Welcome to week five of my 10-week series, 10 Barriers To Recovery From Lyme Disease. Today’s barrier is adrenal health.
The adrenals are the stress-management centers of the body. They’re so tiny – pea-size – and sit upon the kidneys. But boy oh boy do they take the hit for everything going on in our bodies. Any stressor on the body can impact adrenal function – physical stressors such as pain, inflammation, infection and lack of sleep; emotional stressors such as family dynamics, worry, financial burdens; nutritional stressors such as poor dietary choices (more on that later); and even “good” stressors such as too much exercise. All of these things take their toll.
Given that many Lyme patients have been ill for many years, it makes sense that the adrenal glands can really be struggling. Adrenal fatigue can manifest in many ways – but the most common is profound, unrelenting exhaustion. Others include low immune function, poor sleep quality, lack of ability to heal, and poor detoxification. Adrenal fatigue also impacts metabolism leading to weight gain. Oh yes, and foggy brain can come from adrenal fatigue also.
There are 3 stages in what we call the chronic stress response. In the first stage, cortisol – our main adrenal hormone – is actually elevated. This is a compensatory mechanism, and a quite normal one. Theoretically, when there’s a stress on the body, the adrenals pump out more cortisol to help us to deal with it. Think of the bear jumping out from behind the tree, or maybe more realistically for us, a near-miss car accident – cortisol helps us to react and respond. This could potentially be life-saving. But the system was designed for short-term stressors, not long prolonged ones such as chronic illness. When the stress becomes ongoing, the adrenals will try to continue to produce more cortisol but over time it will not be able to keep that up, and levels will fall … and fall … and fall … until eventually they’re way below normal and this is what we call stage 3 adrenal exhaustion.
Did you also know that the adrenals produce reproductive hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone? Many Lyme patients have their hormone levels all whacked out, and this may be partially due to adrenal dysfunction. Therefore while testing reproductive hormones and supplementing when low can be sensible, the problem with the adrenals needs to be addressed to get profound and ongoing benefit.
Once again, all labs offer cortisol testing, but many just a single sample via bloodwork. This can provide some good information, but has limitations. My favorite test is a saliva test that measures four different samples – morning, noon, afternoon and night. This is better because some people have normal levels in the morning, but mid-afternoon levels have crashed (along with their energy). Some people are low in the morning but recover throughout the day. Some are low in the morning but elevated at night, which might give a clue into sleep problems.
There are lots of adrenal support nutrients and herbs. Vitamins C, B5 and B6 are very helpful, along with balancing herbs such as rhodiola and ashwaghanda. Adrenal hormone precursors such as DHEA and pregnenolone can provide building blocks that the body can use to produce more cortisol. Siberian and Korean ginseng can be a little more stimulating, which licorice root can help rebuild the adrenals when cortisol is really low. I prefer to use natural treatments taken over time to address adrenal fatigue, but in some patients where cortisol seems to have packed up and gone on vacation, I might use a little hydrocortisone to prop the body up until it returns. High cortisol, although less common, can benefit from those balancing herbs also, along with phosphytidylserine, a compound shown to lower excessive cortisol.
Getting your adrenals tested and giving them some support will give your body a big boost and help you in your recovery from Lyme disease. It is also important for post-treatment maintenance – I have had a few patients now who experienced a return of symptoms about a year after they had gone into remission. They were terrified that it was their Lyme coming back, but it was actually adrenal fatigue, and when corrected, they returned to good health.