Episode 3 | Dr. Alan Christianson | How to go from STRESSED to THRIVING
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Two years into Kathy’s first show, something started happening with one of her eyes. Doctors were not sure what the issue was – bacteria? Some sort of infection? A clogged tear duct? Finally a doctor at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA diagnosed Kathy with Graves Disease, a condition which was attacking her thyroid gland. This experience jumpstarted Kathy’s lifelong journey to understanding the remarkable thyroid and adrenal glands.
Today’s guest is Dr. Alan Christianson, New York Times best-selling author and naturopathic medical doctor (NMD) with a focus on thyroid disorders. He founded Integrative Health, a physician group dedicated to helping people with thyroid disease, and is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Thyroid Disease and The Adrenal Reset Diet: Strategically Cycle Carbs and Proteins to Lose Weight, Balance Hormones, and Move from Stressed to Thriving.
Thyroid and Adrenals: The Basics
Dr. Christianson not only practices mountain unicycling in his spare time, but is a master at helping people understand how to balance their hormones. He begins his discussion with Kathy by reviewing the basics about the thyroid and adrenals. The thyroid, he explains, is the body’s thermostat. It if is even slightly off-balance, it can cause a person to burn 300 – 500 fewer calories during the day. It can be under-active or overactive, and thyroid cancer is unfortunately the fastest increasing type of cancer among women in North America.
Several circumstances can cause these thyroid issues:
- Some genetic susceptibility
- Foreign materials from within the environment (plastic derivatives, iodine, mercury, etc.)
- Major stressors to the body, which can flip a switch in the immune system and make it attack the thyroid.
Sitting on top of each kidney are the sugar-cube sized adrenal glands which generate over 57 hormones, from the hormones that regulate blood sugar and electrolyte levels, to those that control the immune system and inflammation. The glands also play a role in the cortisol hormone. A body with a correctly functioning circadian rhythm will generate a lot of cortisol in the morning to wake up the body, and shut off cortisol at night to help the body sleep. If your stress levels are high, however, the circadian cycle gets interrupted, which in turn can stress the immune system and make it prone to attack itself.
Thriving or Surviving
High levels of caffeine, sugar, or stimulants may also affect our circadian rhythm and impact our weight, sleep and how we burn fat. Our body has two operating modes: thriving or surviving. Survival – “fight or flight” – mode is useful in helping to prevent us from dying during times of great emergency. In this mode, our bodies use resources differently in order to fight or run away.
One result of survival mode is that the body prepares for famine; we cause visceral fat – fat that is marbled through muscles and organs and presents a health risk when there is too much in our bodies – to make even more stress hormones and we then grow more fat. It becomes a vicious cycle. We make stress hormones in the adrenals and repurpose them back and forth in organs like the liver & brain, and in visceral fat.
This process is the body’s “cash under the mattress;” we build more visceral fat as a safety measure when the body is worried about shortage or famine. Unfortunately, too much of this fat can be dangerous.
Many people may overlook hormones when it comes to evaluating their health and wellbeing. Hormones are the command center of the body: when the hormones begin shifting, especially as our bodies age, some of the health rules we may be used to (such as the calories-in/calories-out equation) no longer apply. For example, say a 40-year-old female is noticing changes in her body, such as weight gain in her mid-section, fatigue, and trouble sleeping, even though she is following her normal diet and exercise routine: what could be going on?
Dr. Christianson explains that menopause typically happens around age 50, and around age 40 many women start perimenopause, the change preceding menopause. The ovaries make both estrogenic and androgenic hormones, and around perimenopause the ovaries begin making fewer of these hormones. In a healthy woman, the adrenals should begin to compensate for this change.
The key is how well the adrenals can pick up the baton from the ovaries; if they are struggling to maintain cortisol cycles, the woman is likely to experience more difficulty during these times of hormonal shifting.
How do we optimize the adrenal function when modern life is a perfect storm to wreck our adrenals? We currently consume food too high in fructose and chemicals, and too low in fiber and other beneficial micronutrients.
We also live in environments seething with synthetic chemicals, artificial light, loud noise, and distraction. While we cannot change all the things that affect the adrenals, we can use the strategy of changing the ratio of carbs, fats and proteins we consume throughout the day to help reset the glands and make them work better.
Cortisol is the hormone that governs blood sugar and is also used to raise the body’s blood sugar when it’s too low. We use cortisol to pull sugar out of our liver and muscles and make glucose if needed. If we want high cortisol in the morning (to help wake us up) and low blood sugar engenders cortisol output, the morning is an ideal time to eat fewer total carbs. The exact opposite is true at nighttime: this is the time to eat good, healthy carbs to help us turn off for bedtime.
Daily Diet and Super Foods
Dr. Christianson outlines a typical daily diet (to maximize adrenal function and energy):
Breakfast: Usually a shake (clean, well-absorbed by the body, high in fiber), or sometimes sardines and a buckwheat cracker. There are many benefits of seafood, although two downsides are sustainability and the contaminants found in seafood. The smaller the fish, the cleaner and more nutrient-dense they are, so sardines are a great option.
Lunch: Salad, roughly 1/2 cup legumes, and some lean protein (salmon or poultry).
Dinner: Similar to lunch. Dr. Christianson often stir-fries vegetables, spices (such as garlic, ginger, turmeric) protein, and good carbs (such as wild rice or quinoa). In the evening he eats up to 1 cup of carbohydrates (at the most).
Dr. Christianson’s list of super foods includes:
- Dandelion greens: A great source of potassium and electrolytes, and gentle on the kidneys.
- Carob: An excellent source of polyphenols and good for people who are caffeine- sensitive.
- Cardamom: A highly under-utilized spice! Decreases gut inflammation and permeability. Add the powder or the whole pod to seafood, poultry, or shakes.
Learn more about Dr. Christianson:
Gain strategies, recipes, a diet plan and more from The Adrenal Reset Diet Book. www.drchristianson.com