allergiesThe Stress Response 101

Your adrenals are these two pyramid-shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys.  They’ve got several jobs, but the biggest is to help your body cope with stress.  Here’s how they do that.

You get attacked by a bear (or whatever).  Without sparing the critical seconds necessary to talk to your Central Nervous System (CNS), the core of your adrenals flood your body with adrenaline directly – it’s an automatic response.  This makes your heart race, your bronchioles dilate, and provides your muscles with immediate blood flow (oxygen and glucose for energy) to get away quickly or fight, if it comes to that.  The adrenaline also overrides this little “gatekeeper” in your muscles called the golgi tendon organ. Its job is to prevent over-strain on the muscles.  If you’re fighting for your life, that’s not important, though – and this is the reason why a flood of adrenaline can allow people to perform superhuman feats, like a mother lifting a car off of her baby and that sort of thing.

After you’ve either killed or gotten away from the bear, the outside of your adrenals produces another hormone called cortisol.  Due to the rush of adrenaline, you’ve just consumed massive sugar reserves (so now you’re probably shaky and hypoglycemic), your blood pressure and heart rate are really high, and your body has totally neglected normal life maintenance stuff like digesting your food and repairing your tissues.  Cortisol helps to restore this balance.  It encourages the breakdown of glycogen (stored glucose) and gluconeogenesis (production of new glucose from fat in the liver).  It redirects blood flow to repair tissues and digest food.  It’s basically the natural steroid of your body (the equivalent of prednisone, though not nearly as strong), so it’s an anti-inflammatory as well and also an immune suppressant.  (You shouldn’t spare the energy to fight off a cold when you’re busy running from a bear.  Survival is a little more important.)

This system is only designed to be activated in extreme crisis, though. 

Prolonged Stress = Adrenal Fatigue 

In an initial stressful period, your adrenals compensate for the massive adrenaline onslaught by pumping out a matching amount of cortisol to counterbalance it.  This means you get a combination of symptoms of too much adrenaline (high blood pressure, emotional volatility and irritability), and too much cortisol (high blood sugar, tending toward metabolic syndrome and diabetes, weight gain especially in the trunk area, recurrent infections — since your immune system is suppressed, and insomnia).  Too much cortisol also inhibits the conversion of inactive to active thyroid hormone, which can lead to hypothyroidism.

After this process goes on for awhile though – and how long depends on the person –  your adrenals become toast. They can’t keep up with the demand for either adrenaline or cortisol, at which point you feel apathetic and all you want to do is stare at the wall. 

This is where allergies come into play. Most allergens (see below) stimulate the release of inflammatory substances like histamine. Lack of sufficient cortisol (which, remember, is anti-inflammatory) means you can’t naturally suppress these reactions. So while you may always have had a sensitivity to a particular substance (food or environmental), it’s not until your body loses its ability to manufacture enough of the naturally anti-inflammatory cortisol that you start to notice them. 

The same is true of chemical sensitivities. The exact mechanism by which fat-soluble toxins can affect our bodies is not known, but some experts suggest that the mechanism is very similar to an allergic immune response. 

This makes sense, based on the definition of an allergy. 

Allergies and the Immune System

There are two parts to your immune system, called “non-specific” (this responds right away to toxic exposure, bee stings, trauma, etc) and “specific” (which takes some time, but is more targeted against specific invaders).  Think of non-specific immunity like a sledge hammer, while specific immunity is more like a scalpel.  The sledge hammer is quick and dirty, and (as you might imagine) will cause a lot of inflammation even in surrounding healthy tissues.  The scalpel, on the other hand, won’t cause as much collateral damage, but it will have to be very carefully directed in order to do any good.

Because your specific immune system (the scalpel) needs careful direction, two kinds of cells are necessary: the T and B cells.

If I can mix my metaphors, think of the T cells as the managers and the B cells as the worker bees (no pun intended) – that is, the B cells actually produce antibodies against specific invaders, while the T cells tell the B cells what to do.

Now there are three types of substances (called antigens) that have the potential to provoke your specific immune system to make antibodies against them.  There are soluble antigens (these come from your diet and your environment), insoluble antigens (these come from microbes and pathogens), and self antigens (these come from your own cells).

Reactions against soluble antigens are called allergies (and most toxins are environmental and, indeed, fat-soluble). Reactions against self antigens are called autoimmune diseases. and reactions against insoluble antigens is normal immune function.

Back to the sledgehammer analogy (non-specific immunity): in the case of both autoimmune and allergic patients, although it’s the specific immunity that’s gone awry (the scalpel is targeting the wrong things), the sledgehammer tries to pick up the slack.  As a result, there’s always a lot of inflammation going on in these patients too. Patients who are chemically sensitive describe many of the same reactions as do patients with traditional allergies, including headaches, sneezing, coughing, asthma, and sometimes nausea. 

The Bottom Line

If you’re super stressed, you’re likely to also have more allergies and/or chemical sensitivity than you used to. But it’s a catch-22: if you have allergies and chemical sensitivity, you’ve got inflammation. Inflammation stresses your adrenals, forcing them to produce more cortisol to counterbalance it. So even if you don’t have adrenal fatigue to begin with, the longer you struggle with allergies and/or chemical sensitivity, the more likely you are to develop adrenal fatigue as a result. 

So what do you do? 

  1. Deal with your energy drainers
  2. Get evaluated for adrenal fatigue
  3. Once you do the first two, you may or may not also have to deal with food allergies, environmental allergies, and/or toxic buildup.

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