by Dr. Kathleen Harley, ND
In naturopathic medicine, we strive to address the whole person and the underlying cause(s) of disease or conditions that prevent the individual from experiencing optimal wellness. Docere, to show or teach is one of our founding principles as health care providers. When asked to write an article on stress and adrenal health, I thought, this will be easy, there is so much to say about the effects of stress on adrenal health. However, I believe it is important to understand what the adrenals have to do with both physical and mental health first. I would like to start at the beginning.
The adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys and are a part of the endocrine system. They are best known for producing the hormones cortisol, adrenaline (epinephrine) and norepinephrine that are released to activate the “fight or flight” response, a part of our innate survival mechanism. When we perceive danger, these hormones help to increase our awareness, energy and strength to give us the best chance to get away from or fight off or otherwise overcome the perceived danger. The exposure to theses hormones was only meant to be short-term.
Other hormones produced by the adrenal glands include aldosterone and small amounts of sex hormones (Estrogens, Progesterone and Testosterone). Aldosterone helps to regulate blood pressure by regulating sodium in the body. Although the adrenals are only a secondary source of sex hormones, adrenal insufficiency is often correlated with sex hormone imbalances. Adrenal insufficiency occurs after extended exposure to chronic stress.
Stress is a disturbance from the external or internal environment that can trigger the stress response in the body. Normally, the adrenals are supposed to help us deal with danger or stress in short isolated time periods. Initially when a person experiences stress, the adrenals release stress hormones to assist the body in preparing for response to an environmental danger. It is our job to get ourselves out of danger; when we do, the hormones are broken down and body function can go back to normal. When we don’t address or remove the perceived danger, the stress hormones remain in circulation. These hormones become toxic to our bodies when exposure is chronic or long term, and our systems begin breaking down or functioning poorly, creating symptoms to send a message to our conscious mind that something is awry in the body and our lives.
Stress or “danger” can be an environmental toxin, a harmful microorganism (virus, bacteria, fungus), nutrient deficiencies, unhealthy diet (a diet high in food additives or processed foods in general or lacking variety), chronic or strong negative emotions, emotional and physical trauma, and even insufficient sleep. Other forms of stress are insufficient exercise, difficult or strained relationships, lack of positive relationships, poor lifestyle choices, etc. Long-term exposure to cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine are toxic to brain cells and the mucosal barrier, which is the immune systems first line of defense. Long-term exposure to low level chronic stress, or traumatic event(s) with lasting or recurring stress can lead to a condition called adrenal fatigue. When this happens, energy levels and immune function become impaired. Over time hormones become imbalanced and blood sugar regulation becomes an issue. If we continue to ignore the stressors, we end up chronically and/or mentally ill.
If we continue to ignore the stressors and suppress the symptoms, the adrenals and the body will continue to break down, and you will develop worse and worse levels of health. When your adrenal system is constantly working on overdrive, over time it also begins to break down. In functional medicine, we recognize three phases of adrenal insufficiency or burn out. Phase one is characterized by an increase in cortisol secretion that lasts for a prolonged period of time due to the stressor not being addressed. Phase two is characterized by a period of normal yet continuous levels of cortisol as the raw materials to make cortisol become depleted. Phase three is when the adrenals can no longer make sufficient levels of cortisol and become “worn out.” It is during phase one that immune impairment begins and during phases two and three that sex hormones become imbalanced. Blood sugar regulation is directly affected by the levels of cortisol in the body and people in any phase of adrenal dysfunction begin to experience problems related to blood sugar dysregulation.
Naturopathic doctors and other functional medicine practitioners use lab testing to determine the stage of adrenal fatigue and develop an appropriate plan to restore adrenal health. There may also be clues in your daily life to help you determine the stage of adrenal fatigue. If you have trouble falling asleep or you are experiencing more frequent illnesses, you may be in the first phase. If your energy levels are plummeting, but vigorous exercise is energizing you, may be in phase one or two. If it takes you longer than usual to recover from acute illnesses like the common cold, you may be in phase two or three. If vigorous work out leaves you feeling exhausted instead of refreshed, you are most likely in phase three. Some lifestyle modifications, such as proper diet on a regular schedule, sleeping during the hours of darkness, exercising at the level suited to the stage of adrenal exhaustion and eliminating stressors or developing tools to mitigate the impact of stress are essential to recovery. Eliminating stressors may include detecting and treating chronic low grade infections in the body. Vitamins, herbal adaptogens and glandulars can help to restore adrenal health.
Dr. Kathleen Harley has exceptional training in alternative medicine and its use in combination with conventional therapies. Her general family holistic medical practice focuses on improving overall health as well as addressing individual nutritional needs and toxic overload in relation to specific deficiencies and imbalances related to the current concerns. For more information: www.naturopathicoptimalwellness.com