Adrenal Stress

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The adrenal glands are one of the most important glands in the body which can affect so much of our health, the adrenal glands. It can also be the gland that causes the most damage. Sadly, conventional medicine pays very little attention to them.

The adrenal glands are situated right above the kidneys. So that's how they got the name adrenal (adherent or above the kidney). They are small triangular shaped glands that can deliver a dynamite effect on the body. They have been known to influence almost every system in one’s body.

When you are under stress, this gland is responsible for producing adrenalin. Usually, one's body reacts to stress instinctively, i.e. go into survival mode; my life is under threat (fight or flight). Survival mode involves the decision to run away from this danger or to fight the danger. It's really an animalistic instinct. To that end, it has to make several changes in order to be able to fight or run (flight). It increases the cardiovascular system, which increases your pulse. It makes your heart pound faster. It raises your glucose in the blood stream. It takes blood away from the GUT (because it takes a lot of energy for you to break down food). Initially, it makes the brain more alert. It sends blood to the muscles so that you're able to run and/or you're able to fight. It suppresses the immune system.

When you have long term stress, it decreases your pain sensation. So, these glands have set up everything for you to be able to survive right now, and it turns off everything that is involved in long term survival because that would consume energy. This long-term stress reaction then disrupts normal hormone function, immune system function and thyroid function. It really is the emergency alarm system that is only thinking about the present moment and not the future. Our bodies are perfectly set up for emergencies which need quick thinking. The problem arises when we are exposed to daily stresses that we are perhaps not equipped to deal with.

The problem with stress and dealing appropriately with it is that our adrenal glands only know the stress reaction to the fight or flight type response. This response works well if you are being chased by a robber or in an emergency situation, but not so good for the everyday stressors that are part of life.

Some of the stressors we have are environmental, the toxins that we breathe in, chemicals, free radicals etc. Even though we don't perceive them as stress, they cause stress to the body. There's this huge array of different stressors that aren't life-threatening, but the adrenal gland can't make that distinction, so it turns the alarm on, and now the alarm is stuck. It doesn't turn off because you are always exposed to worries, whether environmental factors, emotional factors or physical factors. Let's say that you are having an operation, for example. That's physical stress on top of the emotional stress, and on top of the environmental stress that is constantly ringing the alarm.

So, what we are saying here is that if you get laid off from work, it is a stress to your survival. You don't need to fight anybody, you don't need to run anywhere, but it's a stress. You're worried about your financial future. You're worried about the financial future of your family. That's a stress. So, what happens? Your pulse increases. Your heart starts beating in your chest. You start getting palpitations. Your stomach is queasy. You start to have diarrhoea. That's the exact same thing that would happen if a robber burst through your door. Increase of pulse, increase of the blood pressure, your stomach would get queasy. The problem is, it becomes so constant and so routine, we feel like that all the time. What do our patients complain about? Anxiety, irritable bowel, insomnia. We give it all names, but what it really is, is a result of constant chronic stress.

The Stress Cycle

Here's what happens. Initially, the alarm is going off. We step up to the plate. We handle that stress. We run, we fight and do whatever we have to go. But if that stress, let's say the layoff has been threatened for two or three years, and over that two to three years you get a divorce, or your mother dies or something else happens, with all of that stress going on, at some point, your adrenal gland reaches a point where (1) it cannot continue that high output. What then happens is, you have an (2)abnormal daily rhythm of cortisol.

Normally, even if you're not under stress, in the morning, your adrenalin would be high. You wake up, and you're ready to go. At night, your adrenalin should lower so you can calm down and go to sleep. When you're constantly on that alarm where the normal daily rhythm is twice what it should be, over a certain amount of time (3) the adrenal gland is unable to keep up that pace. Instead of going back to normal, what will happen is that it will create a kind of a flat line. It’s almost as if the adrenal gland is rationing out adrenalin. It gives you the same amount in the morning as it does at night. And it's about halfway between that curve. Patients will then come in complaining that after they've been under stress for a long time and that they're just not like they used to be? “What happens is in the morning I can barely get myself out of bed and the crazy thing about it, is, that at night, I can't go to sleep.” And so, they're really in this awful predicament where they're tired all day, but at night when they need to go to bed, they can't sleep. That lack of sleep just makes them more tired in the morning. Therefore, if you don't intervene, if the doctor doesn't understand that and doesn't manage it appropriately, the adrenal gland continues to lose its ability to make even that abnormal amount of adrenalin or cortisol.

Finally (4) you get into this chronic fatigue, where you're just tired all day, again, because the alarm is still trying to go off, but nobody's responding. Patients will say that they're tired, but they're still anxious. They know the alarm is going off, but they have no energy to respond, even to the normal daily routine. That is what we call chronic fatigue, but it really lies in the fact that their adrenal gland is totally non-functional.

This‘wired- but-tired’ phenomenon is happening more and more now, and these poor people are so beyond tired that they just cannot fall asleep. It is soul destroying. During the day when you need to have energy, it's just not there. The problem is that most doctors get the same history, but they don't tie it into previous stress, and so they assume that the patient is depressed. They hand the patient an antidepressant. Ouch. That antidepressant is only masking the problem. The true problem is in the adrenal gland, and if we understood how to measure adrenal gland function and how to correct it, then we would see these patients improve and they wouldn't need to be on antidepressants for the rest of their lives.