The Stress of Life and Adrenal Fatigue
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
The stress of life can be ongoing for many of us. The stress response can be triggered many times not only throughout a day, but throughout a long period of life. We may be subconsciously conditioned to fear more than is necessary, our senses and nervous systems on constant surveillance for threats. Unfamiliar faces, places; relationships, parent-child dynamics, finances, responsibility, work expectations, worries, anger, illness, environment, thoughts, emotions- these and more can all trigger the stress response. Adrenaline fuelled busyness, an inability to relax, distractedness and restlessness may all indicate that we are in a state of stress.
Dr. Hans Seyle discovered in his research that the stress response is a non-specific physiological response to a perceived threat. This means that the physiological changes that occur during the stress response follow the same cascade of hormone release and communicates to all systems of the body. The message being delivered is that we are in danger, get ready to fight or flee for survival. This response occurs to protect us from perceived danger and can be triggered repeatedly. Seyle outlined three stages of the stress response, which overall he termed ‘General Adaptation Syndrome.’
The Three Stages of the Stress Response
The first stage of the stress response is one of alarm. The body is alerted to a perceived threat and the adrenal cortex discharges stress hormones into the blood. The body responds to the stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol in preparation to fight or flee from the perceived threat. Heart rate increases, pupils dilate, respiration quickens, blood flow is directed away from the digestive system and to the muscles for fight or flight, and glucose is released into the bloodstream for energy.
No one can live continuously in a state of alarm, thus their body enters into stage two, resistance or adaptation. Upon continued exposure to stress, the acquired adaptation of stage two is eventually lost and stage three, exhaustion occurs. Stage three, exhaustion, can be likened to the condition of adrenal fatigue. The adrenal glands may lose their ability to produce sufficient cortisol to respond to stress. There is a reduced ability to cope with stress and a chronic state of exhaustion or fatigue. This state may be associated with nutrient depletion, reduced cortisol output and potential muscle mass breakdown due to the body breaking down proteins for energy.
Stress and Disease
Dr. Seyle found in his research that prolonged stress can produce disease. Stress has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, kidney disease, arthritis, stomach ulcers and many more health conditions. Stress may also change the healthy function of different organs and systems of the body. The stress response suppresses immune function, leaving the individual more susceptible to infection. Stress affects the digestive system, the bacterial balance in the gut, insulin sensitivity, memory, mood, cognitive decline, menstrual hormones and thyroid hormone production to name but a few.
It makes sense that the stress response can affect the function of different organs and systems of the body, since the stress hormones communicate with all systems of the body and this leads to changes not only in the moment but especially over a prolonged period of time.
What constitutes stress?
Your adrenal glands sit atop your kidneys and secrete hormones including adrenaline and cortisol in response to stress. The stimulus for stress can be mental, emotional, physical, chemical, environmental- basically anything that you can perceive and anything that you do! Anything that triggers the stress response and cortisol release. Negative thoughts and emotions, poor food choices, alcohol, drugs, toxins, illness, physical injuries and life events all have the potential to contribute to adrenal fatigue. The person who is ‘burning the candle at both ends,’ who is stuck in a cycle of work, continual busyness, feeling the pressure of life/work/responsibility with little to no down time may very well move through all three stages of the stress response until they hit adrenal fatigue.
Possible Indications of Adrenal Fatigue
Decreased ability to cope with stress
Difficult to get out of bed in the morning
Tired for no known reason
Using coffee and sweets to get through the day
Cravings for salty or sweet food
Memory less accurate
Energy slump in the afternoon around 3-4pm
Life is just not fun
Weight gain in the abdominal area that will not shift
If many of these factors are present, there may be some degree of adrenal fatigue. This condition may be triggered by a long period of stress or one major stressful event- such as a severe illness (e.g. glandular fever, depression), death of a loved one, or an accumulation of stressful events occurring within a relatively short space of time.
If you have experienced states of chronic exhaustion, you likely know how it can affect how you show up in life, from not having the energy to do what you care about, fulfil your purpose, enjoy your passions, thrive, and be the person and parent that you truly want to be. To have the energy to be present to and aware of your emotions and to step out of reactivity more often; and the resilience to the stress of life so that all the things don’t take you down.
Testing for Adrenal Fatigue and Stress
In assessing adrenal and stress status, in clinical practice we look at signs and symptoms as well as how the person feels. There are a number of questionnaires designed to assess stress and adrenal function. Functional pathology testing offers the ability to measure actual cortisol levels at different times of the day to observe if the person is experiencing a lot of stress on a physiological basis or if their adrenal glands are not producing much cortisol and in a state of possible depletion.
Typically cortisol tests are taken at intervals throughout the day via either saliva or urine samples and this way we can see if the cortisol is following a healthy diurnal pattern, if it is consistently high and potentially indicating that the body is experiencing high levels of stress or if it is low representing a degree of fatigue.
The Healing Journey
There are four key elements that I focus on as a mind-body naturopath when working with clients to support them on their healing journey from chronic stress and adrenal fatigue. Each element is made up of specific relational factors to address the person holistically.
The 4 Key Elements to Recovery from Adrenal Fatigue
Stress may seem invisible, but as we now know, it can play a very real role in not only how we feel, but in how our bodies are functioning. From stomach ulcers to diabetes, if we are engaged in the stress response for long enough, we may even experience adrenal fatigue.
As with all healing journeys, you are THE major player. For sure you may benefit from support from experienced and caring people around you, AND it is imperative that you do what you can to support yourself. What areas can you start with to begin to take care of yourself?
For ideas of natural stress reducing practices, check out my free mini e-book here at the bottom of the page.
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