We all know that stress is bad for our health but many are still confused about exactly why and how stress affects so many areas of our body.
Our body is equipped with mechanisms to combat all types of stresses. Many of us don’t realize that stress is not just emotional, but can also be physical stress from exercise, stress from illness and stress of everyday demands.
One of the most powerful defenses our body has is the adrenal glands. Proof that good things come in small packages, these glands weigh less than a grape but are responsible for regulating your reaction to stress. The two adrenal glands sit on top of each kidney and their main function is to store and excrete the essential hormone Cortisol. These hormones are crucial for regulating our body’s homeostasis and under or over production as you can imagine, would throw our body off balance. The adrenals are responsible for determining the way you will cope with the stress factor being presented to you.
Cortisol plays a part in a myriad of processes (and not just stress they way we may think) including:
- Blood sugar levels
- Fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism
- Immune responses
- Anti-inflammatory actions
- Blood pressure
- Heart and blood vessel tone and contraction
- Central nervous system activation
Our body will always produce a certain amount of Cortisol and like many things in life, it is something we can’t live without but also can’t get too much. Cortisol levels will normally flare during times of stress,but they should return to normal after that stressor is gone.
The problem is that in today’s world, the stress is constant. Constant stress can turn thousands of chemical pathways in your body upside down and cause normal bodily functions like converting food to energy and absorbing nutrients to become less effective or even completely shut off. When your body is repeatedly “switched on” and it never gets the relief it needs, chronic illnesses arise and only get worse with time. This makes stress one of the most severe and devastating strains on your health.
To explain this a bit better, let’s look at a pack of zebras.
It’s a beautiful day and the zebras are happily grazing in a field when all of a sudden 3 huge tigers come out of nowhere. The zebras see the tigers, realize that there is danger and start running away like crazy. (In this case Cortisol is released as they go into fight of flight mode and that Cortisol is used to actually help them run faster which shows its beneficial effect when there is a true emergency). The tigers may catch one of them if they are not fast enough but the others will outrun the tiger and eventually stop running once the chase stops.
The next day the zebras are grazing happily and back to their normal selves. They are not thinking “Oh no, what if the tigers will come back!?” or “What if when I am trying to run away my hoof will get caught on a rock and make me fall!”
Their stress comes and then it goes away allowing them to recover where as in many of our lives, we have big stresses that may go away but among them there are usually smaller constant stressors and worries that never allow our adrenal glands to actually rest.
Effects of malfunctioning adrenals on the rest of your body
1. Under stress, Cortisol delivers glucose to the body to help the fight or flight mechanism function properly. If Cortisol is consistently doing this, blood sugar levels are constantly high, which can lead to hypo/hyperglycemia, energy problems and even diabetes.
2. Cortisol levels will make the body favor fat storage, also known as visceral fat. Furthermore, since Cortisol elevates blood sugar levels, this can increase hunger and promote overeating. It can also influence cravings and stimulate appetite. Cortisol regulates energy and selects the “right” source to get energy from (carb, fat or protein) depending on your physiological state. This is why Cortisol can have such a tremendous effect on weight.
3. In normal production, Cortisol works as an anti-inflammatory hormone, however we need certain levels of inflammation in our body to fight off bacteria and illness. If Cortisol is continuously elevated, it constantly suppresses some of the beneficial inflammation which can make you sick more often and take longer to heal.
4. Elevated Cortisol levels can also affect your digestion. Your gastrointestinal system is run by the parasympathetic nervous system, an antagonist of the sympathetic nervous system. In other words they can’t run at the same time. So if Cortisol has triggered the sympathetic system, which controls skeletal muscle, your digestion and absorption is going to be compromised. This can lead to an array of complications, including ulcers.
In addition to the above, unbalanced Cortisol can also lead to:
Depression and mood disorders
Cravings for sweet or salty foods
In addition to obvious stressors, it is also possible to elevate stress levels by hidden triggers such as overindulgence or sensitivities to foods, air pollution or lack to sleep.
Western medicine is finally starting to recognize adrenal insufficiencies and the Cortisol connection but unfortunately the testing is still behind the times.
Conventional labs such as Quest and Labcorp use a 24 hour urine collection to look at total Cortisol or a onetime snap shot level through blood. The problem with these methods is that we need to see Cortisol throughout the day, not just at one time or just total Cortisol.
Our natural Cortisol levels should ideally be at their highest early in the morning and then should gradually go down throughout the day with the lowest level in the evening which promotes good sleep.
Testing total or random Cortisol level does not give us an understanding of what is happening and how the levels are connected thus not allowing us to determine if the adrenal glands are really working properly.
Let me give you an example. In a healthy person, a good Cortisol output would look something like this:
Morning – 18 Range 13-24
Early Afternoon – 7 Range 5-8
Late Afternoon – 5 Range 4-7
Evening – 2 Range 1-3
Total = 32
This shows a nice “ski slope” curve with a good level in the morning and then slowly diminishing throughout the day. When someone is under stress and the adrenals are not functioning properly, it is common to see levels in the morning diminish but night time levels go up and then we may see something like this:
Morning – 13 Range 13-24
Early Afternoon – 7 Range 5-8
Late Afternoon – 5 Range 4-7
Evening – 7 Range 1-3
Total = 32
As you can see both have a total of 32 which is in the normal range but the second shows a very clear stress pattern of lower morning and high evening levels.
This would never show up on a total urine Cortisol and hence the main reason why adrenal issues are missed by that conventional test. The story is similar with the onetime snap shot because if someone took a blood test at 8am and came out with a level or 15, it will appear all is great but we need to know how that 15 compares to the levels the rest of the day.
For this reason we use The Adrenal Function Profile. The test is done through saliva which allows for an easy and quick way to check Cortisol throughout the day by collecting a small amount of saliva in a plastic vial 4 times throughout the day. In short you would be spitting into a plastic tube and that will then be sent to the lab for analysis.
The profile also measures another stress hormone called DHEA. An increased Cortisol level and a decreased DHEA level is an indication of a chronically stressful physical or mental condition. With these results, we can pinpoint not only the imbalance itself, but also the specific time of day it is happening. Once we find the problem, a combination of stress reducing lifestyle changes, food, supplements and herbs can be used to rebalance the gland to its normal function.
The nice thing about this work is that if the body has what it needs, it can start to heal. While the foods and lifestyle changes should be kept up, the herbs and supplements are usually used on a temporary basis because once the adrenal glad is back on track, keeping it there with good nutrition allows us to maintain all the good results.