Restoring the Nervous System
The nervous system consists of a complex network of nerves and cells that are responsible for the transmission of various messages to and from the brain and spinal cord, and throughout the body. The nervous system is intricately linked to the endocrine system, which is responsible for the production and distribution of hormones throughout the body. The two systems interact, with the nervous system essentially controlling the endocrine system. When the nervous system is under undue stress, the hormones become imbalanced. This causes widespread issues and disrupts our overall sense of well-being. Because of the interconnected nature of our bodily systems, and the vast effects of hormonal imbalances, maintaining the health of our nervous and endocrine systems is absolutely vital.
The health of the adrenal glands is paramount, as the adrenals produce our stress hormones and are an important component of our stress response. By supporting adrenal balance and overall hormonal balance, we can restore the health of the nervous system and promote a stress-free, healthy natural state of being.
The adrenal glands are part of the HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal) axis, our central stress response system which helps the body respond to stress. The adrenals are closely linked to hormonal issues, digestion, immune function, energy, libido, and mood. The adrenal glands are responsible for producing several hormones, including cortisol. During stressful periods, the adrenals produce excess cortisol, which compromises the production of other hormones. Cortisol causes an increase in heart rate and blood sugar levels, which is a normal bodily response to stress. However, this is only meant to occur once in a while - in our society, many of us are chronically stressed thanks to the demands and stresses of work, relationships, school, finances, and more - even traffic jams. Since it’s a catabolic hormone, cortisol - when chronically elevated - can lead to depleted hormones, lack of nutrients, lowered liver function, increased inflammation throughout the body, infertility, and mood disorders.
This shift in hormone production in the adrenal glands leads to deficiencies in other hormones such as insulin, leptin, DHEA, and progesterone. Insulin triggers the conversion of sugar in the blood into energy to be used by the body. When it’s not produced in adequate amounts, the result is blood sugar spikes and imbalances, which leads to fatigue and a lack of energy. Leptin is the satiety hormone, which signals the brain to stop eating once enough food has been consumed. It’s also important for menstrual health. A deficiency in leptin leads to constant hunger, lethargy, and obesity. DHEA is the anti-aging hormone that reduces fatigue and helps to improve libido, muscle synthesis, bone density, and heart health. Deficient DHEA results in fatigue, depression, anxiety, dry skin and hair, loss of libido, and other negative symptoms. Progesterone is important for regular menstrual cycles, fertility, and immune function, so deficient levels result in irregular menstrual cycles, fertility problems, and other issues. All of these imbalances and changes occur as a result of the body over-producing cortisol at the expense of other hormones, due to chronically high levels of stress.
There are 3 stages of adrenal dysfunction
Alarm/reaction phase: Known as the “fight or flight” reaction or the “emergency response,” this is the body’s initial response to stress. The body stimulates the release of epinephrine (aka adrenaline), which increases blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen intake, and blood flow to the muscles. This response is not meant, biologically, to last more than 5 minutes; it is meant to prepare your body to deal with an immediate threat. However, in our current society of constant stress, this can go on for months to years.
Resistance phase: This phase occurs as the body continues to fight a chronic stressor or newly-added stressor. Epinephrine is no longer enough to mount an effective attack and cortisol is called in to help. The continued elevation of cortisol suppresses the immune system and can increase the risks of high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. This stage can last for years. This phase is the optimal time for reversal and prevention through natural health therapies.
Exhaustion: With a relentless form of stress lasting for years, the body’s ability to overcome stress becomes overwhelmed; your body is determined to conserve energy by down regulating (or shutting down) it’s internal functions - this is the basic survival mode. When the resistance phase finally takes its toll and triggers the collapse of organs or bodily systems (which can vary greatly from person to person), the exhaustion phase results. Adrenal hormones and blood sugar levels drop, causing a crash in energy levels, weakening of the immune system, and lowering of immune function.
Signs and symptoms of chronic stress
Difficulty getting out of bed in the morning or waking up without an alarm
Sleeping 8 hours or more but not feeling rested
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
Feeling exhausted from small tasks
Cravings for salt
Severe PMS symptoms
Frequently getting sick
Brain fog and lack of motivation
Irritability and impatience
Decreased blood pressure when standing (feeling dizzy on standing, blurry-blackened vision upon standing)
Constant feel of overwhelm or anxiety
Unable to enjoy activities you once did
Intolerance to exercise
Feel “tired but wired”
Solutions for Adrenal Burnout
There are many adaptogenic and herbal remedies that can support the adrenals. Here are some great options:
Lemon balm: Helps relax & regulate the nervous system, gently lifting mood. Best taken as a tea or infusion. Dosage: Drink daily!
Oatstraw: Nourishes & tonifies the nervous system. Best taken in infusion form. Dosage: Drink daily, as needed.
Passionflower: Reduces anxiety, supports sleep & lowers inflammation. Best in tincture or infusion form. Dosage: Take as needed for sleep support.
Rhodiola: Normalizes the HPA axis and relieves anxiety. Best taken in capsule or tincture form. Dosage: 1 full tincture dose 2-3x per day. *can be stimulating for some - so best taken earlier in the day!
Schisandra: A nervous system tonic that strengthens the immune system and improves physical and mental performance. Schisandra is the perfect coffee replacement! Best taken as an extract or infusion. Dosage: Drink daily in the morning.
Ashwagandha: A rejuvenating adaptogen that helps to increase mental and physical stamina, and eases stress. Best taken in powder or tincture form. Dosage: Take a full tincture 2-3x per day as needed.
Licorice root: A general restorative tonic that helps restore adrenal function. Best taken as an extract or decoction. Note: Use with caution in cases of hypertension, liver problems, thyroid conditions, and cardiovascular problems. Dosage: Drink as needed.
The following herbs can help to restore adrenal health and balance
Magnesium: Supports the adrenal glands and acts as a relaxant. Dosage: Start with 2-400mg of magnesium citrate at bedtime. Or start by taking magnesium flake baths in the evening.
B vitamins: Help reduce immune damage, ease anxiety, and support brain function. Vitamin B5 in particular is important for adrenal support as it is needed to synthesize cortisone. Dosage: Taken as needed, in the morning.
Vitamin C: Supports the overall function of the adrenal glands as well as the immune system. Dosage: Lypo Spheric form is best. 1-3,000 (*or bowel tolerance) Taken as needed in the morning.
Iodine: one of the most basic deficiencies connected with proper sleep. Also a critical mineral for thyroid function, which is tightly interconnected with adrenal health. *Consult with a practitioner before taking Iodine.
Exercise - Over-exercising is a common trigger to adrenal burnout because intense exercise, especially for long periods of time, is a huge stressor to the body. If you’re not supporting your body properly with hydration, nutrition, and rest, then your body will not be able to adequately repair itself and your adrenals can burn out from exhaustion and overexertion. Incorporating less intense movement every day such as yoga, Tai Chi, hiking, or walking can be very beneficial in terms of restoring adrenal health, boosting circulation, and helping to calm the nervous system. Yoga, in particular, is great for adrenal recovery and can also help you cope with stressful circumstances without negative reactions. Hot yoga can be stressful to the adrenals; gentle yoga practices are soothing to the nervous system and help move towards adrenal recovery.
Meditation is a powerful tool to help calm the mind and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, aka the “rest and digest” (vs. “fight or flight”) division of the autonomic nervous system. Meditation can help you to become aware of your thoughts and to quiet the mind. It’s more accessible and simple to do than many people think, and can be done anywhere and anytime. Simply tune into your body and release any tension, gently letting go of thoughts as they come into your mind, and focusing on the breath instead. If you find meditation difficult, try a guided meditation using an app like Headspace, Calm, or Simple Habit. Starting with just 5 minutes a day is a great way for beginners to approach meditation - you can build up from there.
Nature therapy + grounding- Earthing (walking barefoot outdoors in the dirt, grass, or sand) is a particularly grounding practice that is deeply calming and helps to remineralize the body. Earthing supports all bodily systems and helps to reset our biological clocks, regulate circadian rhythms, and balance cortisol levels. These effects can significantly reduce seasonal depression symptoms and lift mood, which also supporting and restoring the nervous system.
Try: walking barefoot in nature or on the beach as often as possible.
Screen time detox- Regularly unplugging from technology and taking space for quiet reflection offers so many benefits, from deep calming and stress relief to improved intuition and clarity. It’s imperative that we allow this space for ourselves. Constantly filling up our time with the distraction and ego projection of social media is often a way to avoid the feelings deep inside of us that need attention and expression. It’s essential to create boundaries with tech use and to take space whenever needed. If you suspect that you’re dealing with a technology addiction, take the necessary steps to address it.
Try: Unplugging from tech - for a FULL day or weekend or week at a time.
Caffeine detox- Caffeine causes stress to the nervous system, impairing digestion while also contributing to blood sugar imbalances and sleep issues. While the occasional cup of coffee can be a mood lifter and healthy in moderation, it’s important to regularly take breaks from all sources of caffeine to allow the body to rest and recalibrate. Caffeine sources include coffee, tea (including green tea), chocolate, guarana, and yerba mate.
Try: Swapping coffee for alternatives like dandy blend, mushroom blends or herbal tea.
Binaural beats for brainwave/relaxation support- Sound can be a therapeutic method used to attain a desired mental state, either peaceful or attentive. This is helpful for individuals dealing with stressful work, students who need help concentrating while studying, and those who need assistance in meditation or sleep. The benefits of binaural beats (which you can easily find with a quick YouTube search) include:
Manipulating states of consciousness
Helping you to focus, think, and perform more easily (depending on the frequency being listened to)
Aiding in concentration, especially for longer periods of time
Supporting productivity naturally, decreasing the need to turn to prescription medications such as Adderall or other stimulants such as coffee/caffeine
Introducing meditation to beginners
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Breathwork/deep breathing- Breathing is the essence of life. According to Swami Rama, a renowned yogi, “Control over breath is control over life.” Our breath can heal us in many ways. Deep breathing triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, which invokes a calm feeling and helps to reduce stress. Deep breaths oxygenate the blood, helping our brains release endorphins which in turn reduces stress. We all live stressful lives in one way or another, and the simple power of breathwork can help anyone to navigate through bumpy waters. There are many different techniques for breathwork. You can also seek the support of a breathwork practitioner.
Try: Alternate nostril breathing, which balances the right & left hemispheres of the brain, is one the most popular methods and one of the most helpful ways to ground oneself.
Float tanks- Spending time in a float tank - also known as an isolation tank or sensory deprivation tank - is another powerful way to support the nervous system. Float tanks are lightless, soundproof tanks that are filled with salt water heated to our exact body temperature, which creates a unique and weightless sensation while floating in it. This is a great option for stress management and relaxation. Just half an hour in a float tank can work wonders!
Somatic therapy- Somatic therapy, also sometimes called somatic experiencing, involves focusing on perceived body sensations in order to relieve the symptoms of PTSD and other mental and physical traumas held within the body. If you’re experienced any type of trauma, somatic therapy can be an effective tool for restoring balance and easing stress.
Adrenal health and hormonal health go hand in hand, as both influence each other. If you’re experiencing adrenal exhaustion or chronic levels of elevated stress, it’s important to properly manage this aspect of your health first in order to tackle any hormonal imbalances.
Solutions for Hormone Balancing
Try these herbs for their hormone-balancing properties
Milk thistle: A liver-restorative herb that helps support the removal of excess estrogens, helping to balance hormones. Best taken in capsule or tincture form.
Maca: An adaptogen and hormone balancer that helps to promote fertility, libido, and vitality. Best taken in powder or capsule form.
Ashwagandha: A rejuvenating adaptogen that helps to increase mental and physical stamina, and eases stress. Best taken in powder or tincture form.
Vitex (aka chastetree berry): A natural hormone-balancer that helps to rebalance the progesterone-estrogen ratio in the body. Best taken in tincture or infusion form.
Red raspberry leaf: An excellent herb for women’s health that can increase fertility, reduce PMS symptoms, and tonify the uterus. Best taken as a tea or infusion.
Various supplements can support hormone balancing through their effects on various hormones.
Magnesium: Helps balance progesterone and cortisol, reducing inflammation. Magnesium is also essential for vitamin D absorption, which contributes to hormonal health as well. (Topical application of magnesium oil or gel is an effective way to supplement with magnesium or try soaking a magnesium flake bath for 20 minutes.)
Vitamin D: Helps to balance estrogen and is a precursor to the steroid hormones. Vitamin D is ideally obtained from the sun (and made by your own body), but if you live in the northern hemisphere it’s wise to get your levels checked and to then supplement as needed. Supplement with liquid vitamin D3 with vitamin K2 added for optimal results.
B vitamins: The B vitamins, especially B5, B6, and B12, also help to balance estrogen levels within the body, promoting a healthy estrogen-progesterone ratio and hormonal balance. Get a B-complex supplement that includes all of the B vitamins rather than supplementing them individually, as many work together synergistically.
Fish oil & evening primrose oil: Rich in omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFAs), respectively, these oils can help to balance the sex hormones and can optimize the hormone receptor sites that are found within cells.
Vitamin C: Helps the body to produce more progesterone, naturally providing a counterbalance for estrogen.
Vitamin E: Helps to naturally balance estrogen levels.
Avoid Endocrine Disruptors- Many chemicals and toxins interfere with hormone health. Those known as “endocrine disruptors” mimic natural hormones, which can cause over- or under-production of endogenous hormones (those hormones that are made within the body).
Be sure to avoid PCB, BPA, and phthalates - found in plastics, most cosmetics and beauty products, and household cleaners - as these common xenoestrogens can contribute to excess estrogen levels and diseases such as endometriosis.
A good tool to use is the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website to assess how toxic your products are - check out the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics database. Buy organic products whenever possible and look for natural beauty and skincare products, or make your own. The same goes for cleaning products. DIY recipes are surprisingly easy for both and are a great method of cost-savings (vs. buying organic beauty and cleaning products).
Support Liver health- Since toxins interfere so heavily with hormonal health, liver functioning should be assessed when it comes to natural hormone regulation. The liver processes toxins and excess hormones, and they’re then eliminated through sweat, urine, and/or feces. If the toxins and excess hormones aren’t being eliminated because of poor liver functioning, they can be reabsorbed by the body, leading to toxicity and hormonal imbalances. It’s therefore essential to support liver health and optimal functioning.
The liver also produces 70% of cholesterol in the body, which is a precursor to all hormones. To support your liver, focus your diet on high-quality protein sources, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc.), avocados, bitter foods such as arugula, Brazil nuts, and spinach. All of these foods contain compounds that naturally support liver detoxification.
Some liver-supportive herbal remedies to include are milk thistle (tincture), burdock root (infusion), and dandelion root (infusion or tea).
Digestive health- Digestive functioning directly impacts your hormonal health because of nutrient absorption, hormone synthesis, gut dysbiosis, and food allergies. Amino acids, in particular, are building blocks of hormones and if digestive function is compromised then imbalances can occur.
Apple cider vinegar or bitters are a great add-on to include in your diet as they trigger the production of stomach acid, which is responsible for protein digestion.
Try: Start with 1 tbsp of ACV in a glass of water before meals. If you don’t see results, integrate digestive enzymes, and/or digestive bitters to support the digestive process.
Diet- Processed and refined foods wreak havoc on your hormones and adrenals by spiking blood sugar levels and triggering inflammation. Other foods can also throw off the endocrine balance, including caffeine, dairy, soy, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners. Be sure to include plenty of bright, colorful vegetables that will nourish the adrenal glands as well as healthy fats (avocado, raw nuts and seeds, olive oil, chia, flax seeds, and wild-caught fish) + fermented foods, as these will support hormone production.
Sleep is so important in restoring adrenal and hormone health. This is the time when your body heals and repairs. Adequate rest also helps to regulate the HPA axis, improves insulin sensitivity, and regulates cortisol, LH, estrogen, and progesterone levels. Aim to get at least 7-8 hours per night and make sure that you’re practicing good sleep hygiene (sleeping in a cool, dark room, for example) and that you have an established bedtime routine that helps you wind down at the end of the day.
By addressing hormonal imbalances and nourishing the adrenals, we are supporting the nervous system as well and will be on the path to restoring overall optimal health and wellness.