The Adrenal Series
Stressed? Super Stressed?
We all know someone (maybe even ourselves) who is the poster child for stress. Whether it be workplace, family, financial, etc. Stress is one of those topics that you can’t seem to shy away from. Perhaps it’s the nature of the fast paced world that we live in. One thing is certain, stress is a real threat to your health.
Stress management has become a hot topic. It makes sense, you are experiencing stress….so why shouldn’t you develop a strategy for managing it and mitigating its toll on the body. Is it really that simple though?
Stress isn’t just a mental state. It is also based on physical changes in an environment. Stress can be both good and bad. Hans Selye, a Hungarian Endocrinologist was the first to hypothesize that stress could come in a couple different forms. Eustress is characterized as good stress, while distress is characterized as negative stress. Selye hypothesized that distress resulted in General Adaptation Syndrome. This syndrome has three different stages, each with different physiologic changes.
Stage 1 – Alarm. Your body goes into the characteristic ‘fight or flight’ response. Your stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline begin coursing through the body as a result of activation of that stress response.
Stage 2 – Resistance. This occurs when the ‘rest or digest’ portion of the nervous system takes control of many of the bodily functions that would otherwise have been dimished during the initial stress response. The body is still trying to deal with the original stressor, but many of the unrelated functions of the body have normalized. While many things have returned to normal, the stress hormones are still cruising around the body. Blood pressure and heart rate still remain elevated. Your body is essentially still operating on high alert, but outwardly you appear to be normal.
Stage 3 – Exhaustion. This is what happens when your body has been under stress for so long that the resources are depleted. This is when your body becomes susceptible to diseases of stress.
Okay, so I know what you’re thinking. That was a lot of big language, and what does this have to do with the topic of the adrenal gland. Also….what is an adrenal gland?
Stick with me here. I’m going to tie it all together.
The Adrenal Gland is a little lumpy gland that sits on top of the kidney. Never heard of it? That’s okay, it’s a bit of a behind the scenes player in your body. Like a silent partner in a business venture. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t important.
The adrenal gland is a major component in your endocrine system. It is one major component of your HPA axis along with two parts of your brain, the hypothalamus, and the pituitary. That little club of glands does some major tinkering in the body to keep you alive.
The adrenal is also responsible for mediating the stress response in the body. See, I said stick with me. The various parts of the adrenal gland are responsible for producing and releasing hormones like cortisol, and adrenaline. Adrenaline helps rush blood to the parts that would be necessary for say….running away from a bear. The cortisol helps slow down your digestion, immune system, and other functions that you really don’t need while trying to outrun a bear. Cortisol also helps to balance blood sugar levels, and have a hand in controlling your immune system.
The function of the adrenal gland is not limited to mediating the stress response. It also produces your sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen), and hormones that help to control blood pressure (aldosterone). This little gland does a lot of stuff. I think you can see why you would want it to work.
The problem is, that a lot of people are constantly running on adrenaline and cortisol.
This is where the exhaustion stage of GAS comes into play. Remember that it mentioned something about depleting the resources of the body? Your adrenal gland can only produce so much of the required hormones at a time. At some point, it won’t be able to produce hormones fast enough to meet demand.
This is what we call adrenal fatigue. You might recognize some of these symptoms:
-Trouble waking up in the morning, or feeling exhausted after a full night of sleep
-Mid afternoon fatigue
There are a few more symptoms, but these are the ones that are the most common in clinical presentation.
That little lumpy gland on the top of your kidney can cause a lot of issues when it's tired. This exhaustion of the adrenal gland is a direct consequence of long standing stress issues that aren't adequately managed.
So now that I have done all the explaining, can you see why the health of such a relatively unknown little gland is so important?
Management of this issue is not simple, but it is effective if done correctly. Next week I will talk about things can you can change in your diet and lifestyle to help manage your adrenal stress level.
*I hope that this blog taught you something. This post is not designed to diagnose any condition, merely to educate you.