Conquering Stress by Renewing Your Adrenals
By Dr. Anne Zauderer
Take a moment and imagine this scene with me.
It’s a Saturday afternoon, 72 degrees outside with a slight breeze, not a cloud in the sky. It’s one of those picture-perfect days that must be enjoyed to the fullest. You have packed a picnic lunch and decided to go for a hike by yourself. You are four hours into your hike and your muscles are just starting to get a little bit sore, when suddenly you come to a clearing. Set before you is a beautiful lake with water as still and calm as glass. You walk over to the water’s edge, take a deep breath in and lean down to scoop up a refreshing splash of water. You could not imagine a more peaceful, serene moment. Your stomach starts rumbling when suddenly you hear it…SNAP! The hairs on the back of your neck stand up and your heart starts racing…
We have developed an acute sensory system. All of the sensory information that our brain has to process and integrate is geared toward our survival. We would not be here if we did not have this skill. In the scene described above, we do not know what caused the branch to snap. It could be the wind blowing, a rock falling…or it could be a bear or a mountain lion. However, before the person in that scene knew what caused the sound, a stress alarm had already been triggered. If that person did not have a stress response and continued to stand by the lake, he runs the risk of being eaten by a wild animal. This stress response is critical to our survival. We have learned that it is better to react and be wrong, than to not react and be dinner.
It’s this “priming” that our body and brain have toward stress that has made us so successful at surviving as a species. However, this mechanism of stress and our body’s physiological response to stress can be triggered so easily in the modern world resulting in us putting more and more stress on our adrenal glands.
In the modern world, we are not often faced with such acute survival situations, yet our body and brain still respond to stress in the same way. That car cutting us off in traffic still causes the same stress response that a bear would cause to our ancestors. This has been hard-wired into our neurology. However, what has changed so dramatically for us are all of the insidious stressors that we are not consciously aware of thatcause a stress response in the body. That constant stress on our adrenals causes an imbalance in our hormones and, over time, can even cause the adrenal glands to wear out leading to “adrenal fatigue.” This is where the body can’t muster a strong response and produce the stress hormones needed to function optimally. The effects of this can be systemic.
STRESS AND THE BODY
To really understand the impact of stress on the body, let’s take a few steps back and look at the mechanism of stress in the body. The adrenal glands are two tiny glands that rest on top of the kidneys. They are situated very closely to the abdominal aorta, the main artery in the torso. This puts them in a prime position on the super highway of blood circulation. This is advantageous to deliver the hormones quickly when needed.
Even though the adrenal glands are tiny, they play an important role in the production of numerous hormones, including:
1. ADRENALINE & NORADRENALINE (epinephrine & norepinephrine)—These hormones help us respond to short-term, immediate threats. They are responsible for our “fight or flight” response, where if we encountered a stressful situation we are either going to need the energy to stay and fight or we will need the energy to run away (flight). Imagine that you are getting ready to give a lecture to more than 500 people: your heart rate would increase, your palms would start sweating, and your breath would get shallower. All of these physical symptoms are caused by the release of adrenaline.
2. ALDOSTERONE—This hormone helps to regulate our electrolyte levels. Electrolytes are extremely important for maintaining fluid balance in our body as well as maintaining proper cell function. Aldosterone levels follow the same patterns as our cortisol levels. When our levels go down, such as with adrenal fatigue, the body will crave salt.
3. CORTISOl—Cortisol is one of the primary hormones that most of us associate with the adrenal glands. It has an incredibly important role in the body in regard to regulating metabolism and blood sugar. When the body is under stress, there is a higher demand for energy.Cortisol can react quickly to release stored energy that the body can use when under stress. Cortisol has other numerous effects on the body including: anti-inflammatory, regulation of white blood cells, regulation of blood pressure, contractility of the heart, and excitability in the brain (influencing behavior, mood, and memory).
4. SEX HORMONES (progesterone, DHEA)—Some people are surprised to learn that the adrenal glands are responsible for the production of some of our sex hormones. In men, the adrenal glands help produce extra testosterone (the testes are the primary source of testosterone) and most of a man’s estrogen. In women, the adrenal glands help produce extra estrogen (the ovaries are the primary source of estrogen) and most of a woman’s testosterone. This is why low adrenal function can have hormonal effects, such as: low libido, PMS symptoms, changes in a woman’s cycle, and loss of muscle mass/weight gain.
WHERE DO OUR ADRENALS GO WRONG?
If the only stress we encountered in our life was that of our ancestors, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation about adrenals “fatiguing.” However, in our modern world there are a lot of factors that cause a stress response in the body of which we are not always aware. Below is a list of lifestyle habits, emotions and illness that can cause adrenal dysfunction:
• Emotional stress: fear, negative attitude, depression, anxiety
• Food allergies/sensitivities
• Chronic infection
• Processed foods
• Excessive/lack of exercise
• Lack of sleep
• Poor eating habits
• Major surgery
• Head trauma
• Abuse of drugs
For most people it isn’t just “one thing” that causes their adrenals to fatigue, but rather the combination of multiple factors. It’s the person who is sensitive to wheat, who also has a chronic Candida infection, who drinks a pot of coffee a day, while only getting 5 hours of sleep. Sound familiar? (This was me in college!)
When our body needs to mobilize energy, the brain releases a hormone that signals the adrenals to rev up production of cortisol. However, if that signal is going off all the time, the adrenals become less sensitized to it and they don’t have the ability to produce enough cortisol to keep up. This leads to some common symptoms of adrenal fatigue:
• Difficulty getting up in the morning
• Fatigue not relieved by sleep
• Craving for salty foods
• Seems to take more energy to do everyday tasks
• Decreased sex drive
• Inability to handle stress (especially stress you could handle in the past)
• Constant anxiety and/or mild depression
• Decreased productivity
• Compulsive eating
• Hypoglycemia (blood sugar drops frequently—leading to a craving for sweets)
• Increased recovery time from illness, injury or trauma
• Feelings of being light-headed when standing/sitting up too quickly
• “Hangry”—getting angry when you are hungry
• Inability to focus, loss of memory
THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION:
WHAT DO WE DO IF WE HAVE ADRENAL FATIGUE?
Well, the obvious answer to this question is: we just need to reduce our stress levels! Right, I know, easier said than done. It’s not possible for most people to quit their job and move to a tropical island and retire. We can’t necessarily escape stress…but we can help our bodies manage it.
FIRST STEP:Remove all stressors to the body that are within our control. This means significantly reducing sugar, all processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol. Basically, if it comes in a box, it’s bad news for you. Just stay away from it. While you are at it, remove all household toxins that are within your control. This means replacing your chemical cleaners with natural brands…or better yet, you can use vinegar to clean just about anything!
SECOND STEP:Identify your stress triggers. The way our brains work, it is advantageous for us to form shortcuts in our neuro-circuitry. This means, if you were a child and your father yelled at you every time you turned your music up too loud, you might identify that loud music unconsciously triggers a stress response for you. Or if you use ice cream as a comfort food…identify this and make a new pattern of how to deal with your stress.
THIRD STEP:Find outlets for your stress and schedule time daily to partake in these activities. Some people relieve stress with exercise, yoga, meditation, or other enjoyable activities. Find what works for you and make time each day to, as Nike says, just do it!!
FINAL STEP: Replenish your adrenals. Depending on how long you have been in a state of adrenal fatigue, your adrenal glands might need some extra TLC. There are a lot of nutrients that are important in the optimal functioning of our adrenal glands, including:
• Vitamin C
• Vitamin E
• Pantothenic Acid (B5)
• Vitamin B6
• Trace Minerals (zinc, copper, chromium, manganese, selenium)
THERE ARE ALSO A NUMBER OF HERBS THAT SUPPORT THE ADRENAL GLANDS:
• Licorice Root (glycyrrhiza glabra)
• Ginseng (Eleutherococus senticosus, Panax Ginseng)
• Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
• Ginkgo biloba
The best way to know your nutrient levels is to have them tested regularly. The use of these supplements and herbs is best under the direction of a doctor.
Renewing the adrenals is a lifelong journey. There are always going to be periods of life where stress is more prominent. The key with managing stress is learning to understand what is triggering the stress response so that you can find ways to compensate for it. The world we live in does not allow us to be completely stress-free, but we do have a choice how we let it affect us.
1. Wilson, L.W. (2009) Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Petaluma, CA: Smart Publications