Treating Adrenal Exhaustion


By Roger Cole  |  

—Loretta Stevens

Roger Cole’s reply:


By “adrenal exhaustion” I presume you mean the fatigue that comes from being under chronic stress without sufficient recovery. Yoga practice is great for providing recovery and can also help you deal with stressful circumstances without having such a strong negative reaction. But I encourage you to go beyond just postures and consider the “practice” of yoga rather broadly. If any of the life circumstances that are causing you distress are at all under your control, part of your practice is to change them for the better.

The adrenal gland has two parts. The adrenal medula secretes epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). These hormones make your heart pound, raise your blood pressure, help make your muscles tense, and put your brain on high alert. The adrenal cortex secretes cortisol and other hormones. Cortisol is a natural steroid that raises your blood sugar level (so the muscles have plenty of fuel) and suppresses inflammation, but it also suppresses the immune system.

The adrenal hormones are catabolic, which means they foster biological processes that burn energy and break down cellular structures. If you activate the adrenal glands over and over again without sufficient recovery in between, your body becomes depleted and exhausted, and you are susceptible to a variety of illnesses.

To recover from this exhaustion, you need to do things that turn off the adrenal hormones and promote secretion of anabolic hormones, such as growth hormone. Growth hormone is secreted by the pituitary gland almost exclusively during the deepest stages of sleep (slow wave sleep). To promote slow wave sleep, avoid alcohol and caffeine, and take a warm bath before bed. Do not lie awake in bed for more than 15 minutes at a time. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do some quiet activity until you feel ready to attempt sleep again. Avoid strenuous yoga postures (especially standing postures and unsupported backbends) at any time of day, because these may stimulate the adrenal glands.

To help turn off the adrenal glands and calm the mind, practice restorative yoga postures daily in a warm, dark, quiet environment. Here is a series that can work wonders. It purposely includes few postures, so you can hold each one for as long as it is comfortable.

1. Supported Sukhasana (Simple Cross Legs Pose) bending forward, with forehead and arms resting on a padded chair seat. Stack folded blankets on the chair seat until you reach a comfortable height. This pose releases tension in the back and neck muscles, and feels very calming. If your legs are not too tight, you can also add similar forward-bending postures with one or both legs extended straight while the forehead rests on the chair. Most people need to raise the pelvis on one to three folded blankets while practicing these postures.

2. Viparita Karani (legs up the wall, pelvis elevated on a bolster or folded blankets). If the legs tire of being straight, bend the knees and cross the legs, with knees near the wall. This pose stimulates baroreceptors (blood pressure sensors) in the neck and upper chest, triggering reflexes that reduce nerve input into the adrenal glands, slow the heart rate, slow the brain waves, relax blood vessels, and reduce the amount of norepinephrine circulating in the bloodstream.

3. Supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bound Bridge Pose), supported on a bolster or on long, folded blankets. This pose also stimulates the baroreceptors, so it has many of the same effects as Viparita Karani. It relieves tension in the chest and front body, and prepares the lungs for breathing practice.

4. Savasana (Corpse Pose), with normal inhalation and long, slow exhalation. This pose allows complete relaxation in a neutral position. Emphasis on exhalation slows the heart and calms the mind.

Roger Cole, Ph.D., is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and a research scientist specializing in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. He trains yoga teachers and students in the anatomy, physiology, and practice of asana and Pranayama. He teaches workshops worldwide. For more information, visit http://rogercoleyoga.com.