By Hilary Sheinbaum
Point blank: Moms do it all. Caring for little ones and oneself isn’t always a walk in the park (read: rarely an easy feat). Enter a year of several unprecedented changes and challenging months, and it’s no surprise that moms’ hormones are being impacted too.
Between overwhelming daily stresses and sleepless nights, many moms have been affected by adrenal fatigue (more specifically: varying cortisol levels). These buzzwords can sound startling — but what does that all mean, exactly? Read on to find out what’s actually happening and potential solutions to any problems that may pop up.
While “adrenal fatigue” isn’t a formal medical term, it is the common phrase used to describe the diminished function of the adrenal glands related to stress, environmental toxins, hormones, or other factors that affect the communication between the brain and the adrenal gland, explains Aaron Hartman, MD, a functional medicine expert in Richmond, Virginia, who is a board-certified family medicine and integrative and holistic medicine.
Dr. Hartman says the technical name for this is HPA axis dysregulation. “The brain stops communicating with the adrenal glands,” he explains, and further elaborates that typical symptoms are fatigue, loss of strength, easy fatigability, sleep disturbance, non-restorative sleep, hormonal issues, night sweats hormone irregularities, missed periods, heavy periods, gut issues, GI distress, immune dysregulation and increased infections.
Sound familiar? Keep reading.
Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal cortex, which is the outermost part of the adrenal gland, says Dr. Hartman. “Cortisol is one of—if not the most—important hormones for survival,” he notes. “It ranks at the top of the hormonal triad of your hormone-producing glands: adrenals, thyroid, and pancreas.”
Dr. Hartman notes that cortisol is regulated mainly through the hippocampus (in your brain). It creates your daytime and nighttime rhythms (referred to as circadian rhythms), and it feeds into your hypothalamus (which relates to another hormone called CRH that goes to your pituitary), causing it to release ACTH, which then goes to your adrenals, making them release cortisol.
That’s the science-y part of it.
“Mothers may be experiencing abnormal cortisol levels due to stress that comes with role transition and juggling the demands of mom-life,” says Sabina Khan, PhD, in Miami, who focuses on the intersection of neuroscience and women’s health. “Moms today are stressed more than ever and increased stress leads to imbalances in hormones, which causes a whole slew of physical and mental health complications.”
But that’s not the end-all, be-all.
Thankfully, crazy cortisol levels can be changed. Dr. Khan suggests maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. “This means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day,” she says. “Develop a sleep hygiene routine to help cue your body into this sleep schedule.”
Another hot tip: Dr. Khan recommends exposing yourself to natural sunlight because it can reset your body’s cortisol levels.
And, an additional point of advice she notes is eating a balanced diet because avoiding a low-carb diet as a lack of carbs can increase cortisol levels. On the subject of food and beverage, Dr. Anna Persaud, CEO of This Works in the U.K. offers a reminder that drinking water matters, and so does the timing of consuming certain beverages like caffeine and alcohol. “Keep yourself hydrated during the day. Avoid overstimulation in the evening.”
Chat with your doctor if it sounds like you may have adrenal fatigue to discuss the best plan of action.