In this final part to the series on stress and its impact on your body, I will be looking at the impact of stress on your adrenal glands and hormones.
The adrenal glands are 2 small glands located on the top of your kidneys. They are made up of 2 parts – the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla. The adrenal cortex is the outer part of the gland and it produces aldosterone, which regulates blood pressure, and cortisol which by now you will know as the “fight or flight” hormone. Cortisol also plays a large role in regulating your metabolism. The inner part of the adrenal glands is called the adrenal medulla and it produces non-essential hormones such as adrenaline.
Being under constant stress (this can be physical, emotional or environmental stress) means that the adrenal glands need to work extra hard to produce the hormones required to manage the stress. Over time the adrenal glands can become exhausted and lose function. This is known as adrenal fatigue. The symptoms of adrenal fatigue are
- Feeling tired for no obvious reason
- Waking up feeling unrefreshed, despite a good night’s sleep
- Difficulty thinking clearly
- Craving salty foods
- Blood pressure drop upon standing
- Difficulty bouncing back from an illness or stress
- Needing stimulants like caffeine to get through the day
The craving for salt is a classic sign that someone has adrenal fatigue. The adrenal glands produce a hormone called aldosterone which helps regulate sodium and potassium levels in the body. If the adrenal glands are overworked, the amount of aldosterone secreted by them is reduced, the result of which is excess excretion of sodium – thus the salt cravings.
Another symptom that may not be noticed by someone with adrenal fatigue is a drop in blood pressure upon standing. This drop in pressure may not be enough to cause symptoms of dizziness but can be picked up when having blood pressure measured. When we stand, the adrenal glands release a small amount of epinephrine (adrenaline) which increases our blood pressure. If the adrenal glands are exhausted, they cannot release sufficient adrenaline, causing blood pressure to drop when standing. A good way to test this is to take blood pressure when lying down and then straight away after standing up.
A bit part of the philosophy of Naturopathy is prevention. Before your body gets to the point of adrenal fatigue, there are signs and symptoms that can indicate your adrenal glands are under stress. One of these signs is a craving for sugar. Because cortisol stimulates the release of glucose into the bloodstream, preparing the body to either “fight” or “take flight”, your body craves sugar and refined carbohydrates when the adrenal glands are working overtime. The longer these sugar cravings go on for, the more stress and pressure your adrenal glands are under, potentially leading to adrenal fatigue. Other signs that your adrenal glands are under pressure are long term insomnia and anxiety and a sensation of “inner trembling” caused by high levels of cortisol and adrenaline.
So before you exhaust your adrenal glands, seek professional help for ways to get your stress under control.
Steroid hormones are crucial for the proper functioning of our body. We produce many different types of steroid hormones – reproductive hormones such as testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone, Vitamin D (yes, it is actually a hormone), cortisol, aldosterone and others. By now you will understand that the release of cortisol and adrenaline is a response to stress that is essential for our survival. We need to be able to fight or run away from danger and our immediately nonessential body systems are “put on hold” as long as this danger is present. As has been mentioned previously in this series on stress, our body cannot recognise the difference between a real stress that could be life threatening and an “emotional” stress that is not life threatening, so it continues to pump out adrenaline and cortisol regardless of the source of the stress.
The building blocks of steroid hormones is not an unlimited resource, so when we are under stress, our body gives preference to producing cortisol and adrenaline over the other steroid hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone, Vitamin D and others. These other hormones are not immediately required to “save our lives” when we are in danger.
Continual levels of stress, whether it be high levels or chronic low levels, eventually depletes us of our steroid hormones such as our reproductive, blood pressure regulating and bone building hormones which in turn leads to many negative health conditions such as menstrual problems, infertility, osteoporosis, depression, anxiety and high blood pressure.
Interestingly, all steroid hormones are derived from cholesterol – which gives a good indication as to the importance of cholesterol.
Excessive cortisol can also interfere with thyroid hormone production. A 2002 animal study published in the International Immunopharmacology journal reported that “… a reduction in T3 and T4 serum levels was observed” in mice that were subjected to chronic mild stress for 4 weeks.
Studies such as this make a very important note to remember – that the levels of stress do not have to be high or to continue for long periods of time for them to have a negative impact on your body. Even low levels of continuous stress for periods as short as 1 month can have a negative impact on your body.
If you live a stressful life, as so many of us do, it is essential to be pro-active in minimising the effects of stress on your body. The tendency is to ignore the symptoms of stress, to think that it is just a part of life and there is not a lot that can be done about it. “Learn to live with it”. Hopefully this series of articles has enlightened you as to the negative impacts stress has on your body – and not just high levels of stress. One of the most important points to remember is that chronic, low levels of stress can also wreak havoc on your body.
So go for a walk, practise deep breathing, yoga, meditation, take a bath. Dedicate some time each day to “de-stressing” and your body will thank you for it. If your stress has been ongoing for some time, it can be difficult to reduce it by relaxation methods alone because stress depletes your body of certain nutrients which are essential to how your body responds to stress.
If you find you can’t lower your stress enough by these relaxation methods, consider seeking the help of a Naturopath who can offer herbs, nutritional supplements and lifestyle advice to beat those stress blues.
By Andrea Southern, Naturopath, Herbalist, Nutritionist. Stafford and The Gap, Brisbane