Adrenal function has become a very popular topic and lately it seems many more people are being diagnosed or labelling themselves with “adrenal stress,” “adrenal hypofunction,” “adrenal fatigue” or other similar term. Is this just a trend accounting for the range of non-specific ailments and complaints of modern society, or is there a growing need to address adrenal health?
Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome
Scientist Hans Selye, ‘the father of stress research,” recognised that stress is a major cause of disease due to the long-term chemical changes created in the body. He established a model called the General Adaptation Syndrome to describe the three stages of stress the body goes through in order to maintain homeostasis.
- Alarm (Fight or Flight) – The caveman response which many of us are familiar with in which hormones are released in response to immediate danger (e.g. sabre-toothed tiger) in order to provide instant energy. This energy needs to be used through physical activity to prevent harm.
- Resistance – Few are familiar with the resistance phase of stress, though many spend their lives in a heightened phase of constant arousal. Simple deadlines, relationship breakdowns and bad traffic can stimulate a constant state of stress. This prolonged state of stress increases risk of diabetes, cardiovascular complaints, mental dysfunction and immune dysfunction.
- Exhaustion – This is the stage when the body’s ability to resist stress is lost.
The Adrenal Glands – Cortex and Medulla
The adrenal glands are small glands located at the top of the kidneys. They are made up of internal part (medulla) and exterior part (cortex). Together the medulla and cortex manufacture and secrete almost fifty different hormones, many of which assist the body to cope with stress e.g. adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), cortisol, cortisone and other well-known hormones.
The medulla responds to messages from the nervous system and secretes adrenaline under acute stress, leading to the well-known fight-or-flight response.
The adrenal cortex secretes hormones including cortisol to help the body adapt to chronic stress. In response to stress, the pituitary gland increases its production of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) leading to cortisol and cortisone release.
Chronic activation of the stress system due to constant exposure to stress combined with an inability to cope leads to persistent activation of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) system and an increase in circulating cortisol.
The increased production of adrenal hormones is responsible for the majority of symptoms associated with stress including anxiety, palpitations, sweating and increased blood pressure.
What Causes Adrenal Fatigue?
When stressful situations persist and the person remains continually overstimulated and aroused in response to stress, this can lead to adrenal fatigue. During adrenal fatigue the adrenal glands function but not well enough to maintain ideal homeostasis in the body because the output of hormones is diminished – usually due to overstimulation.
Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
The symptoms of adrenal fatigue may affect anyone who experiences frequent, persistent/severe mental/emotional/physical stress. The symptoms may include any of the following:
- confusion, poor concentration and memory
- type 2 diabetes/blood sugar disorder
- autoimmune disorders
- thyroid problems
- weight gain
- poor circulation
- dizziness and weakness
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/fibromyalgia
- sweet/salty cravings
- decreased immunity (e.g. repeated colds, flu)
- ongoing fatigue and unsatisfying sleep
- low libido/sexual dysfunction
- menopausal problems
- reliance on stimulants
- reliance on alcohol/other to relax
Supporting A Healthy Response to Stress
As Selye noted, the difference between whether stress is harmful depends on the strength of the system. Many factors can be implemented to help build a strong and resilient system. The adrenal glands require a range of nutrients in order to function effectively. There are also many nutrients and herbal medicines which have been proven to be restorative to the adrenal glands and nervous system.
Food, nutrients, herbs and lifestyle can all be used to effectively build a healthy, strong adrenal response and/or limit any health condition associated with hypofunction of the adrenal glands.