Adrenal Stress Disorder

The adrenals are small walnut sized glands that sit on top of the kidneys. Clinically, they are known as the ‘stress’ glands. They contain your ability to adapt to your internal and environmental stressors by secreting different hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline), and cortisol. It is estimated that approximately 85% of the population suffers from some degree of adrenal fatigue. This is not to be confused with adrenal failure, which is known as Addison’s Disease.

Adrenal fatigue, often gives feeling of ‘just being sick’. Most often patients appear completely healthy on standard physical exam and laboratory diagnosis. These are the people who often fall thru the cracks of medical treatment. Something is definitely wrong, but nothing can be found. Until now.

The adrenals weren’t meant to deal with the daily stress of our lives today. Chase a dinosaur, eat it, and rest. Nowadays, people have poor diets, and a very constant stressful lifestyle. The adrenals no longer have a chance to rest and recuperate. Picture them looking like shriveled raisins, rather than plump grapes.

Many (including me) believe this has a tremendous amount to do with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. People come to see me every day with problems ranging from an annoyance, all the way to “something’s happening, doc, I’m falling apart and I think I’m dying!” The difficulty for most people with this syndrome, is that on paper, they are perfectly healthy. All the tests and labs are normal, but they are getting sicker by the day. There is a reason, it has just been overlooked.

If your adrenal glands are producing too much cortisol, you may develop conditions such as weight gain, especially around the abdomen, depressed immune function with all of the consequences, such as accelerated aging and stomach ulcers. If the stressful situation continues, your levels of cortisol begin to decrease. The problem often becomes fatigue, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, chronic pain, vertigo and recurrent injuries.

Recently, a lot of attention has been directed to the effects of excess cortisol on weight gain and on the difficulty in losing weight. Collectively, the various diet plans being promoted by a long list of diet gurus have a failure rate of approximately 93 to 97 percent. There are several reasons for this. One is clearly the difficulty in achieving behavioral modification in the face of easy availability of the wrong kind of foods, and inherently sedentary lifestyles. Another reason is that our hormones work against us, in the weight loss perspective. High cortisol levels is one of the culprits.

Cortisol and Stress

Cortisol is elevated in response to stress. The adrenal glands are not particular, any kind of stress will do. The stress can be physical, environmental, chemical or imaginary. The human brain is hard wired with automatic responses to protect the body from harm. The classic work on stress was done by Hans Selye, M.D.

(1) In the “Fight or Flight” response, the adrenal glands enlarge and secrete large quantities of adrenal cortical hormones. These hormones suppress inflammatory responses and mobilize the body’s energy reserves. This puts the body on RED ALERT and diverts all of the body’s biochemical resources to immediate survival. The body’s self healing mechanisms are arrested (healing diverts energy and raw materials away from immediate survival), the immune system is suppressed, glycogen stores in the liver and muscle tissue are mobilized to raise the blood sugar level and digestion and assimilation are inhibited. The stomach lining becomes thin and ulcerated and the thymus gland and lymphatic tissue shrinks. This “Fight or Flight” response works well when dealing with man eating dinosaurs, but it is not suited for our modern lifestyle. Battling traffic, competing for parking spaces and watching the evening news produces the same physiological responses as running for your life. And the stimuli don’t stop and go away, leaving the body with chronic high cortisol levels.

(2) All forms of stress produce the same physiological consequences. This includes environmental stress (heat, cold and noise, etc.), chemical stress (pollution, drugs, etc.), physical stress (overexertion, trauma, infection, pregnancy, etc.), psychological stress (worry, fear, loss, grief, etc.) and biochemical stress (nutritional deficiencies, refined sugar consumption, etc.). All of these different sources of stress are additive and cumulative in their effects. As the body responds to this cumulative stress, it goes through three stages of response.

(1) The first stage is REACTION. The body experiences the symptoms from the trauma, infection, heat, cold, chemical irritation, etc. The endocrine system responds with the release of cortisol and other hormones to compensate for the trauma. The heart beats faster, the blood pressure rises, the pupils dilate, and the palms sweat.

(2) The second stage is ADAPTATION. After the adrenal glands have enlarged and released large quantities of adrenal cortical hormones, the symptoms disappear and the individual feels good, has energy, and is able to function in the presence of the stresses he/she is under.

(3) The third stage is EXHAUSTION. After an extended period in stage two, the body’s reserves of nutritional elements (raw materials) and resilience becomes depleted. The symptoms return and there is now no relief. The individual may collapse physically, suffer a nervous breakdown, become dysfunctional and/or experience an organ or body system failure.

It is also important to recognize that an individual in stage two has physiologically adapted and they feel asymptomatic, and are usually, therefore, not too concerned about or even conscious of what is happening. One of the consequences of this adaptation is suppression of the immune system. These individuals are more susceptible to infections, colds, allergies, etc. In the presence of new and dangerous infectious diseases, this can be a very important matter.

The adrenal glands release hormones that help balance the blood sugar (tired/cranky if miss a meal, diabetics), blood pressure (dizzy or lightheaded when get up quickly), pupillary dilation (eye sensitivity to sunlight), allergies, immune system weakness, ability to heal from an injury or infection, and repeatedly injuring oneself from minimal trauma. The question becomes what to do about it. Even for the most serious problems, the treatment is relatively simple. There are many things that you can do at home:

AVOID:

  • Hydrogenated or Partially Hydrogenated Oils and Trans Fats
  • Refined sugar in all its forms (anything ending in ‘ose’) –sucrose, fructose etc. Corn sweeteners
  • All artificial sweeteners
  • Coffee, tea, alcohol, chocolate. Anything containing caffeine and sugar
  • All refined carbohydrates (the evil whites)- pasta, bread, refined flour, refined grains

DO:

  • Light to moderate exercise. The key is: if you feel worse after exercising, you did too much
  • Rest, meditate, yoga, Tai Chi
  • Nutrition: B Vitamins (not high potency formulas), Vitamin C, Essential Fatty Acids/Oils,
  • Adrenal Comlexes (supplements with glandular tissues work best to start.
  • Eat a balanced diet: Your diet should consist of fruits, vegetables, meat, chicken and fish.
  • Acupuncture: One of the best and fastest ways to boost your adrenals, energy and immune system.