Modern living pounds the adrenal glands and most people don’t realise that this directly impacts our wellbeing and decision-making.
In this article we will do a bit of biology so you understand how important your adrenals are, and some steps that you can take to keep them healthy so that you make good decisions.
The adrenal glands sit atop your kidneys and are there to help you deal with stress. They play a pivotal role in ensuring you have the energy to deal with events, from raising your blood pressure as you stand up in the morning and have to deal with gravity, to making you alert and focused when you need to complete a task accurately and to time.
They maintain energy levels by secreting a number of different hormones. Cortisol is your main stress hormone, and in healthy individuals, cortisol runs on a 24-hour rhythm, normally peaking around 5 a.m. and then slowly tapering throughout the day so it’s lowest at bedtime, around 11pm. So falling asleep should be easy as this dip coincides with the rise of melatonin—the body’s sleep hormone.
Shorter, more intense cortisol bursts—along with your other stress hormones, including adrenaline and noradrenaline —occur when the brain senses imminent danger. When that happens, a lightning-fast chemical cascade occurs along something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
The hypothalamus (the part of the brain that communicates with the nervous system) shoots a signal to the pituitary gland (the orchestra leader of the body’s many hormones), triggering a fight-or-flight response to spur the body into action.
The galvanising force comes from the adrenals, which pump out adrenaline so you can react— really fast. As that initial hormone surge diminishes, the hypothalamus kicks off a second chain reaction, this time directing the adrenals to release cortisol to keep you vigilant. Once the danger has passed, the adrenals send a message back to the hypothalamus to calm down, and you return to the opposite of the fight-or-flight state—commonly referred to as “rest-and-digest”—which is the body’s preferred, restorative state.
Modern living isn't kind to our adrenal glands
But we live in a world saturated with stress, thanks to work, relationships, not eating properly, overexercising, and all the shoulds we’re bombarded with. Nearly half of working adults report being unable to get to sleep, or stay asleep because of all the things on their mind, and this is a symptom of their brains being on perpetual high alert, as all of these stressors are being interpreted as dangers and triggering the continued release of cortisol.
Millions of years ago, these cortisol bursts helped when we needed Instant energy to outrun a saber-toothed tiger. Yet as smart as the modern brain may be, “it doesn’t think, ‘This stupid computer is giving me trouble.’ It thinks, ‘This tiger is going to attack me,’”
But when the stress is constant, you get a case of “cry wolf” and eventually the hypothalamus becomes less sensitive to adrenal feedback. Then cortisol levels essentially go rogue. The effects of this relentless cortisol dump usually first manifest as troubled sleep and fractured energy levels, but other red flags include headaches, irritability, allergies and sinus issues, and cognitive difficulties. Digestive issues are also common, as excess cortisol decreases stomach-acid production.
It also leads to a change in your decision making. Because when your nervous system is on high alert all the time, the primitive parts of your brain, associated with self-preservation, will tend to take the lead in behaviour. Your decisions will tend towards safety, generally becoming more short-term in nature whilst relationships become strained through heated arguments over things that wouldn’t normally be an issue.
Recharging your adrenal glands
So what can you do about it? Recovering from what’s commonly called adrenal fatigue is easy to explain and harder to do, because it means prioritising rest and reducing the stressors that cause it in the first place.
I have other videos on recovering from Adrenal Fatigue and you’ll find the links at the end of the video. In the meantime here are 3 quick ways to improve your decision-making when you’re feeling the effects of stress.
Do your decision-making in the morning
Do your decision-making in the morning. There’s a large body of research, led by Dr Roy Baumeister who coined the term decision-making, to suggest that our capacity for good decisions wanes over the day, so make those key decisions in the morning.
Whether that’s having your management meeting, conducting interviews or having a coaching session, do them in the morning. Jeff Bezos of Amazon is renowned for having all his important decision-making meetings in the morning.
Get some space
Go for a walk, preferably outside. Research shows that even just 15 minutes outside can reduce your physical stress levels by 20%, and you’ll feel better and be more likely to make wider decisions.
Slow down your breathing
Slow down your breathing. This is covered in greater depth in another video, but if you spend a couple of minutes breathing at the rate of five breaths a minute – that’s six seconds in, six seconds out, your fight or flight system will calm down, giving you a more balanced view on the decisions that you have to make.
Contrary to popular opinion, these don’t need to be super deep breaths – duration is more important than depth.
#adrenalfatigue #decisionmaking #stress