Everyone experiences stress to some degree. The amount of stress and ability of your body to adapt to it will determine how it affects your health and well-being.
We have 2 adrenal glands that sit atop each of our kidneys and are sometimes referred to as the “stress glands”, because they secrete stress hormones (cortisol) and neurotransmitters (adrenaline and noradrenaline). They also produce sex hormones (estrogen testosterone, etc.), electrolyte-balancing (aldosterone) hormones, and the “anti-aging” hormone DHEA.
All of these biochemicals contribute significantly to blood sugar and pressure regulation, electrolyte and fluid levels, inflammation levels, immune system response, sleeping patterns, mood changes, bone turnover rate, and more.
There are 5 main categories of stressors that the adrenals (and the rest of the body) must respond to. These include:
1) structural: any injury, compromising musculoskeletal condition, etc.
2) chemical: nutrient deficiencies or excesses, exposure to exogenous (external) or endogenous (internally produced) toxins, etc.
3) mental/emotional: fear, worry, panic, anxiety, etc.
4) thermal: extreme temperatures
5) electromagnetic radiation: cell phones and towers, computers, our environment
environmental factors like noise, etc. may also be considered stressors.
Fortunately, we can put ionizing radiation (nuclear reactor and weapon-type) aside; as it is rarely confronted.
Hans Selye, a doctor who studied the stress response extensively, reported 3 phases in which the body reacts to stress. This is known as the General Adaptation Syndrome.
Phase 1 – The Alarm Phase: this refers to the body responding via a “fight-or-flight” response. This is generally considered a normal adaptation to stress and causes the major hormones (cortisol and DHEA) to increase at normal levels. Additionally, adrenaline and noradrenaline output is increased. These hormones and neurotransmitters are designed to help the body by increasing heart rate and blood pressure; increasing the respiration rate; shunting blood away from the digestive tract to the brain and muscles instead – thus allowing the individual to “flee” from the stressful event. Think of running away from a saber-toothed tiger. That is what this system is designed to respond to. Everyday “tigers” in the “developed” world equate to every day stress responses as described above. Typically, this is a short-lived stressor and normally functioning response.
Phase 2 – The Resistance Phase: this phase is incorporated during and after prolonged bouts of stress. Cortisol tends to rise and DHEA tends to be suppressed. This stage may begin after one bout of stress that is never resolved or after the accumulation of many small day-to-day stressors. If, or when this stage begins depends on a number of individual factors.
Phase 3 – The Exhaustion Phase: this is characterized by low levels of the stress hormone cortisol and DHEA. Essentially, this occurs when a person is so drained and exhausted that they have lost most of their ability to adapt to stressors (of any kind).
Behaviors, signs, symptoms, and conditions resulting from (or being exacerbated by) stressed adrenal glands will vary individually but generally include: high or low blood pressure, blood sugar imbalances (esp. hypoglycemia), fatigue and chronic fatigue, depression, eating disorders, panic and/or anxiety attacks, infertility and male/female hormonal imbalances, sleep disorders, low back pain and neck pain, PMS and menopausal symptoms, weak/lax ligaments, irritability, osteopenia and osteoporosis, food cravings, dizziness (esp. when rising from a seated or lying position), swelling and fluid retention, dehydration, heart palpitations, fibromyalgia, thyroid disorders, fat deposition in the abdomen (or central obesity), depressed immune system, insulin resistance, sluggish digestion and/or digestive disorders, etc.. The list continues…
One major complication that results from adrenal stress syndrome of any degree is blood sugar imbalances – because of the problems that can cause. Adrenal stress can cause blood sugar imbalances through hormone fluctuations from stressors; or it can result from hormone fluctuations in response to blood sugar imbalances (caused by poor food choices and nutrient deficiencies).
So either way you look at it… You can’t “fix” the adrenals if you don’t “fix” the blood sugar, and you can’t “fix” the blood sugar if you don’t “fix” the diet (and lifestyle).
By the way, when encountered with “stressful” situations, please remember that it is not the situation that is the “problem” as much as it’s the individual’s response to the situation. I’ll have more on how to help adrenal stress syndrome in future articles.
Selye’s description of changes in body function is a good starting point to understanding adrenal stress syndrome, but many times there is a wide array of variations. And his description may be seen as rudimentary to some.
Fortunately, specific testing of these hormones and neurotransmitters is now possible through “functional medicine” laboratories. Standard laboratory evaluations usually only pick up “outright” adrenal gland diseases, such as Addison’s disease. More people most likely suffer from functional adrenal gland imbalances as opposed to pathological ones. Tests to identify adrenal hormone output should be as commonplace as a CBC (complete blood count) in my opinion.
Dr. Robert D’Aquila – NYC Chiropractor – Applied Kinesiologist