21st Century Stress
Posted On Mar 13, 2017
What seems like stress to some could actually be Adrenal Dysfunction. How do you know?
By Sara Fiedelholtz
Modern society keeps us in a perpetual state of “on.” Information overload, financial uncertainty, and the acceleration of our daily lives have contributed to the new normal, a constant state of fight-or-flight. Ultimately, it all boils down to one word that has far-reaching and often underestimated consequences: stress. According to the journal Jama Internal Medicine, 44 percent of Americans say that they’re more stressed today than they were five years ago. Considering the financial turmoil of 2008, this statement is disconcerting to say the least. It appears that we are all in the midst of a national stress epidemic.
Stress takes a significant toll on the body, particularly the adrenal glands—two triangle-shaped glands that sit over the kidneys. Adrenal glands mobilize the body’s responses to every kind of stress—physical, emotional, and psychological—through the production and release of hormones.
Cortisol, the main adrenal hormone, helps manage stress. The highest amount of cortisol is secreted by the adrenals in the morning to get us going, with levels decreasing throughout the day. The adrenals secrete cortisol in response to low blood sugar, stress, exercise, and excitement.
Adrenal dysfunction can affect everything from your metabolization of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to your electrolyte balance, cardiac function, and sex drive. According to Laura Berman, PhD, host of OWN’s In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman, stress causes a spike in cortisol levels and a dip in oxytocin, the bonding chemical that makes you feel connected to your mate. This disconnection can make you feel out of sync with your partner and less interested in intimacy.
When stress becomes chronic or is poorly managed, the adrenal glands simply won’t function at an optimal level. Your glands cannot keep up with the demands of permanent stress, and therefore cannot produce enough of the hormones necessary for you to cope with normal pressures. Adrenal burnout is difficult to identify, for it is not a medically recognized diagnosis. Additionally, current blood tests for checking adrenal function are not sensitive enough to pick up small, subtle declines in function.
However, medical practitioners such as Dr. Marcelle Pick, author of Is It Me or My Adrenals?: Your 30-Day Program for Overcoming Adrenal Fatigue and Feeling Fantastic, believes that adrenal fatigue is very real. She feels that it is impossible to expect the adrenal glands to be at their optimal level of health, considering the chronic stress levels with which we live.
Dr. Pick asserts that under ordinary circumstances, our adrenals are designed to give us relatively small blasts of strength—from the little burst of energy that wakes us up in the morning to the stimulating hormones that keep us awake, alert, and focused throughout the day. As evening comes, our adrenal production is supposed to steadily decline, permitting us to relax into a restful sleep. When we are chronically under stress, adrenals behave very differently. Rather than “just enough” stress hormones to keep us alert and awake, along with occasional extra bursts for a fight-or-flight emergency, our adrenals are being asked to provide stress hormones for a continual barrage of challenges. Many of us live in a state of near-constant stress, with no downtime.
“We are absolutely seeing more stress-induced illnesses, be it environmental, psychological, or nutritional,” says Pick, who is a co-founder of the Women to Women health careorganization. Women to Women has pioneered the combination of alternative and conventional medicine for treating the health issues of women. “There is no doubt that cortisol in the right amount is healthy and important. Stress isn’t bad for us. We need it. But it is the chronicity of stress that creates the serious problem.” Pick insists that the emotional component of stress remains neither “in your mind” nor “in your feelings.” It triggers an actual physical response, a complex cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters, the side effects of which include weight gain, blood-sugar dysregulation, menstrual problems, thyroid abnormalities, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, and exhaustion.
Stress has been linked to a wide variety of autoimmune disorders—either setting them off or making them worse. It’s dangerous, because none of our body’s systems operate in isolation. There’s much crosstalk between our systems—adrenals, thyroid, sex hormones, the gut, and the brain.
That said, hope abounds in the battle we wage against adrenal dysfunction and the many other deleterious effects of stress. You may have to invest some extra effort into your daily attempts to create downtime and restore balance in your body, mind, and spirit—though the payoff will be well worth it. “In treating adrenal fatigue, people need to understand the physical effect that stress has on the body,” says Dr. Grace Keenan of Virginia’s Nova Medical Group.
The Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal dysfunction is a progressive condition that moves through successive phases, manifesting differently as the condition gets worse.
- Inability to fall asleep
- Difficulty getting out of bed
- Mild depression
- Increased susceptibility to infections
- Midday fatigue
- Reduced tolerance for stress
- Sweet or salty food cravings
- Muscular weakness
- Weight gain
According to Dr. Marcelle Pick, author of Is it Me or My Adrenals?, the adrenal glands can flood the body with excessive levels of stress hormones. This causes the feeling of being both tired and wired—or else the adrenal reserves are dwindling, creating a virtually constant state of exhaustion.
Zeroing In On Adrenal Dysfunction Diagnosis
If you suspect you might be struggling with adrenal dysfunction, work with your health practitioner to rule out other conditions. It is possible your symptoms are due to menopause, irregularities with the thyroid, or a chronic disease such as anemia.
Most experts recognize only two extreme adrenal disorders— Addison’s disease (when adrenals severely underproduce) or Cushing’s syndrome (when they severely overproduce). Tests for these may not capture more common adrenal dysfunction. But salivary cortisol testing could, as it evaluates cortisol and levels of DHEA hormone. Visit adrenalfatigue.org to learn more.
Should you identify adrenal dysfunction to be an issue in your life, there are concrete steps you can take to restore balance in your body and mind. “You can change your diet, adjust your lifestyle, and reprogram the emotional patterns that are stressing you out,” says Pick. “You’ll restore your adrenal balance, restart your metabolism, and regain your natural energy.”
In other words: If your “get up and go” has “got up and went,” the choice is yours to bring it back on board.
Treating Adrenal Dysfunction
If you suffer from adrenal fatigue, the worst thing you can do is consume caffeine and sugar. When you consume cookies, pastries, and soda, the pancreas responds to the sugar overload by increasing insulin production in the body. This causes blood sugar levels to plummet, further complicating adrenal function. Over time, the body will stop responding to the sugar and caffeine. Cope with adrenal fatigue in a healthy way. The following are a few tips from Dr. James Wilson, author of Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome.
Get moderate, regular amounts of exercise. Engage in de-stress practices like yoga, meditation, or conscious relaxation.Gentle Exercise
Although adrenal fatigue sufferers may experience fast relief from drinking coffee, the stimulant will only over-stimulate the adrenal glands and keep you awake at night. People coping with adrenal fatigue require plenty of quality rest to maintain their energy levels.
Avoid Sweets and Starches
Avoid sweets, processed foods, pasta, and bread. These foods elevate the blood sugar levels, causing you to crash rather quickly. They will prompt the adrenal glands to work hard as a means of leveling out your blood sugar levels. Choose foods such as lean protein, whole grains, and non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and spinach.
Take a Good Multivitamin
Select a high-quality multivitamin that contains vitamin C, B-complex vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and fish oil. These nutrients are critical to adrenal health.
Use Herbal Supplements
Asian ginseng, Eleuthero, Ashwagandha, and Rhodiola rosea are adaptogens—herbs that will help your body fight fatigue and adapt to stress.