There are three main sources of stress that can overload the body. If continued unchecked, emotional stress, poor lifestyle choices, and chronic pain have a cumulative effect, making you more susceptible to allergies, infections, inflammation, and toxicity. Chronic stress causes your adrenal glands, which are charged with producing hormones to help you adapt to stress, to “burn out,” leading to fatigue, depression, weight gain, sugar cravings, and hormone imbalance.
Can you recall times in your life when you felt stressed for long periods? Below is a list of the top ten emotional stressors that contribute to adrenal exhaustion. How many have you experienced in the past year? Think back to your childhood: How many have you experienced throughout the course of your lifetime?
- Death of a loved one
- Divorce or end of relationship
- Relationship difficulties, frequent arguments
- Change in residence
- Overwork, or termination of employment
- Addition to family
- Outstanding personal achievement (graduation, promotion)
- Financial stress (mortgage, loans)
- Personal injury or illness
Poor lifestyle choices also take a toll on your health. Do you engage in any of the below habits?
- Frequent skipped meals
- Regular consumption of refined sugar (processed foods, sweets, candy, sodas)
- Need caffeine (coffee, colas) to get going
- Too much or too little exercise
- Poor sleep habits
Pain is the most obvious response from the body that something is out of balance. But you may also be experiencing chronic inflammation as a result of poor diet or undetected infection. When your adrenal glands have been functioning in overdrive for a period of time due to poor lifestyle habits or unchecked stress, other body systems begin to suffer as a result of the imbalance. Do you experience any the following symptoms?
- Frequent colds, infections
- Joint or muscle pain
- Digestive difficulties: constipation, diarrhea, bloating, indigestion
- Chemical sensitivity
Your complete health analysis begins with assessment of the hormonal system provided by the Functional Adrenal Stress Profile.
Stress Hormone Lab Assessments
The first step in assessing your hormonal system’s condition is to measure the functioning of your adrenal glands with the Functional Adrenal Stress Profile test. The saliva samples you submit to the laboratory are put through sophisticated hormonal assays that measure the levels of cortisol and DHEA hormones over a 24-hour period. This test analyzes how well your body is managing stress.
Causes of Stress
The Functional Adrenal Stress Profile measures adrenal stress caused by lifestyle issues such as working long hours, poor eating habits, lack of exercise or lack of rest. Adrenal stress can also be caused by internal organ dysfunction such as poor digestion or inadequate detoxification ability. When the sum total of all your stresses reaches a critical threshold, the adrenals react in a predictable pattern.
Symptoms of Stress
The most commonly experienced symptoms of adrenal stress include: fatigue, depression, inability to lose weight, sweet cravings, decreased sex drive, insomnia, poor memory, anxiety, PMS, weakened immune response, recurrent infections, unexplained nervousness or irritability and joint or muscle pain. As you experience these external symptoms, profound physiological changes are taking place inside your body.
Three Stages of Burnout
Stage 1 – Stress Overload
Whatever the source of stress, your body’s initial reaction is the same: the adrenal glands make more of the stress hormones cortisol and DHEA . This first stage of hormonal maladaptation is called hyperadrenia, or over activity of the adrenal glands. Normally, when the stress dissipates, the glands have time to recondition and prepare for the next stressful event. However, if your stress levels remain high, your body will remain locked in this first stage of adrenal stress. If your stress hormone levels remain elevated for extended periods of time, your body’s ability to recover can be reduced and the ability of your adrenals to make cortisol and DHEA can be compromised.
Another way to look at this is to think of your adrenal reserve as a savings account. If you continually withdraw money from savings and don’t replace it, you are eventually unable to recover financially. Fatigue and other adrenal symptoms are signs that your body’s reserve has been overdrawn and your adrenals are becoming exhausted. If the stress continues, the high levels of cortisol and DHEA begin to drop. As the high levels of these hormones can no longer be sustained, a person enters into stage two of adrenal exhaustion.
Stage 2 – Fatigue
Some individuals have genetically strong adrenal glands and can maintain health under high levels of stress for many years. Others may enter into stage two more quickly. Eventually, if we continue to experience excess stress, we enter into stage two of adrenal exhaustion. This transition period usually lasts between six and eighteen months during which the stress response of the adrenal glands is gradually compromised. Under chronic stress conditions the adrenals eventually “burn out.” At this point the glands become fatigued and can no longer sustain an adequate response to stress. This condition ultimately leads to stage three or hypoadrenalism.
Stage 3 – Exhaustion
In stage three of adrenal maladaptation the glands have been depleted of their ability to produce cortisol and DHEA in sufficient amounts and now it becomes more and more difficult for the body to recover. Constant fatigue and low-level depression can appear in otherwise emotionally healthy people because cortisol and DHEA help maintain mood, emotional stability and energy levels. As cortisol and DHEA levels are depressed, people experience depressed mental function. Brain function suffers as these hormones are depleted. Both poor memory and mental confusion can be a direct result of adrenal hormone depletion.
Stress and Sex Hormone Production and Sex Drive
Because all steroid hormone production is linked by biochemical pathways, cortisol and DHEA depletion impacts the female hormones progesterone and estrogen, as well as the predominant male hormone, testosterone. In both men and women hormonal symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, sweet cravings and headaches can be related to the failure of the adrenals to adapt to stress. Female hormone symptoms such as menstrual cramping, infertility, night sweats and hot flashes can also be adrenal related. Many women feel they are on an emotional roller coaster with their female hormones, yet rarely is the role the adrenals play in female hormones explored. Testosterone levels in men also suffer as a result of weak adrenal output. Since sex hormone levels drop as cortisol and DHEA levels drop, sex drive diminishes in both men and women.
Bone Loss, Pain and Inflammation
When cortisol levels are abnormal due to chronic stress, bone loss can occur. This is because excessive cortisol blocks mineral absorption. If you are taking calcium supplements to help protect you from bone loss and your cortisol is elevated, you will be unable to absorb the calcium. Calcium can then precipitate in the body and deposit in joints causing arthritis or deposit in the blood vessels increasing your risk for hardening of the arteries. Many people experience increased neck, back and joint pain from imbalances in cortisol.
Stress and Immune Function
Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” directs the production of special immune cells called immunocytes which produce SigA, our first line immune defense. If cortisol values are abnormal the ability of immune cells to produce adequate SigA is compromised. This is one reason we get sick so easily when we are stressed. Simply put, prolonged stress results in adrenal exhaustion and depressed first line immune defense opening the door for opportunistic infections.
Physiological Effects of Stress
The repair/breakdown or anabolic/catabolic dynamic is one of the most important health principles. Depending on our physical and emotional health we are at all times shifting between a repair (anabolic) or breakdown (catabolic) state. Being in an anabolic state means you are rebuilding, repairing, literally re-constructing your body’s tissues. Being in a repair state is like renovating a house by painting, landscaping and replacing a leaky roof. Anabolic refers to your immune system’s rebuilding processes. When you are anabolic your body is in a state of constant regeneration, repairing blood vessels and heart tissue, rebuilding old bone and even destroying cancerous cells.
The opposite process, a breakdown state, is referred to as a catabolic state. The word catabolic is from the same Greek root as the word cataclysm, meaning disaster. It is a well-chosen term since too much time spent in a catabolic state has disastrous effects on your health. This breakdown or destruction phase occurs when your body is operating under stressful conditions and isn’t able to repair itself adequately. Under catabolic conditions we breakdown our own muscle, our own organs and our own bone. This breakdown ultimately leads to degenerative diseases.
We maintain a strong immune system when our bodies spend more time in repairing than breaking down. A healthy immune system prevents the development of many chronic degenerative diseases. For example, we have cancer cells that grow in us each day and it’s our immune system’s job to destroy those cells so that tumors don’t develop. Our blood vessels and heart require constant renewal to prevent the plaquing that causes cardiovascular disease. Our bodies are constantly breaking down and repairing bone and joint tissue; if this breakdown process is blocked, osteoporosis and arthritis occur. Prolonged immune system stress can lead the body to attack itself resulting in autoimmune diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Your health status, whether you are predominantly in a repair state or breakdown state, can be measured by a variety of lab tests. This information allows you to address chronic degenerative diseases in their earliest stages, long before a pathological condition has developed.