Stress, a Friend or Foe?
Are you easily overwhelmed or irritated by people or tasks that were once a breeze?
Have you gained weight around your mid-section for no apparent reason?
Do you have difficulty falling or staying asleep?
Are you lacking energy in the morning or by the middle of the afternoon?
Are you relying on caffeine to make it through your day?
If you identify with one or more of these statements, your body’s ability to adapt to stress may be compromised, which can lead to Adrenal Dysfunction (an inappropriate cortisol and stress response that can negatively impact your health).
I have recently realized that despite working on Adrenal Dysfunction with my patients for over 10 years, I have never written a Newsletter on this subject and with our increasingly stressful lives, I felt it was time to address this with all of you.
Let’s face it, everyone experiences stress, in fact we have a build in system to work with incoming stress and its part of a normal physiological process. However, when one experiences chronically high stress (as a typical “good American” has been trained to do) it can be detrimental to one’s physical and mental health. The most common source of chronic stress comes from mental stress, where someone has an inappropriate perception and tolerance to situations. This stress can be from a one-time traumatic event, or it can be cumulative stress which can lead to anxiety, irritability and even fear. Other sources of body stress can be due to a diet high in refined sugars, nutrient-depleted foods, excessive amounts of caffeine, alcohol, inflammatory foods, infections, toxins, gut dysfunction, excessive exercise and poor sleep quality.
Our bodies are designed to respond to short bursts of stress, followed by long periods of rest and relaxation (think being chased by a Woolly Mammoth and then relaxing, but only after you shake out the stress response, by sitting under a beautiful oak tree to take a rest for the day). Yet in today’s world, instead of being able to relax by a beautiful tree in a quiet place, many people have to drive in noisy traffic with car fumes, finish a project deadline, pick the kids up from school, cook a nutrient dense but tasty meal, clean the house, find time to exercise and then rush off to bed. And you are curious why you cannot sleep? With stress in our society being at an all-time high, we are also seeing many disease processes associated with stress and it is actually one of the top six causes of death.
Your Stress Response system is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This system is excellent at responding to “fight or flight” when being chased by that Woolly Mammoth. You have a signal from the brain that says “run” or “fight” and your brain tells your Adrenal Glands, which sit atop each kidney, to release Epinephrine (Adrenalin), Norepinephrine (Noradrenalin), Cortisol, Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and Pregnenolone. A short-term release of cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream prepares the body for the quick response to the danger. This release causes heightened awareness, increased blood sugar, rapid pulse, increased blood pressure, decreased immune defenses, decreased digestion, breakdown of bone to release calcium, and breakdown in muscle. However, chronic stress causes a continuous release of these hormones which can damage the body, shrink the adrenal glands and ultimately affect the output of these critical hormones.
The Adrenals also have a built-in system to balance this cortisol output by making DHEA. DHEA is your body’s anti-cortisol hormones where it’s a stress-buffering mechanism. DHEA binds directly to receptors in the brain to promote a sense of relaxation and decreased pain. It also supports insulin sensitivity, maintains tissue strength and repair, boosts immune function and promotes a sense of well-being. Therefore if you are utilizing too much cortisol and this balance gets off, your body pays the price, as well as the brain and your mood!
Serotonin and gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) are inhibitory neurotransmitters/chemicals in the brain that balance the excitatory chemicals of epi and norepinephrine. So, if you are in the fight-or-flight state, you are making too much of the excitatory and not enough inhibitory chemicals which can drive up your anxiety, irritability and fear.
Isn’t the Body Amazing?! Our body has an innate ability to create homeostasis, if only we would allow it to work optimally!
There are Three Stages of HPA Dysfunction
Stage 1: Alarm Phase (excessive cortisol output) there is inadequate signaling within the HPA axis to shut-off the excessive cortisol production. If left unchecked this can affect other systems in the body and causes weight gain, insulin resistance, blood sugar fluctuations, loss of sleep and a weakened immune response.
Stage 2:Resistance Phase (high and low cortisol output) there is an inadequate diurnal rhythm of cortisol so you may have high cortisol at night and low cortisol in the morning. Symptoms could be getting wired before bed with difficulty sleeping and then exhausted in the morning.
Stage 3: Exhaustion Phase (hypo cortisol output- and some call this “Adrenal Fatigue”) there is a depletion of cortisol and DHEA levels. In this stage people may feel extreme fatigue, severe insomnia, depression, hormonal imbalances, decreased ability to fight inflammation and infections.
NOTE-the definition “Adrenal Fatigue” is not considered a medical diagnosis and instead is typically diagnosed as Adrenocortical Insufficiency.
When assessing adrenal function (best done doing a 4- or 5-point salivary test on one day) we can figure out what stage someone is in, however getting to the root causeis key to figuring out how to correct the imbalance. I have already described the major factors that can trigger a stress response, however it is critical to pay attention to all areas when truly addressing one’s adrenal dysfunction.
Lifestyle and stress management
Working on your lifestyle modifications in managing your incoming stress is key and foundational in addressing dysfunction. I think I discuss “stress reduction” at every newsletter opportunity, which includes; laugh often, stop procrastinating, learn to say no, practice self- care, massages, acupuncture, Tai Chi, daily meditation, take 10 deep breathes every hour throughout your day, spend time in nature, keep a gratitude journal, mild to moderate exercise (depends on severity of the dysfunction), practice good sleep hygiene, to name a few.
Balance Blood Sugar
When you eat foods high in refined carbohydrates and sugars, you trigger insulin production from your pancreas. This overproduction causes a rapid drop in blood glucose which triggers a release of cortisol to stimulate the cells to produce more glucose. This will then not only create a vicious cycle of glucose, insulin and cortisol imbalances and drive up cell “resistance” but it will also cause you to store glucose in the belly “hello muffin top here we come!” Conversely if you skip meals, like breakfast or if you under eat, your body will drive this same process and you can also gain weight in your belly.
Ways to create a better balances is to eat breakfast, consume healthy high-fiber and high-protein foods, healthy snacks throughout the day, never eat a carbohydrate without a fat and protein, eat healthy mono-saturated fats and high amounts of Omega 3’s.
If this cycle has been going on for years, you may need additional nutrient support to help with insulin resistance and to balance your blood sugar. (see below for specials on these nutrients).
*My last newsletter was on the benefits of “fasting” however certain people may do poorly with fasting if you are in an adrenal dysfunctional cycle. You would know this if you have dizziness or brain fog between meals, cravings for refined carbohydrates, or consume high amounts of coffee to get through the day.
Reduce the consumption of inflammatory foods such as; refined sugars and carbohydrates, gluten, corn, dairy, soy, caffeine, alcohol, processed meats, fried foods and high fructose corn syrup
Increase your Omega 3 fatty acid intake or supplement
Support your gut microbiome with a professional strength probiotic
Maintain healthy Vitamin D levels
Eat high amounts of raw nutrient dense, colorful foods
Maintain a healthy body weight (and of course working on the glucose control and reducing stress can help with this)
Avoid toxic exposure from environmental chemicals and pollutants. EWG.org
My goal is to help you gain awareness of how stressors can cause dysfunction in your body and how you can take control to change this and live a more balanced, restored life!
May you feel healthy, youthful and energetic again!
I strongly recommend Dr. James L. Wilson’s Book “Adrenal Fatigue: The 21stCentury Stress Syndrome
Dr. Wilson has been one of my professors teaching me for over 10 years, as well as other clinicians around the world about Adrenal Stress and Dysfunction. He has an insightful quiz you can take online to assess where you are in the stress response.
Some of these questions may help you gain awareness on how the physical body can inappropriately respond to stress.
(do I put this in here? He also has this reference once people take the quiz?)
If you score <40- unlikely Adrenal Fatigue
If you score 49-92 you have mild symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
If you score 93-136 you have moderate symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
If you score >136 you have severe symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
I also like his information on dietary changes, Dr. Wilson’s Guide to De-stressing etc.
Chuck Hyde (my massage therapist) has vibrational boards and light classes to help your nervous system relax and to promote a deeper sense of peace.
Dr. Joe Dispenza's book on the science of meditation and how it can change your brain and your life in magical ways