What is stress?
The term “stress”, was first coined by Dr. Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. He is acknowledged as the “father” of the field of stress research, having gained worldwide recognition for introducing the concept of stress in a medical context. A distinguished physician and endocrinologist, his theories on the role of organic responses to emotion, illness, and injury have revolutionized our understanding of the causes and mechanisms of disease and of the mind-body connection.
Dr. Selye observed in numerous experiments that laboratory animals subjected to acute physical and emotional stimuli (blaring light, deafening noise, extremes of heat or cold, perpetual frustration) all exhibited similar pathologic changes. This included stomach ulcers, shrinkage of lymphoid tissue, and enlargement of the adrenal glands. He later demonstrated that persistent stress could cause these animals to develop various diseases similar to those seen in humans, such as heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Based on his research, he defined stress as “the rate of wear and tear on the body”. He came to the conclusion that stress accelerates the rate at which we age.
What are the adrenal glands?
The adrenals are two pyramid-shaped glands located above the kidneys. They are part of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis in the endocrine system. The hypothalamus is a part of the brain that sends signals to the pituitary gland (via hormones), which then sends signals to the adrenal glands (via hormones) that trigger the release of certain hormones from the adrenals. The hormone released from the adrenals in response to stress is cortisol. In addition, epinephrine/adrenalin and norepinephrine are neurotransmitters that are also released by the adrenal glands during times of stress.
The adrenals are responsible for regulating blood sugar, blood pressure, and hormones, and are involved in the body’s “fight or flight” response. While the “fight or flight” response helped our ancestors survive life-threatening situations, the body doesn’t know the difference between running from a bear and dealing with difficult life situations. It’s important to note that all stress is not “bad” and when cortisol is released it actually helps our body adapt to stress in a positive way. However, chronic stress and chronically elevated cortisol levels are not beneficial to the body. Over time the adrenals can become depleted and will produce less and less cortisol, which is referred to as “adrenal fatigue”.
Can you test your adrenal function?
Adrenal function is easy to evaluate with testing. Adrenal testing is generally not part of routine testing in most conventional primary care settings. However, because the HPA axis and adrenal glands can affect so many body systems, I and other naturopathic doctors consider it very important to test adrenal function and I include it in lab testing for most of my patients. A simple way to evaluate adrenal function is with a blood test that measures cortisol levels in the morning when levels are typically the highest. There is also a more detailed salivary adrenal function test that measures cortisol production in a 24-hour period. If the levels are imbalanced, treatment is focused on supporting the adrenal glands naturally to restore their function.
Which symptoms indicate a need to have your adrenal function tested?
Fatigue: This is the most common symptom of adrenal dysfunction. It can present as feeling unrefreshed upon waking, day-long fatigue, or bouts of fatigue throughout the day. Some people with adrenal fatigue will get a “second wind” or boost in energy in the evening or at night which can interfere with sleep.
Sleep Disorders: Difficulty falling or staying asleep is common in our busy society. A major contributing factor to sleep disorders is an imbalance in the cortisol circadian rhythm, or our “internal clock.” If cortisol levels are too high at night, that can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to chronic fatigue, decreased immune system function, increased appetite and sugar cravings, poor memory and concentration, and weight gain.
Blood Sugar Dysregulation: Throughout the day we may experience “spikes” and “dips” in our blood sugar from stress and eating high glycemic foods. The brain requires sugar/glucose to function so when blood sugar dips down, the adrenals release cortisol to trigger glucose production in the liver as a protective mechanism. After a while this can cause insulin resistance where the cells become less responsive to insulin, leading to weight gain and fatigue. If left untreated, insulin resistance can progress to diabetes.
Depression and anxiety: Research has shown that a contributing factor in some cases of depression and anxiety is an imbalance in the HPA axis and high or low cortisol levels.
Allergies & Autoimmune Disorders: Low adrenal function can promote seasonal and environmental allergies because a certain amount of cortisol is needed to mediate allergic reactions in the body. If an insufficient amount of cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands, the immune system can “over-react” to allergens resulting in chronic allergy symptoms. This is also a contributing factor in autoimmune disorders where immune function can become overactive due to low adrenal function.
Increased colds/flus: The adrenal glands and how well they are functioning can have a direct impact on our immune system. Immune system depletion and more frequent colds and cases of flu can occur in people with adrenal fatigue.
Joint or muscle pain: Cortisol is our body’s anti-inflammatory hormone. If you have adrenal fatigue and a lack of cortisol production it can lead to more aches and pains.
Is adrenal dysfunction treatable?
Adrenal dysfunction can be treated with lifestyle modifications and specific herbs and nutrients. In my twenty years of practice, I have helped literally thousands of people recover their health and vitality by strengthening their adrenal function.
If you think you or someone you know is struggling with adrenal dysfunction, consult with your naturopathic doctor or call 480-588-6856 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Khalsa today.