Do You Have Stress?
Are you a person who deals with daily stress? Do you feel that your life occasionally feels like it is spinning out of control? Do you experience fatigue, sleep disturbances, lack of motivation or focus? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, it is likely that your adrenal glands are potentially the cause of your troubles. You are not alone though – it is estimated that over 75% of all visits to primary care physicians are related to either acute or chronic stress. A 2010 American Psychological Association survey of 1100 adults found that the economy, work and money were the largest stressors cited by those surveyed. Things have shifted since then with the improvement in the economy, yet most or all of these stressors still persist. Why don’t more individuals manage their stress better? This same survey found that Americans are just plain “too busy” to find healthy outlets to deal with their stress. In this article and during Healthy Adrenal Glands: Part II, we will discover more about the adrenal glands, the effect of stress on the human body, how to test for adrenal problems and about treatments to help improve adrenal dysfunction naturally.
What Are the Adrenal Glands?
The adrenal glands are two little pyramidal shaped glands that lie on top of each of your two kidneys (which are located in your mid-back) that are one of the most overlooked, important parts of the human body. Without the adrenal glands, we would flat out not be able to survive. While they help to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar and contribute to sex hormone balance, perhaps one of the greatest responsibilities of the adrenal glands is their role in helping our bodies deal with stressful situations.
Short-Term Stress Adrenal Response
The adrenal glands play a role in managing stress from both short-term and long-term events. However, your adrenals really can’t distinguish between the two and thus have a similar response in both types of events. Say it is dark outside and you leave work to get in your car. All of the sudden you hear a noise from behind you. Your first initial reaction is most likely to jump out of your shoes and feel a brief sense of panic. Then you feel your heart rate increase as you spring into action. Your pupils will also dilate, hairs will stand on end and the blood in your body will rush to your muscles, brain and heart. Together these responses are caused by your adrenal glands releasing two hormones, epinephrine (sometimes called adrenaline) and norepinephrine, and are sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight” response. You have to a make a split second decision to either fight whomever or whatever has just scared the heck out of you or run away as fast as you can. While these stressful situations are supposed to be temporary, occasionally we can feel that we are in a constant state of “fight or flight.” Over time, and with constant stress, our body shifts into long-term stress management mode and the adrenal glands become depleted of its reservoirs of adrenaline.
Long-Term Stress Adrenal Response
Relationship stress, financial trouble, illness, career stress and family deaths are all potential causes of significant long-term stress. Initially, your adrenals do not discriminate between meeting a crucial work deadline and having to run away from a bear chasing after you! They still activate the “fight or flight” response with a hormone called cortisol taking over for the long haul. Cortisol’s major role in the body is to help mobilize fuel in the body to deal with a stressful event. It helps to break down stored glucose in your liver, muscles and brain tissue and mobilizes fat and protein stores found throughout the body. This new influx of glucose and energy into the bloodstream helps the body prepare to go long periods of time without eating. This response is most likely an adaptation from our Paleolithic ancestors who lived hundreds of thousands years ago. During times of scarcity, our ancestors would have to sometimes go days, weeks or months without food, an extremely stressful event. Now with food around every corner, this usually isn’t an issue. However, hypoglycemia in between meals, termed reactive hypoglycemia, does continue to be one of the most common causes of adrenal problems that I see in my practice today.
Physiological Roles of Cortisol
Besides fuel management, cortisol has many other vital functions in the body. It is an anti-inflammatory hormone, meaning that it helps the body repair itself during injury or in inflammatory diseases. It also plays a large role in our immune system, helping us to stay healthy all year round. Cortisol is so important that it impacts nearly every major system in the body – it has important roles in the heart and vascular system, skeletal system, brain and nervous system, digestive system and reproductive system.
Cortisol Rhythm Impacts Daily Life
Cortisol, like many other hormones in the body, follows a specific rhythm throughout the day. Cortisol is released in a pulsatile fashion with the highest amounts released first thing in the morning and the least at bedtime. The amount of cortisol released from the adrenals often happens to correspond to how much energy or how you might feel throughout the day. Because you are supposed to have the most cortisol first thing in the morning, you should have good energy when you wake up in the morning. This is how you feel energetically BEFORE coffee or other caffeinated beverages! If you do not have good energy in the morning, this is often one of the first signs that you may have a condition called “adrenal fatigue” where the adrenal reserve of cortisol has become depleted. The reason your cortisol is highest in the morning is that it literally is your wake up button. Your adrenals are telling you “time to get your buttocks out of bed and seize the day!”
The least amount of energy you have should take place at night, when you are getting ready for bed. If you find that you have too much energy, have a hard time shutting down your brain when you hit the pillow or get a second wind during the later parts of the evening, then this could also signal an aberrant cortisol rhythm.
Those with altered sleep schedules, like students, night shift workers or folks who travel and change time zones frequently, are most susceptible to alterations in their cortisol rhythm.
Health Consequences of Adrenal Dysfunction
When our cortisol has become depleted, this can lead to “adrenal fatigue” or, even worse, “adrenal exhaustion” when very little cortisol output takes place. Neither adrenal fatigue nor exhaustion is widely accepted in the allopathic medical community. Many practitioners, including endocrinologists (hormone doctors) do not even test for adrenal function in their practice. Wow! However, naturopathic and integrative physicians view the adrenal glands as a very important part of human health with emphasis on restoring adrenal health as one of the cornerstones to reversing illness.
One of the worst consequences of adrenal fatigue is the inability to mount a healthy response to stressful situations. Sufferers become paralyzed during stressful events, unable to cope with any more stressing inputs. Symptoms of adrenal fatigue can include low energy, need for naps, depression, pain or inflammation, insomnia or other sleep disturbances, poor memory or concentration (like ADHD), weight gain (usually around the mid-section), hair loss, palpitations and even menstrual cycle irregularities.
Long-term health consequences of poor adrenal function impact virtually every system in the human body. For instance, I have often seen individuals with diminished adrenal function have correspondingly poor immune function. It has been shown that chronic stress decreases the good bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract (like lactobacillus or bifidobacterium), increases the bad bacteria (like E.coli) and decreases the amount of immune cells responsible for fighting off bad disease causing bugs. Likewise, there is a large amount of immune protective vitamin C found in the adrenal glands. When the adrenals have become taxed, so do the vitamin C stores in the adrenals, leaving individuals more susceptible to pathogenic organisms. Lowered cortisol levels also contribute to poor thyroid function. All hormone systems in the body, including the adrenals, thyroid and sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone) function in chorus with one another. So when one hormone system is depleted, often other hormones have to pick up the slack to help with energy and vitality balance. Lastly, chronic stress has also been shown to increase the risk for heart attacks and stroke.
Stay Tuned For More on Adrenal Balancing
Now that we know what causes the adrenals to get out of whack, next up we will discuss ways to find out more about your adrenal health through testing and learn about strategies to help deal with chronic stress and reverse adrenal dysfunction naturally. Stay tuned for “Healthy Adrenals: Part II!”