Stress is a word that we are inundated with these days. It is now a normal part of our daily language and has become an influencing factor in a host of health issues. While it is largely seen as problematic, stress is not inherently a bad thing. A little stress at appropriate times can be helpful. A moderate stress response just before a big meeting, an athletic event, an exam or a job interview can help us to focus and perform better. Problems arise when our stress response happens at inappropriate times, occurs in excess amounts, or for some of us…. never really stops! This is chronic stress and it is a major contributor to human illness.
The good news is that there are some simple things we can do to prevent and correct stress-related illness, adrenal fatigue and burnout.
But first, let’s take a closer look at what stress actually is…
To suggest that treating the adrenal glands alone in times of stress would be an oversimplification. Our stress response is non-specific and involves all systems of the body in one way or another. The term ‘non-specific’ refers to 2 aspects:
First, stress can result from a variety of different kinds of stressors:
Biological: Bacteria, viruses, molds, parasites
Chemical: Exposure to toxins, pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, household cleaners, dust, tobacco, synthetic drugs
Environmental: Exposure to extreme cold or heat, noise, ultraviolet light, EMFs, radiation, changes in altitude, xenoestrogens
Nutritional: Caused by food allergies, refined and highly processed foods, nutritional deficiencies, alcohol, drugs, free radicals
Physical: Hypertension, strenuous physical activity, surgery, trauma, lack of oxygen, intoxication, sleep deprivation, illness, pregnancy, chronic overstimulation
Psychological: Depression, anger, fear, anxiety, grief, mental illness, major change and overwhelming responsibility
Spiritual: Caused by a sense of the loss of the meaning in one’s life, soul sickness (Winston, 2007)
Secondly, when stress manifests as disease, it does not affect the body in a specific way. It can cause problems in every bodily system, and is therefore linked to several diseases. Some examples of stress-related illness are:
Breathing problems, rapid breathing or hyperventilation particularly for those with asthma or lung disease such as COPD
Increased heart rate and blood pressure
Arterial inflammation, which can lead to heart disease and heart attack
Adrenal insufficiency, fatigue
Elevated blood sugar, which over time can manifest as diabetes
Digestive disorders such acid reflux, ulcers, IBS, IBD
Nervous system fatigue
Lowered fertility, erectile dysfunction
Absent or irregular menstruation, PMS, lowered libido, intensified menopausal symptoms
Anxiety and depression
Headaches, migraines, insomnia
Liver damage (American Psychological Assn; Winston, 2007)
As you can see, stress has wide-ranging implications in the body. Ideally, treatment should be tailored to meet the needs of the individual, but one thing that is common in all cases, is a need to support adrenal function. However, before discussing coping strategies for the adrenal glands, it is important to understand what happens in the body in greater detail.
Let’s dive in…
What is Stress?
In 1936, Hans Selye (a Hungarian born Canadian endocrinologist - considered to be the Father of Stress Research) developed a three-stage description of the human stress response called the General Adaptation Syndrome. This model was the first to recognize stress as a major cause of disease, as Dr. Selye’s research uncovered the long-term chemical changes in the body that occur with chronic stress. He also determined that humans have an innate adaptive energy to manage stress, but this reserve declines with continuous exposure to stressors. (Winston, 2007). Let’s take a closer look at this model.
General Adaptation Syndrome
1. Alarm Phase – This is the immediate reaction to a stressor; the recognition of danger.
Fear is in fact, the strongest activator of our stress response (Hechtman, 2011). This response is essential for preparing the body to deal with danger, the so-called “Fight or Flight” response. Imagine you are camping in the woods and you are confronted by a bear. You are now faced with the decision, do you run, or do you fight? The body responds by producing hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) to mobilize energy: heart rate and blood pressure increase, stored glucose is made available for energy, and blood is pumped to the skeletal muscle, lungs, and eyes. At the same time, resources are directed away from ‘non-essential’ systems, like our digestive and immune systems.
2. Resistance Phase – A few things can happen here:
1) The stressor remains. This would be the ongoing act of fighting or running away from the bear. 2) The perception of a stressor remains. Perhaps you were successful in scaring away the bear. You are no longer in immediate danger, but now you are aware that your tent is set up in bear territory and you remain on high alert.
This is the realm of chronic stress. As we go through our day worrying about work, finances, our kids, etc., we are actually living in the resistance phase. We are not in danger at the moment, yet through our perception of possible danger in the future, we have the same physiological reaction.
In the resistance phase, the body adapts to resist the stress and attempts to deal with the stressor. Resistance remains as long as the stressor (be it actual or imagined) is present. If the body learns to cope efficiently with the stressor, the stress may be resolved and the body returns to its normal resting state of homeostasis. If not, this continued state of arousal and prolonged elevation of hormone levels may upset homeostasis and harm organs and tissues, leaving the body vulnerable to disease.
3. Exhaustion Phase – In this final phase, stress has continued for some time.
The body’s energy supply is depleted and it has lost the ability to adapt to stress. We no longer have the capacity to adequately handle and recover from stress. This exhaustion causes adverse effects to the body and leaves us susceptible to disease.
What are the Adrenals?
Now let’s take a look at the primary structure that handles the stress response, the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are yellow, pyramid-shaped glands which sit on top of the kidneys. Structurally, they are divided into 2 sections: the outer Adrenal Cortex and the inner Adrenal Medulla. The Cortex produces more than 2 dozen steroid hormones called corticosteroids, the most important of which in this context, is cortisol. The Medulla produces the hormones, adrenaline and nor-adrenaline (roughly 80% / 20% respectively).
Adrenaline/Noradrenaline alert and mobilize resources for immediate physical activity. These are the hormones responsible for increased heart rate, focused attention and the energy surge required to run from the bear.
Cortisol has a much slower response than adrenaline. It acts to counter some of the intense effects of adrenaline, but is also supportive of it in some ways. Cortisol helps to provide more glucose from protein and fat breakdown, dampens the inflammatory response and elevates the pain threshold. (Hechtman, 2013)
Adrenal fatigue occurs when the glands cannot adequately meet the demands of chronic stress. Overstimulation of the adrenals can be caused by a very intense single stress, or by chronic or repeated stresses that have a cumulative effect. With each increment of reduction in adrenal function, every organ and system in the body is more profoundly affected. (Winston, 2007)
People with adrenal fatigue feel exhausted and often turn to sugar, caffeine or extra food to create energy. Symptoms include fatigue, body aches, low blood pressure, difficulty getting up in the morning, salt cravings (not enough aldosterone), frequent colds, and depression.
The HPA Axis and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
As a final note, it is important to understand that stress is managed by 2 different systems: the HPA Axis and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). In the HPA axis, The Hypothalamus is the part of the brain that coordinates the activities of the nervous and endocrine systems. The Pituitary gland, when stimulated by the hypothalamus, releases hormones, which tell the adrenal glands to release (or stop releasing) adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. The “A” of HPA refers to the adrenals. This system is known as a feedback loop and all 3 structures receive and give information to one another: Hypothalamus --> Pituitary --> Adrenals --> Hypothalamus.
The Hypothalamus also has a direct connection to adrenal activity through the sympathetic nervous system. In practical terms, in order to achieve healthy adrenal function, it is valuable to support proper nervous system function, as well. (Martini, 2006)
Now that we have a thorough understanding of stress and how we respond to it, the question remains… What can we do about it?
Click here to read Part 2: Herbs and Other Self Care Strategies.
1) Winston, D; Maimes, S. Adatpogens,: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief. Rochester: Healing Arts Press; 2007.
2) American Psychological Association. Stress Effects on the Body. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
3) Hechtman, L. Clinical Naturopathic Medicine: Australia. Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier; 2011.
4) Martini, F. Fundamentals of Anatomy & Physiology, Seventh Edition. San Francisco: Pearson Education Inc (Benjamin Cummings); 2006.