Stress and the Hormonal Systems
There are three main sources of stress that can overload the body.
Any combination of these stressors if left unchecked will have a cumulative effect, causing dis-ease or imbalance within the human body. Stress can make us more susceptible to chronic pain, allergies, infections, inflammation, and toxicity.
Both chronic and acute stress can cause fatigue of the adrenal glands. This is because the adrenal glands is where cortisol is produced and cortisol is the main hormone that helps us with adapting to stress and inflammation.
Below is a list of the top ten emotional stressors that contribute to adrenal exhaustion. How many of these have you experienced in the past year? Thinking back to your childhood: How many have you experienced throughout the course of your lifetime?
- Death of a loved one
- Divorce or end of relationship
- Relationship difficulties, frequent arguments
- Change in residence
- Overwork, or termination of employment
- Addition to family
- Outstanding personal achievement (graduation, promotion)
- Financial stress (mortgage, loans)
- Personal injury or illness
Poor lifestyle choices also take a toll on your health. Do you engage in any of the below habits?
- Frequent skipped meals
- Regular consumption of refined sugar (processed foods, sweets, candy, sodas)
- Need caffeine (coffee, colas) to get going
- Regular Alcohol consumption
- Too much or too little exercise
- Poor sleep habits
Pain is the most obvious response from the body that something is out of balance. But you may also be experiencing chronic inflammation as a result of poor diet or undetected infection.
When your adrenal glands have been functioning in overdrive for a period of time due to poor lifestyle habits or unchecked stress, other body systems begin to suffer as a result of the imbalance.
Adrenal Fatigue is a very common condition in our modern, fast paced society. Diet, Lifestyle and a combination of different stressors are the cause of this condition. These conditions are found to be the root cause of many different health dysfunctions and are widespread throughout society, from athletes to businessmen, housewives and even students.
As you experience these external symptoms, profound physiological changes are taking place inside your body. The most commonly experienced symptoms of adrenal fatigue include:
- Weakened immune response
- Recurrent Colds and Infections
- Excessive fatigue including joint or muscle pain
- Neck or back pain
- Digestive difficulties: constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, indigestion
- Inability to lose weight
- Chemical sensitivity
- Hair Loss
- Decreased sex drive
- Poor immune response (frequent illness)
- Sweet Cravings
- Headaches (including migraines)
- Lightheadedness or dizzyness
- Lack of concentration
- Unexplained nervousness or irritability
- Food Allergies
- Poor Memory
- Sensitivity to cold temperatures
- Chronic Low Blood Pressure
A very high percentage of individuals respond quickly to wellness programs when they follow the lifestyle modifications closely.
Adrenal stress can also be caused by internal organ dysfunction such as poor digestion or inadequate detoxification ability. When the sum total of all your stresses reaches a critical threshold, the adrenals react in a predicable pattern.
Adrenal Lab Testing:
The “Functional Adrenal Stress Profile” is a lab test that uses 4 saliva samples to detect adrenal stress markers which are out of balance. This imbalance is generally caused by lifestyle issues such as working long hours, poor eating habits, lack of exercise or lack of rest.
Three Stages of Burnout
Stage 1 – Stress Overload:
Whatever the source of stress, your body’s initial reaction is the same: the adrenal glands make more of the stress hormones cortisol and DHEA . This first stage of hormonal maladaptation is called hyperadrenia, or overactivity of the adrenal glands.
Normally, when the stress dissipates, the glands have time to recondition and prepare for the next stressful event. However, if your stress levels remain high, your body will remain locked in this first stage of adrenal stress.
If your stress hormone levels remain elevated for extended periods of time, your body’s ability to recover can be reduced and the ability of your adrenals to make cortisol and DHEA can be compromised.
Another way to look at this is to think of your adrenal reserve as a savings account. If you continually withdraw money from savings and don’t replace it, you are eventually unable to recover financially. Fatigue and other adrenal symptoms are signs that your body’s reserve has been overdrawn and your adrenals are becoming exhausted.
If the stress continues, the high levels of cortisol and DHEA begin to drop. As the high levels of these hormones can no longer be sustained, a person enters into stage two of adrenal exhaustion.
Stage 2 – Fatigue
Eventually, if we continue to experience excess stress, we enter into stage two of adrenal exhaustion. This transition period usually lasts between six and eighteen months during which the stress response of the adrenal glands is gradually compromised.
Some individuals have genetically strong adrenal glands and can maintain health under high levels of stress for many years. Others may enter into stage two more quickly.
Under chronic stress conditions the adrenals eventually “burn out.” At this point the glands become fatigued and can no longer sustain an adequate response to stress. This condition ultimately leads to stage three or hypoadrenalism.
Stage 3 – Exhaustion
In stage three of adrenal maladaptation the glands have been depleted of their ability to produce cortisol and DHEA in sufficient amounts and now it becomes more and more difficult for the body to recover.
Constant fatigue and low-level depression can appear in otherwise emotionally healthy people because cortisol and DHEA help maintain mood, emotional stability and energy levels.
As cortisol and DHEA levels are depressed, people experience depressed mental function. Brain function suffers as these hormones are depleted. Both poor memory and mental confusion can be a direct result of adrenal hormone depletion.
The Female Hormone Connection to Adrenal Fatigue
Restoring adrenal function is a pre-requisite for maintaining female hormonal balance.
Progesterone is one of the main precursors of cortisol production.
There are two situations to consider. First, in and early progression of adrenal fatigue, cortisol levels remain elevated on a daily basis. This excessive cortisol production blocks progesterone receptors, further contributing to low progesterone and the symptoms that accompany low progestrone.
Second, when the cortisol production is compromised by an advanced stage of fatigue, the body will continually divert progesterone to the adrenal glands in an attempt to sustain cortisol production. This process could be referred to as “Progesterone Steal”
With deficient progesterone, the body begins to experience symptoms of estrogen dominance. Symptoms can include:
- Mood Swings/PMS
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Uterine Fibroids
- Heavy/Irregular Menses
- Breast Swelling and Tenderness
- Weight gain
- Water Retention
- Craving for Sweets
- Cystic Ovaries
- Anxiety or Nervousness
- Low Sex Drive
- Low Thyroid Symptoms
- Elevated Triglycerides
- Spotting before Period
- Fuzzy Thinking
- Muscle and Joint Pain
The adrenals account for as much as 35 percent of premenopausal hormone production and nearly 50 percent of postmenopausal hormone production. Having compromised adrenal function profoundly affects hormonal balance.
These two scenarios are the primary reasons why adrenal exhaustion leads to estrogen dominance.
Stress, Sex Hormone Production and Sex Drive
Just as cortisol and DHEA depletion impacts the female hormones progesterone and estrogen, testosterone levels in men also suffer as a result of weak adrenal output. Because sex hormone levels drop as cortisol and DHEA levels drop, sex drive diminishes in both men and women.
Bone Loss, Pain and Inflammation
When cortisol levels are abnormal due to chronic stress, bone loss can occur. This is because excessive cortisol blocks mineral absorption.
If you are taking calcium supplements to help protect you from bone loss and your cortisol is elevated, you will be unable to absorb the calcium. Calcium can then precipitate in the body and deposit in joints causing arthritis or deposit in the blood vessels increasing your risk for hardening of the arteries.
Many people experience increased neck, back and joint pain from imbalances in cortisol.
Stress and Immune Function
Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” directs the production of special immune cells called immunocytes which produce SigA, our first line immune defense. If cortisol values are abnormal the ability of immune cells to produce adequate SigA is compromised.
This is one reason we get sick so easily when we are stressed. Simply put, prolonged stress results in adrenal exhaustion and a depressed first line immune defense, opening the door for opportunistic infections.
Physiological Effects of Stress
The repair/breakdown or anabolic/catabolic dynamic is one of the most important health principles. Depending on our physical and emotional health we are at all times shifting between a repair (anabolic) or breakdown (catabolic) state.
Being in an anabolic state means you are rebuilding, repairing, literally re-constructing your body’s tissues. Being in a repair state is like renovating a house by painting, landscaping and replacing a leaky roof.
Anabolic refers to your immune system’s rebuilding processes. When you are anabolic your body is in a state of constant regeneration, repairing blood vessels and heart tissue, rebuilding old bone and even destroying cancerous cells.
The opposite process, a breakdown state, is referred to as a catabolic state. The word catabolic is from the same Greek root as the word cataclysm, meaning disaster. It is a well-chosen term since too much time spent in a catabolic state has disastrous effects on your health.
This breakdown or destruction phase occurs when your body is operating under stressful conditions and isn’t able to repair itself adequately. Under catabolic conditions we breakdown our own muscle, our own organs and our own bone. This breakdown ultimately leads to degenerative diseases.
We maintain a strong immune system when our bodies spend more time in repairing than breaking down. A healthy immune system prevents the development of many chronic degenerative diseases. For example:
- We have cancer cells that grow in us each day and it’s our immune system’s job to destroy those cells so that tumors don’t develop.
- Our blood vessels and heart require constant renewal to prevent the plaquing that causes cardiovascular disease.
- Our bodies are constantly breaking down and repairing bone and joint tissue; if this breakdown process is blocked, osteoporosis and arthritis occur.
- Prolonged immune system stress can lead the body to attack itself resulting in autoimmune diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Your health status, whether you are predominantly in a repair state or breakdown state, can be measured by a variety of lab tests. This information allows you to address chronic degenerative diseases in their earliest stages, long before a pathological condition has developed.