Wonder why stress is so destructive to the body? It is because of the relationship between stress, cortisol and the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands are walnut sized organs located on the top of each kidney. Various parts of the adrenal glands produce many different hormones and neurotransmitters including cortisol, the hormone of stress. The term adrenal fatigue refers to cortisol gone wrong for an extended period of time, and the unleashing of a series of horrors in the body. The kick off to this process is prolonged stress.
Adrenal fatigue covers a wide range of problems with cortisol production depending on what stage of this process you are in. These problems include:
- Excess production of cortisol at certain times of the day to compensate for stress
- Periods of high and low cortisol throughout the day
- Constant low levels of cortisol
Excess cortisol production is the first stage of adrenal fatigue. The effects of chronically elevated cortisol are just as devastating as those of low cortisol.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because stress causes increased secretion of cortisol as part of the “fight or flight” response. Cortisol helps you survive in the face of a threat. Adrenaline (norepinephrine) is the neurotransmitter produced immediately upon a stressor being encountered while cortisol kicks in for longer term stress. The adrenals respond the same to every type of stress such as physical, emotional, psychological, environmental, illness or infection, and perceived or real threats. However the adrenal response is not designed to deal with stress that continues day in and day out, and eventually this kind of stress strains the adrenals. When the stress is prolonged, the adrenals keep producing excessive cortisol until they become exhausted.
Small increases in cortisol production during times of emergency have positive effects on the body, such as increase energy due to increased blood sugar, heightened alertness and clarity of thought. High cortisol over a prolonged period of time however, causes great harm to the body. Some effects of persistently elevated levels of cortisol include:
* Impaired cognitive performance (high cortisol can actually prevent the formation of new memories)
* Suppressed thyroid function
* Increased blood sugar (hyperglycemia) which can lead to type 2 Diabetes mellitus
* Decreased bone density leading to osteoporosis
* Decreased muscle mass and muscle weakness
* Hypertension (high blood pressure)
* Decreased immunity and over suppression of the body’s inflammatory responses
* Slowed wound healing
* Increased triglycerides leading to increased abdominal fat which in turn is linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke
* Interference with sleep leading to drowsiness and fatigue
* Increased irritability which can lead to sudden uncontrolled anger and rage
Unfortunately, when it comes to adrenal function, conventional medicine sees only black and white: either your adrenals are fine or they don’t work at all. Therefore they do not recognize anything except Cushing’s disease (severe excess cortisol production) or Addison’s disease (complete failure of the adrenal gland’s ability to produce cortisol). Conventional physicians can see no gray and truly believe your complaints are due to depression and can be fixed with antidepressants. There are non-invasive saliva tests you can take at home to see if you have adrenal fatigue, and stage it if you do. One such test is the Adrenal Stress Profile.
Many symptoms of adrenal problems are the same in both low and high cortisol states, and symptoms alone are not enough to figure out the problems. Saliva testing is essential in determining the presence of adrenal fatigue and whether you have high or low cortisol throughout the day, or mixed levels.
Treatment varies for each stage. The Adrenal Stress Profile also includes DHEA, another hormone produced by the adrenals. Looking at DHEA levels along with cortisol gives a true picture of adrenal health.
People in a chronic state of high cortisol secretion tend to eat more high carbohydrate foods, gain weight more easily and have little or no sex drive. High cortisol causes fat to be deposited throughout the body, especially in the abdomen and between the shoulders at the base of the neck. If high cortisol continues, fat will also be deposited in the face, resulting in a very round face known as moon face.
To overcome high cortisol, reverse the damage which has occurred and prevent the slide into high stages of adrenal fatigue, it is extremely important to incorporate stress management techniques such as deep breathing and yoga into your daily routine. Identify your stressors and as much as possible, maintain a low stress lifestyle. It is also important to avoid high carbohydrate foods, especially sugars and refined starches.
Along with diet and lifestyle changes, supplements such as those found in the Adrenal Balance Program or the Adrenal Boost Program can help lower excessive cortisol. Both of these programs contain supplements that are essential to adrenal health. Your chiropractor or other natural health practitioner can help you decide which program is best for you depending on which stage of high cortisol you have.
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