Prolonged stress seriously affects our adrenal glands and our bodies. To fully appreciate the dangers lets first take a look at what stress is, how our stress system works and the negative affects high stress produces on the body.
What is Stress?
Stress can be mental, emotional, spiritual or physical, caused by just about anything: injury, illness, infections, environmental, social, work, family, financial, traffic, crowds, life events, lack of sleep and time, poor diet or trauma. Some stress, of course, is necessary and even beneficial. However, adrenal fatigue occurs when chronic stress exceeds the body’s ability to adjust to it and cope with the demands it’s placed on the body.
Our Stress Management System - The Adrenal Glands
The primary purpose of our 2 adrenal glands (located on top of our kidneys near our lower back) is to help us cope with chronic stress and maintain homeostasis. Our energy, endurance, performance, vitality and resilience to life’s stresses all depend on their proper functioning.
The adrenal glands secrete 10 key ‘steroid’ hormones all derived from cholesterol. They work interactively with the brain (hypothalamus and pituitary gland) except for mineralocorticoids, which are produced via the kidneys.
- Glucocorticoids: Cortisone, but predominantly Cortisol, which is responsible for how we respond to stress and metabolism regulation (with the thyroid gland). Cortisol converts fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into energy, regulates blood sugar, insulin levels, cardiovascular function, supports the immune system and is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent.
- Mineralocorticoids: Aldosterone helps maintain the body’s salt and water levels, to regulate blood pressure, hydration and electrolyte balance.
- Adrenal androgens: predominantly sex hormones DHEA and testosterone plus estrogen and progesterone to a lesser degree (this changes in menopause when the adrenals become the primary source of sex hormone production taking over from the ovaries).
- Catecholamines: adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine (small amounts) all help us deal with acute stress. Adrenaline increases the heart’s rate and force of contractions, facilitates blood flow to the muscles and brain, causes smooth muscle relaxation and helps convert more glucose for increased Noradrenaline causes vasoconstriction to maintain and increase blood pressure.
How Stress Depletes the Adrenals
When people experience intense or prolonged stress, the relentless pressure overburdens the adrenal glands, causing dysfunction. The adrenal glands need downtime with no stress to recover properly (i.e. rest, proper nutrients, relaxation, sleep). However our busy, modern lives, makes it hard for us to rest or have adequate downtime.
The level of adrenal dysfunction or fatigue depends on the intensity and duration of the stress, and also peoples’ varying ability to handle stress given different coping mechanisms and supports. Usually adrenal fatigue creeps up gradually through constantly repeated life’s stresses. Sometimes though, it can be bought on suddenly by a serious, traumatic life event that is so severe it wipes out the adrenal glands ability to function.
This chronic, long term stress causes our adrenals to pump out more and more cortisol until we eventually become resistant to its effects. Even when the initial stress has ended, your adrenal glands may have now adapted (in as little as three weeks) such that they continue to excrete excessive amounts of unneeded cortisol. Eventually our adrenals cannot meet our increasing demand for cortisol, depleting cortisol and producing adrenal fatigue.
Physiological Effects of High Cortisol
Too little cortisol is associated with an overactive immune system (i.e. allergies, food allergies or intolerances, asthma) and autoimmune disease. As a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, low cortisol levels have serious implications for systematic inflammation, known to be involved in many disease processes including conditions like arthritis.
Excess cortisol weakens the immune system and leads to increased blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, diabetes, weight gain (especially around the middle), obesity, cardiovascular disease (heart ; high blood pressure), insomnia, anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders and dementia.
High cortisol can interfere with androgen sex hormone production affecting normal ovulation, menstrual cycles, sex drive and erectile dysfunction.
When we are under stress digestion and absorption of nutrients are compromised, indigestion develops, and the mucosal lining becomes irritated and inflamed, leading to ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, dysbiosis and leaky gut. Reduced nutrient absorption may produce nutritional deficiencies further worsening fatigue and the body’s ability to function optimally.
You cannot live without your adrenal glands and how well they function can determine your quality of life – energy, mood and wellbeing.
Stay tuned I will be posting more information to help you understand all about these tiny but vitally important glands.