When the alarm clock doesn’t work, the kids are not ready for the carpool, the phone won’t stop ringing, the dog makes a mess on the carpet, traffic is terrible, your boss isn’t happy, or you get a virus in your computer that ruins your whole day work, do you wish the ground would open and you were swallowed up?
Well, the ground is not going to open, at least not because you want it to, trust me on this one, but you may be causing yourself adrenaline fatigue. Let’s see how and what you can do about it.
What are and where are located the adrenal glands?
The paired adrenal glands sit atop each kidney; they are responsible for producing several important hormones and they are critical to managing the stress response, among other things.
An imbalance in the levels of hormones produced by the adrenal glands not only can cause severe damage to your organs, but they can cause chronic fatigue, leaving you feeling exhausted much of the time.
Functions of the adrenal glands
The adrenal glands are shaped like a flat pyramid. They have two areas which accomplish different functions:
1. Adrenal cortex
2. Adrenal medulla
The Adrenal Cortex
The adrenal cortex produces steroid hormones that are essential for life. Complete loss of these hormones leads to death due to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance in a few days to a week, unless hormone replacement therapy begins promptly. The hormones secreted by the adrenal cortex are:
Mineralocorticoids: They help control water and electrolyte balance, particularly the concentrations of sodium and potassium.
They regulate the:
1. Breakdown of proteins
2. Formation of glucose
3. Breakdown of triglycerides
4. Resistance to stress
5. And inhibition of inflammatory processes. High doses of glucocorticoids depress the immune system.
Glucocorticoids include 3 hormones:
Of the three, cortisol is responsible for about 95% of the glucocorticoid activity.
The Adrenal Medulla
The adrenal medulla consists of cells that can produce hormones. The two principal hormones produced by the adrenal medulla are:
- Epinephrine (adrenaline)
- Norepinephrine (noradrenaline).
These hormones are responsible for the fight-or-flight response and like the glucocorticoids in the adrenal cortex, they help resist stress. Unlike the hormones of the adrenal cortex, however, the hormones of the medulla are not essential for life.
Adrenal Gland Disorders
As a response to stress, the adrenal glands produce DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone- never mind the name) and cortisol. When you are healthy, these hormones are in perfect balance. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland, both in the brain, are sensitive to the amount of cortisol circulating in the blood and when cortisol reaches a certain level, they modify the production of adrenal hormones. This system of checks and balances ensures that hormone levels are properly regulated.
However, certain factors may overload this process.
During chronic stress, the adrenal glands produce an excess of cortisol. At the same time, the hypothalamus and pituitary don’t detect very well the production of cortisol and do not turn off its products as they should. When this happens a series of problems may occur such as
1. Decreased immune function
2. Altered blood sugar regulation
3. Fat accumulation
4. Changes in behavior.
Stress causes adrenaline fatigue
If chronic stress persists, the adrenal produces more cortisol but less DHEA. As the amount of cortisol becomes higher and the DHEA becomes lower, health problems grow. While all this is happening, excess adrenaline is produced, which has its own set of adverse consequences.
Adrenaline and cortisol in charge of the stress response
We can define stress as a situation that requires a person to act or change. The situation can be:
- Trivial (answering the phone)
- Profound (fighting off an attacker)
- Pleasant (gaining an inheritance)
- Unpleasant (being criticized by an employer)
The stress response typically involves a rise in blood pressure, increase in heart rate and muscle tone, shunting of blood to the brain and skeletal muscles to propel the body into action and a diversion of blood from the intestinal tract, which doesn’t need as much at that particular moment.
Much of this is directed by adrenaline and cortisol. They increase our strength in preparation for what is known as the fight-or-flight response. When the challenge, whatever it is, has been met, the body is designed to return to its baseline state.
But a problem can develop from this system by which the body reacts to stress. If a series of challenges occur in a rapid sequence through the day: the kids don’t want to eat breakfast, your car doesn’t start, you are going to be late for your business meeting, your computer is doing weird things, and so on, the result is an ongoing activation of the stress response without an opportunity to recover.
Other stressors that tax the adrenal glands are:
- Physical or emotional trauma
- Poor diet
- Lack of sleep
- Prescription drugs and chemical toxins
- Excess exercise
- Anxiety, depression
Signs of adrenal fatigue
Nonstop exposure to increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol (and other substances as well) not only provokes unpleasant symptoms but can also lead to damage in the body through a variety of mechanisms. Adrenaline fatigue symptoms include:
- Irritability, nervousness, frustration, inability to concentrate
- Insomnia, headaches
- Abdominal cramps
- Sweet cravings
The actual damage that ongoing stress can cause includes:
- Increased blood pressure, which is a risk for coronary artery disease
- The altered immune function which could lead to many diseases
- Provocation of asthma attacks
- Increased acid secretion in the stomach which can provoke ulcers
- Weight gain, either as a direct response to cortisol or as an indirect result of overeating as a self-calming behavior.
Treatment for adrenal insufficiency
Long periods of chronic stress can leave you with insufficiency or imbalance of your adrenal hormones. Treating adrenal insufficiency is a complex undertaking and should be directed by your doctor after doing a careful assessment of hormone levels. However, there are things you can do also to remedy the situation. A treatment to restore the balance of hormones in the adrenal glands should include three areas:
- Physiologic treatment that includes, if necessary, a combination of low doses of hormones such as cortisol and DHEA. It is important to understand that excessive levels of cortisol can suppress immune function, damage tissue, and alter the inflammatory process. Doctors who treat adrenal insufficiency with cortisol and DHEA use very tiny amounts of these hormones, just enough to stimulate adrenal gland function.
- Diet: Nutrients that are important for the good functioning of the adrenal glands include:
* Pantothenic acid. Meats, whole grains, potatoes, tomatoes, and broccoli are excellent sources.
* Vitamin C. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits –oranges, grapefruit, and lemons among others. It can also be found in berries and green vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and spinach. Kiwis, mangos and red bell peppers are particularly rich in vitamin C.
* Vitamin B6 or pyridoxine. Good sources are meat, poultry, fish, whole grains, potatoes, beans, and non-citrus fruits.
- Stress management: This must be a component of any effort to balance adrenal gland function. Even the best biochemical and nutritional strategies may fail if some form of stress management is not undertaken. Stress management can include things like exercise, deep breathing, visualization, imagery work, biofeedback, counseling, and meditation.
If you feel stressed much of the time, have you considered what your current sources of stress are? Have you thought about steps you could take to change circumstances that you find stressful?
If you have specific physical symptoms such as headaches, abdominal cramps or your mood depends on what is going on around you, you may want to consult with your doctor because these physical symptoms may be caused by stress and I result you may have a hormone imbalance. Be sure to explain to your physician the symptoms you are experiencing so he/she can evaluate them and order the necessary tests to obtain a careful assessment of your hormone levels.
Do not undertake any treatment on your own that includes hormones or herbs because it can do more harm than good. However, you can help the process of adrenal recovery by introducing some of the foods listed above and by starting a stress management program.