High levels of stress can affect and impair quality of life and health. We are all busy and disconnected, and it making time for rest and relaxation can be difficult. But it’s one of the best things that you can do because high levels of perceived stress that go unaddressed are one of the primary causes of adrenal dysfunction or HPA Axis Dysfunction.
Many people that I work with are high functioning individuals who have high expectations of themselves and long daily to-do lists. They are disciplined and strict with their daily regimes.
How does this affect the Adrenals? Let’s take a look.
What Are your Adrenal Glands & The HPA Axis
The adrenal glands are two small organs that are located above the kidneys. The adrenals are involved in hormonal balance, gastrointestinal function, brain health, blood sugar balance, the immune system, bone metabolism and more. They help regulate your response to stress and are able to protect you by activating the fight-or-flight response. It does this by increasing your blood sugar levels, elevating your heartbeat, and increasing your blood pressure by holding onto salt.
One of the primary ways that the adrenals do this is through their production of two hormones: DHEA and cortisol. DHEA is a hormone and a precursor to testosterone and estrogen. It’s also very important for development, thyroid health and the immune system. Cortisol is involved in regulating blood sugar and is the body’s stress hormone, as increased stress typically leads to more cortisol production. The adrenals also produce adrenaline (epinephrine) and other hormones. This process is ideal when you experience short periods of stress or adrenal stimulation, as it helps to keep you alive.
Stress & HPA Axis Dysfunction
Most people are exposed to acute stress topped with lots of chronic stress. The body doesn’t know the difference so it responds in the same way, leading to a higher secretion of cortisol. The HPA axis is a complex interaction that occurs between the adrenal glands and the hypothalamus and pituitary and controls the innate way that you react to stressors. This is the entire system that communicates and secretes cortisol and other hormones. In the context of chronic stress, the hypothalamus secretes corticotropin releasing hormone which signals the production of Adrencorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH travels through the body and acts on the adrenal glands to stimulate the release of cortisol. Other hormones and organs contribute to the stress response as well, activating the sympathetic nervous system and the body’s fight-or-flight response.
When you are constantly stressed, running from task to task all day long, and never saving time for a break, your cortisol levels can become a rollercoaster. Different people will develop different cortisol patterns. Cortisol levels could be higher at certain parts of the day that it’s not supposed to be or constantly elevated or even in some cases completely exhausted. Some people refer to this as a stage of ‘adrenal fatigue’. The problem with the term adrenal fatigue is that it’s not a medically accepted term, condition or diagnosis. A more accurate way of describing the situation would be HPA axis dysfunction.
Common symptoms include difficulty falling or staying asleep, fatigue, brain fog/memory issues, anxiousness, irritability, weakened immune system, difficulty handling stress, headaches, muscle weakness, dizziness, weight gain and digestive issues. And while there are plenty of supplements and adaptogens that are useful for helping with your stress response, they are worthless if you don’t identify the root cause of your stress.
Stress can also alter the composition, function and metabolic activity of the gut microbiome which may lead to the progression of disease.
Stress is the body’s way of reacting to a threat or challenge. Stress is also tricky to pinpoint for various reasons: 1) there are many different forms such as environmental, mental, emotional, & physiological 2) people normalize being stressed to the point that they don’t realize they are in fact stressed and 3) it’s not easy to measure.
Stay tuned for my Top 10 Tips for Adrenal Dysfunction.