Physiology 101: The Stress Response
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. But a lot of us live in crisis all the time. We’re in this constant cycle of “I have to get this done or I’ll lose my job!” or “I have to get the kids to school, and then I have to clean the house, and why is everything dirty, and I have to cook, and go to the grocery and…” or “I don’t have time for this, get the *$%^& out of my way!”
(Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. I know you do.)
Stages of Adrenal Fatigue
So at first, 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. These people tend to keep themselves going by drinking massive amounts of caffeine (which indirectly stimulates release of adrenaline – this is essentially like whipping a wounded horse so he’ll work harder… and yes, that’s mean, so don’t do that to yourself.) They feel better at first, due to the release of adrenaline, but without the corresponding cortisol to counterbalance it, they crash afterwards (usually with hypoglycemia and sugar cravings) and need more stimulants to keep going.
Lack of sufficient cortisol (which, remember, is anti-inflammatory) also leaves you much more susceptible to allergies, both food and environmental. And it means you don’t have enough energy reserves left over to do things like repair tissues, or help your organs of elimination to do their jobs. This can lead to poor wound healing, and chemical sensitivity, too.
Stress and Blood Pressure
Your adrenals also produce a hormone called aldosterone. Aldosterone causes the kidneys to reabsorb sodium and secrete potassium, and water always follows sodium, which means your blood volume increases, which means your blood pressure increases.
Too much chronic stress leads to overworked adrenals in general – so both the adrenaline and the aldosterone output can lead to hypertension.
But in the later stages, it’s more common to see low blood pressure with adrenal fatigue. That’s because they’re not pumping out enough aldosterone either. These people will feel the room go dark when they stand up too quickly, and it’ll take a second for their vision to catch up to their heads.
Stress and Sex Hormones
Your adrenals also produce a hormone called DHEA. This is the precursor for both the estrogens (estrone, estradiol, and estriol) and testosterone. It’s a secondary source of estrogens for women (at least until menopause) and a primary source of testosterone for women. Likewise, DHEA is a secondary source of testosterone for men and a primary source of estrogen.
This is one reason why women who have been under a lot of stress in their pre-menopausal years have such a hard time in menopause: their adrenals are toast. They can’t compensate. Menstruating women with adrenal fatigue will also have a lot of trouble with PMS, because at menses, sex hormones drop (that’s what causes the shedding of the uterine lining). If you don’t have enough DHEA to compensate for this, you’ll probably have a lot of issues with PMS, too.
DHEA also counterbalances cortisol. While cortisol suppresses the immune system, thins the skin, and breaks down bone, DHEA bolsters and builds up all of these, encouraging tissue repair. (Testosterone is considered “anti-aging” for a reason.) While cortisol suppresses the thyroid, DHEA also revs up metabolism. So hypothyroidism secondary to adrenal fatigue will improve as cortisol drops and DHEA increases.
Treatment for Adrenal Fatigue
If this is you, probably the first step is to get some “first-aid” adrenal support (these can be botanicals or high-dose vitamin C and B vitamins, which are necessary for the production of adrenal hormones) to help you get some initial support.
Next, you need to identify where the stress is coming from. Some stress is self-inflicted or can be otherwise mitigated, but some you can’t do much about and you just have to survive it. Hopefully this will only last for a season… if it’s a long-term problem, it might be time to take a good hard look at your priorities.
I frequently see adrenal fatigued patients come in with a host of allergies, environmental sensitivities, recurrent infections, and hypothyroidism… and all of these will need to be addressed directly, as well.
Rebuilding your adrenal glands to the point where they can function on their own (without all the support) requires glandular “building blocks.” My favorite products that I’ve only recently discovered are glandular extracts that contain no actual hormone, which means there’s no suppression of natural production that occurs as a result of taking them. Length of treatment depends on your genetics, the length of time you’ve been chronically stressed out, and whether or not the sources of stress have been removed.
If all of this doesn’t describe you, then I guarantee it describes someone you love. Share this article!