, and when you wake.
R: Take one- to five-minute breaks during the day to take a few deep breaths, meditate, spend time outdoors, or listen to music.
E: Implement five minutes of stretching or yoga, then five to ten minutes of core strengthening.
C: Eat at regular intervals throughout the day, and then at night choose protein, carbs, and healthy fats to balance blood sugar and hormones.
A: Set aside the evening to dim the lights, listen to calming music, and take a bath, and then pull down the blackout shades and practice progressive relaxation.
R: Spend time in nature, especially in the morning. Take deep breaths, journal, or call a friend.
E: Exercise up to thirty minutes a day, before 3 PM. Do Pilates or go for a walk outside.
Sluggish and Stressed
C: Reach for a protein shake in the morning, and choose small meals containing a slightly higher amount of carbohydrates than protein and fat throughout the day.
A: Set aside “you time” in the evening to journal, call a friend, or listen to music.
R: When you wake, start with a meditation or mindfulness walk in nature. Take breaks during the day.
E: At midday, aim for strengthening, such as a ten-minute LIIT workout or Pilates.