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Winter Skills – Building Adrenal Energy

February 15, 2015

The phenomenon of the detox has reached its zenith and skeptics ask me ‘do they really work’ and ‘how does a detox actually work’. My honest answer is many detox regimes place more stress on the body than they alleviate, by either reducing calories too quickly or aggressively stimulating multiple elimination channels all at once.

So I would say no they are not all effective. My extensive research on the topic has led me to the conclusion that a detox diet or set of supplements can only enhance how the body is already detoxifying itself. You can purge your bowel or flood your system with nutrients but the effects will be time limited. The only real way to enhance our ongoing process of detoxification is to consistently reduce both the overall and specific effects of stress on our body.

Developing stress intelligence is not something that happens overnight and I think a really simple way to start tracking our stress is to tune into the energy currency of the body.

This is where the adrenal glands come into play. One of the primary jobs that the adrenal glands do is to regulate the energy levels of the body. When our energy dips or we feel hungry our stress hormones activate. Stress of any kind will trigger the adrenal glands to liberate glucose stores from the liver and pull amino acids and fatty acids from our tissue to generate more glucose for fuel.

Stress and blood sugar are very intimately linked together.

Skipping meals triggers a stress response. Using our mental or physical capacity in excess of the energy we consume triggers a stress response. When our blood sugar dips, our adrenaline and cortisol levels go up, so the simplest way to manage stress is to eat and eat well.

The brain needs sugar, the body does well on fat and protein sourced energy. Consider how much mental and physical work you are doing and feed yourself accordingly. If you ruminate or worry a lot you’re using lots of glucose energy. If you run outdoors in winter your using an extraordinary amount of energy, dipping deep into your fat stores. If you skip meals chronically your metabolism will slow down and your body may very well hold onto its fat for dear life.

Sugar will nip a stress response in the butt for the short-term but saturated fats will balance out cortisol levels in the long-run.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) considers the kidney-adrenal system to be the gate of vitality for the body, determining our overall level of health and longevity. This makes a great deal of sense when we look at the research linking the effects of stress with nearly every major disease or chronic health condition known to man.

In TCM the kidney-adrenal system corresponds with the winter season. I adhere to that wisdom not only because I deeply respect traditional medicine but also because the winter season quite clearly demands more energy.

As the life force in nature recedes during winter we also experience a diminishment in our own vital energy. Our body works harder to maintain a stable core temperature and we instinctively crave more food and more sleep. If we use our energy recklessly in winter we can deplete our adrenal system over time.

Alternatively we can make a huge contribution to our adrenal health by managing our energy currency more effectively in winter. Our energy is precious and it does run out. In the winter season we want to think about protecting and preserving our energy.

It’s a very healthy response to be bearish during the cold months, staying warm, napping and going to bed early, eating warm soups and stews, sipping tea. Though we may want to stay true to our new year’s resolutions, extreme exercise in winter requires extra care of our energy and how we are fueling it.

Interestingly, Arctic peoples eating a traditional diet live largely on saturated and monounsaturated fat because it has the highest heat value of any food. Fat nourishes our long-term vital energy. Our stress hormones are made from fat (cholesterol) and cause our body to burn or store fat. From a dietary perspective, if there is any imbalance of adrenal function it is very important to consider our fat intake and emphasize the type of fats that will promote longevity and reduce oxidative stress.

I myself learned the hard way how a diet high in polyunsaturated fats and low in saturated fats could wreak havoc on my health after 9 years of a vegetarian diet. While I am a fan of hemp seeds, fish oil and flax oil I use them modestly. As I veer more towards animal fats, coconut fat and some olive oil I have far less signs of inflammation in my body and more energy.

My personal fat hierarchy from the most to least useful is:

Saturated > Monounsaturated > Polyunsaturated

You would be surprised how pervasive those vegetable oils are, start reading ingredients and you will see. Polyunsaturated oils are basically unstable, reactive to oxygen and light, easily degradable. While the omega 3 fatty acids are considered anti-inflammatory they are still unstable and cannot balance the body’s stress response in the long-run compared to saturated fats.

So one of the key ways I take care of my adrenal health in winter is to eat enough based on my energy output and to eat more animal proteins and fats. I also extract other useful things from my meats, like collagen and gelatin by simmering soup stock and bone broth at home. I make the effort to balance out the rich whole foods with green, red, purple and orange plant foods high in antioxidants, minerals and vitamin C.

I also make a point to utilize medicinal plants that are particularly helpful for adrenal function. One of those plants is stinging nettle, which when brewed strong provides a wallop of very grounding minerals like calcium and magnesium, which the adrenal glands require for optimal function.

The other category of plant medicines I use are ‘adaptogens’ which broadly support the body in response to stress, balancing out the stress hormones and improving the energy economy of the body. Some of the more commonly known adaptogens are ginseng, astragalus, reishi or Rhodiola.

I will continue to write about stress on my blog and will cover topics like sleep, breathing and mindfulness and some of the more psychological aspects of stress but for my next article in this series I will elaborate more on the world of plants adaptogens, which I feel are an integral part of long-term stress management.

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