We all deal with stress. Stressors such as losses, job interviews, presentations, medical diagnoses, lack of sleep, job and home life balance, or challenging relationships can make us feel overwhelmed. Our bodies should be able to deal with these stressors, for a short period of time. And that’s the key: for a short period of time. The problem is, most of us are chronically stressed!
How Heavy Is The Burden You Carry?
You’ve probably heard of the analogy of holding a glass of water. Hold it for a minute, and it feels light. Hold it for an hour, and your arm will start to ache. Hold it for a day, and your arm will be numb and the glass will feel unbearably heavy. We often don’t remember to put the glass down until it’s too late. Until we have seen the repercussions on our body, mediated primarily by our adrenal glands, these little soldiers that sit on top of our kidneys, trying to fight for us.
Fight Or Flight
Your adrenal glands perceive any form of stress, whether it is a physical, emotional, environmental, biochemical, or spiritual stress, and respond the same way: by trying to produce either adrenaline (short-term) or cortisol (long-term). They are responsible for our fight or flight response: when our body assesses its environment and deems it unsafe, it prepares us for battle, getting our blood pumping, shifting our resources away from digestion and into our muscles and brain so that we can run from danger or fight it head on. But if this goes on for a long period of time, we will get exhausted, as it’s just not sustainable.
How Chronic Stress Affected Me
When I graduated from naturopathic medicine, and shortly after writing my licensing exams, my adrenal glands were in rough shape. I had pushed myself through medical school, but once the stressor was over, it was difficult for me to peel myself off the couch or do any exercise at all. I had survived on insufficient sleep, caffeine, deadlines, and willpower, but in the process, my digestion was a mess, and I was constantly battling fatigue throughout the day. Any new stressor made me feel overwhelmed. Luckily, as a new naturopathic doctor, I knew that my adrenal glands were in need of some tender loving care. I was probably near burnout. It took me a good year before I felt a lot better, and a few years more before I felt better than I had years before, during my undergraduate and naturopathic medical school studies.
You don’t need to be near breaking point before realizing that your adrenal glands need some help, and that stress is affecting your body in various ways. It’s best to catch it in the early stages, when it’s easier to shift back to balance.
Adrenal Fatigue Stages
You may have heard of the term “adrenal fatigue” (or adrenal insufficiency, hypoadrenia) from naturopathic doctors and integrative medical doctors. This term really refers to an older concept founded on Dr. Hans Selye’s research (a Canadian endocrinologist), called “General Adaptation Syndrome”. If we are under stress for long enough, we move through the different stages of adaptation to chronic stress, from the alarm stage, to the exhaustion stage. At the end of the exhaustion stage is burnout. You don’t want to get to the exhaustion stage if you can prevent it!
Stage 1 – Alarm
In this initial alarm stage, the body panics a little and tries to mobilize its resources. You might have a temporary decreased resistance to stress as your body starts to produce more cortisol to deal with the chronic stress, and you mobilize your energy sources from fat and muscle. Some people will lose weight in this stage.
Stage 2 – Resistance
In this stage, the adrenal glands actually grow in size as they try and keep producing more cortisol. But the high cortisol will wreak havoc on the body. Symptoms of high cortisol include:
-feeling tired but wired
-anxiety and nervousness; heart palpitations
-depressed mood; irritability; mood swings
-brain fog, confusion; memory problems; decreased concentration
-decreased sex drive
-hot flashes; night sweats
-weight gain around the middle
-more frequent colds and flus
Stage 3 – Exhaustion
In this stage, the adrenal glands can’t keep up with the production of cortisol and eventually cortisol production goes down. Any added stressor will be more difficult to deal with, as your resilience goes down. While cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day, your highest levels of cortisol should be in the morning. Morning cortisol levels are also the last ones to drop in hypo-functioning adrenals. Cortisol helps keep us alert. So if you are having trouble peeling yourself out of bed, and you have late afternoon energy crashes, you may be in this stage.
At this stage, you may have symptoms of both low and high cortisol all at once. Symptoms of low cortisol include:
-burned out feeling
-cold body temperature; cold extremities
-cravings for sweets and/or salt
-joint pains; muscle pains
-low blood pressure
At the end of naturopathic school, I was definitely into Stage 3. Luckily, there are things we can do to help you deal with the stress and rebuild the health of your adrenal glands.
Do you need to put your glass down?
Do you think you might suffer from adrenal fatigue? In my next blog, I will discuss testing methods for assessing the health of your adrenal glands, so that you can know which stage you’re in and we can treat more specifically based on your needs.
But if you’ve read this and think you’re in the later stages based on your symptoms, don’t wait! Come on in for a visit, and I’d be happy to help you start to feel better. And don’t forget to put your glass down!
Image from 123RF.com, Copyright: https://www.123rf.com/profile_bialasiewicz'>bialasiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Selye, H. (1998). A Syndrome Produced By Diverse Nocuous Agents. Journal of Neuropsychiatry, Spring 1998; 10(2): 230-231.
Scott, TD, Speidel, K. (2017). Essential Elements of Prescription Hormone Compounding. LP3 Network. Conference 2017 Apr 29-30.
Dr. Tamar Ferreira is a Naturopathic Doctor in Brampton, Ontario. Her areas of focus include digestive health, hormone balance, and skin conditions.