The adrenal glands are the stress glands which produce 2 hormones: Cortisol and DHEA. The adrenal gland also produces epinephrine, also known as adrenalin. When we are stressed, our bodies release cortisol and epinephrine. Its part of the fight/flight response and it is designed to keep us alive and safe.
Epinephrine makes our heart rate go up and increases our blood pressure all in anticipation of fight or flight. Cortisol increases our blood sugar in anticipation of energy needs. Sugar is converted into energy.
However, today, we live in a 24/7/365 world, and our bodies do not distinguish the kind of stress we experience. To our adrenal glands, all stress is the same. Our adrenals are being pushed to produce more and more cortisol. In time, this response diminishes.
In the 1930’s, Hans Selye described 3 stages of stress. First there is the Alarm Phase. In this phase, cortisol levels are high and DHEA levels are normal. During the alarm phase, as the name implies, our bodies ready for the flight or fight response. Blood pressure and heart rate go up, blood flow increases to our muscles, and several chemicals are released including cortisol and adrenalin. These return to normal once the stress has passed.
If stress continues, we move into the second phase, Adaptive Phase. Cortisol is responsible for most of the response in this phase. Cortisol increases blood sugar. Cortisol also stimulates the retention of sodium which helps keep blood pressure elevated and cardiac output strong. These effects help you keep up your energy demands from the ongoing stress. Prolonged elevated cortisol is also inflammatory.
At normal levels, cortisol has a very powerful anti-inflammatory effect, but at prolonged elevated levels cortisol will weaken the immune system. This puts us at increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Rather than stimulating repair and recovery, prolonged elevated cortisol will do just the opposite and slow down recovery and increase tissue breakdown. This leads to the exhaustive phase.
High cortisol can cause the following:
- Weakened immune system
- Hair loss
- Inability to grow nails
- Disrupts thyroid function
- Decrease in bone and muscle mass
- Thinning skin
- Decreased concentration and memory
- Leads to type 2 diabetes
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
During the third phase, Exhaustive Phase, cortisol levels are now low as are a related hormone, aldosterone. Aldosterone is made from cortisol and is responsible for sodium retention. When cortisol levels are low, so also is aldosterone. This leads to sodium loss and potassium retention. Blood sugar goes down as well because of decreased gluconeogenesis. Insulin levels are also high and this also lowers blood sugar levels. Blood sugar levels are now dependent solely on diet. This leaves you feeling weak and lacking energy. This leads to carb craving or salt cravings.
How do you treat adrenal dysfunction? Start by removing the stressors from your life. That is not always practical, but if possible, that is where you start. Next, nutritional support. Eat a balanced diet, stop eating sweets or salty snacks.
Vitamin supplementation will also help the adrenals function better. This includes vitamin C, and B vitamins as well as minerals such as zinc and magnesium. There are also adrenal supportive herbs such as ashwaganda, and rhodiola.
Finally, get a good night’s rest. Every night! The importance of sleep cannot be overstated.
These are a few suggestions on treating adrenal dysfunction. If you have any questions about any of this, schedule an appointment today at (714) 442-9625 or click here to schedule online.