Chronic stress and adrenal fatigue
I’m sure you’ve been there at one point: bills to pay, phone ringing, deadline due, kids to be picked up, cooking dinner, checking emails, taxes, holidays. This life can seem pretty stressful at times. All of us have a built- in mechanism to handle and deal with stressors; be it emotional stress, chemical stress, or physical stress. But if the stressors never stop, it becomes quite hard for our body to keep up, and it only takes one straw to break the camel’s back. Today, we will talk about the detrimental effect of stress on the body and how important your adrenal glands are for good health.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue:
- Sick more often than others
- Light headed when standing or without meals
- Poor sleep
- Attention or focus problems
- Groggy in the morning
- Crave salty foods
- GI changes like constipation, diarrhea, bloating, or gas
- Intolerance to bright lights (need sunglasses or don’t like bright indoor lights)
- Hair loss
- Cold extremities, and many more.
If any (or all) of these symptoms sound familiar, you may something called adrenal fatigue, or “adrenal dysfunction,” or “hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal dysfunction.” No matter what you call it, it’s not good. And it indicates adrenal insufficiency, and poor adrenal gland function.
What are the adrenal glands?
The adrenal glands are small, walnut- sized organs that sit atop of your kidneys. These small organs pack a punch when it comes to balancing health. In times of stress (emotional, chemical, physical), the adrenals kick in, secreting hormones like cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine to keep us going until we find relief. This classic human response is one to help defend us. Think of it like this: you are walking through the woods and see a snake. If you are like me, you may freak out and run away. But what gives you that burst of energy? The hormones secreted by the adrenal glands help to instantly raise blood pressure and blood sugar, and shunt blood to our muscles so we can flee or fight. Many refer to this as the “fight or flight” mechanism. And after the threat is gone, the hormone levels drop and we go back to our normal, resting state, right?
Well, you can think of the adrenal glands like your reserve tanks, in the event that you run low on fuel and need to get out of a predicament, you can rely on a reserve tank to get you through. The problem is most people rely on their reserve tanks every day, only to find that even their reserve tanks have run low, and they are now in an adrenal crisis. This is much like getting into your car and hitting the gas pedal, trying to go 100 mph on an empty tank of gas; you won’t get very far or get there fast.
Stressed adrenals can impact every system in the body
- Memory and learning – In times of high cortisol in the body, the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain, can be damaged.
- Blood sugar – The adrenals help regulate gluconeogenesis, or the production of glucose in the body to tightly regulate blood sugar. When blood sugar is imbalanced, the adrenals have to work much harder.
- Thyroid hormones – When cortisol is imbalanced, thyroid hormone conversion (T4-T3) can diminish, leading to thyroid symptoms, which can mirror adrenal related symptoms.
- Muscle growth – In times of adrenal exhaustion, in order to fuel the stress response, the body will pull resources and nutrients from tissues in the body, such as the gut and muscles. This can lead to muscle loss or an inability to gain muscle. This is considered catabolic physiology, as opposed to anabolic (building).
- Sex hormones – An imbalance of sex hormones like Testosterone, DHEA, Estrogen, and Progesterone in a stress response and adrenal fatigue.
- Inflammation – Cortisone (a product of cortisol) is considered anti-inflammatory (much like when one would get a cortisone shot). But when the adrenals are exhausted and cortisol is low, inflammation can go unchecked.
- Immune function – A chronic stress state has been tied to a weaker immune response, especially in the gut. Secretory IgA, one of the first lines of defense in the gut, has been shown to decrease with chronic stress, which can lead to a whole host of chronic stress effects.
What are the main drivers of adrenal fatigue?
The first and foremost cause of adrenal fatigue is emotional stress. In America today, it seems almost everyone is constantly bombarded with stressors and stimuli, all that keep our brain and nervous system from diving into our rest and repair state. I ask all of my patients about their stress levels, and the majority tell me that they have very little stress in their lives. When we dissect further their daily and weekly lives, we see that most people have no clue how hard they are pushing their bodies. The biggest emotional stressors are usually:
- loss of a loved one
- an end of a relationship
- switching jobs
- and having children.
While you may feel OK throughout these times, your body is working in overdrive to keep you going. If you feel exhausted, your adrenals may have already reached an adrenal crisis.
Our food supply has changed more in the past 40 years than in the previous 4,000 years. We are not eating real food anymore, we are eating food-like products. In fact, over 80% of the antibiotics in America are used on livestock that we eat and the average American will consume over a gallon of neurotoxic pesticides each year from eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.
Even with all the junk in our food, probably the biggest dietary stress on the adrenals is blood sugar imbalances. This could be from eating foods extremely high in carbohydrates or sugar, making the adrenal’s job of regulating blood sugar much harder. Also, problematic foods like gluten and dairy can have very negative effects on the entire body, including the immune system and the adrenal glands.
Inflammation can come from many places, but most importantly, the health of the gut controls most of the inflammation in the body. Making sure that there are no infections in the gut (you may be surprised how many people have a parasite or bacteria overgrowth and have very little GI symptoms) is imperative to dampen inflammation. When the bacteria are out of balance in the gut, and the immune system or digestion is altered, this leads the way for infections to proliferate such as: H. pylori, parasites like Blastocystis hominis and Cryptosporidium, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth(SIBO), or fungus like candida. All of these infections can stimulate the immune system to send out distress signals known as inflammation. Long-term inflammation is not only detrimental to the body, but drains the adrenals also.
Other sources of inflammation can come from toxins. There have been over 100,000 chemicals released into our environment since WW2, some of which have not been tested properly for safety, and none have been tested against one another to see how they react in our bodies. A robust ability to detoxify is a must in today’s world.
Tips to reset the HPA axis
Sunlight (skin and eyes)
In order to stimulate our natural circadian rhythms and balance our stress response, getting sunlight can be very important. Shoot for getting sunlight within 30 minutes of waking to stimulate your body’s natural ability to boost energy, and get sunlight throughout the day to keep this natural rhythm going. Going without sunglasses can aid the brain in this way.
We as humans have biological rhythms that have been followed for millions of years. The further we deviate from those rhythms , the sicker we can become. The sleep-wake cycle is no different. Until the advent of lighting, the majority people followed the cycle of the sun, sleeping when the sun went down and awakening when it came up. Today, we have iphones ,ipads, tv’s, lights, and many other distractions to keep us awake at night. Studies show that those who work night shifts are at increased risk of dying early, and even from cancer.
Make sleep a priority, try to be in bed and get up at the same time each night; even on the weekends. Different people need differing amounts of sleep, but the magic number seems to be between 7 and 9 hours per night.
Diet (blood sugar, salt)
One of the biggest stresses for the adrenal glands is blood sugar imbalance. We in America, eat entirely too many carbohydrates and sugars. When this happens, we are predisposed to blood sugar crashes, relying on our adrenals to balance the blood sugar. Eating a low-glycemic diet with little simple carbohydrates like candy, cookies, crackers, chips, and pizza will not only decrease inflammation and heal the gut, but it can also take pressure off of your already overworked adrenal glands. Incorporating green leafy and non-starchy vegetables with good quality meats is a great step towards healing. Also adding in minerals in the form of Himalayan or Celtic Sea Salt can be powerful.
In just a few minutes a day, meditation can increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor(BDNF) which is protection for the brain, lowers cortisol secretion, decreases inflammation, increases gray matter and nerve growth in the brain, and decreases blood pressure. This makes meditation an ideal stress management tool. There are many forms of meditation, but one that I do personally Is called Transcendental Meditation, or TM. This powerful form of meditation has changed thousands of lives, including my own.
Exercise right for your body
If you have some of the symptoms we have talked about, you may want to rethink your workout routine. Exercise can be wonderful for the body, but it is a stress on the body. If you are overwhelmed with adrenal fatigue, chances are that an intense exercise can do more harm than good. A good rule of thumb is this: if you feel overly tired after your workout, you have done too much, a workout should leave you feeling energized! You can limit your exercise time or intensity while healing your adrenal glands.
Support with supplementation
Pregnenolone and DHEA- these hormones are made in our body with the help of the adrenals glands (along with other organs). Small, precise doses of these critical hormones can be crucial in the healing of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), which simply means brain to adrenal connection. (I would refrain from using these without laboratory testing and a physician)
Vitamin C- Vitamin C is used up by the adrenal glands more than any others organ in the body. Fueling the adrenal with Vitamin C can help to revitalize and restore.
B Vitamins- B Vitamins are critical for many processes in the body, and the adrenal glands need these vitamins to function properly. In particular, B5, B6, and B12 are the major players in adrenal function.
Adaptogenic herbs- Adaptogenic herbs like Rhodiola, Licorice, Ginseng, Ashwagandha, and Eleuthero act as a thermostat for the adrenals in times of severe stress. They can be calming, and in cases of exhaustion, can be stimulating.
Chronic stress and your health
We live in a stressful world, but you don’t have to let it take a toll on your health. Implement these small changes to your life to balance hormones, dampen inflammation, and give your adrenals a rest.