Chronic Stress and Adrenal Function
Summary of points:
- Our adrenal glands control our ability to handle stress
- Long-term stress raises cortisol stress hormone levels which disrupts our hormonal balance and affects blood sugar, blood pressure, libido, sleep etc.
- If excess cortisol is not brought to normal then we can suffer from metabolic diseases and premature ageing.
- There are definite steps we can take to restore hormonal balance.
We've all heard it said that stress can bring on illness and plays a role in all chronic illnesses. A deeper understanding of the process by which emotional and physical stresses impact us is one of the keys to raising health and vitality. Our adrenal glands play a central role in our quality of life as they enable us to adapt to physical and emotional stress. When functioning optimally we have higher tolerance and positivity towards dealing with stressful situations, greater energy levels, better sleep and balanced blood sugar. The adrenal glands that sit above our kidneys are a tiny 5cm in size yet the hormones they produce impact every system in our body. They are composed of several layers producing different hormones with distinct physiological responses.
Our adrenal glands are the first responders of the body to a stressful situation. When faced with any shock, such as when a car swerves into our lane, then within a fraction of a second the brain has signaled the adrenals to produce adrenaline and norepinephrine and our focus, heart rate and muscular energy has been activated to avoid the life threatening situation. At the same time, the shock also prompted the the release of cortisol via a sequence beginning with corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus signalling the pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This instructs the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, the hormone that regulates many bodily functions, including blood sugar and metabolism (that determines fat storage), blood pressure, nervous system activation, controls inflammation, immune responses and heart and blood vessel tone and contraction. While necessary for health at normal levels that cycle during the day, cortisol production may become chronically elevated in times of extended emotional or physical stress and do not return to normal levels even after the source of stress had subsided. The high stress levels of modern living and the increase in highly refined inflammatory foods aggravates excess cortisol production and initially this causes problems due to excess cortisol production which if prolonged can then result in too little cortisol being produced, a condition known as adrenal fatigue.
The downward spiral of long-term stress and elevated cortisol.
As we all know, short-term stress contributes to temporary headaches, minor digestive problems, emotional irritability and so on. When stress is prolonged and cortisol remains elevated, for example in instances or work, financial or family related problems then our physical and emotional health can start its downward spiral. This occurs due to excess cortisol production causing subsequent drops in DHEA and testosterone, because the same precursor hormones are used to produce both cortisol and the sex hormones. At this point in prolonged stress, we may suffer from sleeping difficulties from being tired yet alert, immunity drops and colds and flus are picked up easily, blood pressure can be elevated and blood sugar problems may be detected (and a lifetime of pharmaceutical drugs prescribed). A low libido, due to reduced testosterone in men and estrogen / progesterone hormonal imbalance in women may also start causing issues in relationships and mood.