You may have noticed that when you’re more stressed out, you don’t recover as fast—from illnesses, from hard workouts, or from physical traumas like surgery. Here’s why.

The Stress Response

  1. Stressor occurs.
  2. The core of your adrenals flood your body with adrenaline automatically.  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.
  3. Stressor passes. 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.
  4. The outside of your adrenals produces another hormone called cortisol, which helps to correct the carnage of the adrenaline surge. Cortisol encourages the breakdown of glycogen (stored glucose) and gluconeogenesis (production of new glucose from fat in the liver).  It redirects blood flow to 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.
  5. In healthy people, both adrenaline and cortisol will go back to normal levels following an acutely stressful situation. Your body must always have a certain amount of cortisol, and it should start off highest when you wake in the morning, declining throughout the day. A too-high cortisol baseline puts you in the Early Stage Adrenal Fatigue category. A too-low cortisol baseline puts you in the Late Stage Adrenal Fatigue category. Both are problematic for immune function and healing.

Acute (Early Stage) Adrenal Fatigue

The long-term effect of an acutely stressful situation (one that’s only started in say the last few weeks to few months) is going to be high circulating cortisol, which will suppress your immune function. As anyone who has used topical corticosteroids like hydrocortisone knows, cortisol also thins the skin—and it weakens tissues in general. (This is why cortisone injections may help inflammatory pain in the short-term, but over time will weaken fascia and exacerbate the original problem.)

What this means: if you’re in a stressful period in your life, you’ll have more anti-inflammatory cortisol circulating to begin with, which increases the chances of getting sick. Then let’s say you get sick—that’s another stressor, which requires initially more adrenaline and then more cortisol. Given the amount of your baseline cortisol, you’ll have a harder time bouncing back.

Or if you’re in that same stressful period and then you have a hard workout, this too will initially spike more adrenaline and then more cortisol… but the higher cortisol “set point” from before the workout will hinder your body’s ability to recruit the necessary cytokines to heal the muscle microtears from the workout.

The very same thing applies to surgery: in itself this is a major stressor, and it requires sufficient cortisol to counteract the adrenaline spike. But if you had too much cortisol going into surgery, this will hinder your body’s healing process afterwards.

Late Stage Adrenal Fatigue

Later stages of stress occur when the adrenals are no longer able to produce enough cortisol to compensate for the adrenaline surges. This stage is usually marked by fatigue, hypoglycemia, low blood pressure, increased allergies as well as environmental and chemical sensitivities, estrogen dominance, and (ironically) poor wound healing—because your body doesn’t have enough energy (literally, enough glucose) to perform all its functions efficiently. 

The Bottom Line

When you’re chronically stressed, your body will have a harder time recovering from illness, physical exertion and trauma. You can check your adrenal function and baseline cortisol levels with a salivary cortisol test to determine the best treatment to help you bounce back from life’s stressors.

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