I felt I was losing myself. I am normally a happy, silver-lining, glass-half-full kind of person. I began to have feelings of hopelessness and cry often without knowing why. That’s just “not me” and I felt like I was losing control. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I’m a strong woman, capable, intelligent, and calm; others look to me for direction in stressful situations. Yet, I felt weak, nervous, and completely inadequate to meet the demands of my life. I became depressed; felt hopeless, and very tired – all the time. Like many patients when I went to the health clinic with symptoms of fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks they tried to put me on antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. I declined.
That made me slow down to reflect on my life. Not only did I have several highly stressful life events occurring at the same time I was trying to push on like nothing was happening; and demanding more and more of myself. Then I got sick. It had been close to 10 years since I’d had a cold, then the flu twice in two months. That motivated me to go to my TCM doctor who “felt my pain.” Now the approach wasn’t “tough it out” or medicate it. The approach was “let’s heal you and make you whole again.” (See going there first would have been the “me” thing to do, but I wasn’t myself, I wasn’t making good decisions either.)
I was on the brink of some serious, chronic, health conditions but with care my system returned to balance. I did well until the next crisis, just one this time, but I realized I’d fallen into some bad habits that exacerbated the problem. I work in an office which is a very unhealthy environment (sedentary with a steady flow of caffeine and sugar consumed under stress. Then right in the middle of the day lunch in the school cafeteria comprised largely of processed foods.) I did much better than many around me but realized I didn’t have a strategy for navigating the waters and had found I’d slipped from my own standards much too often. We’ll get to those strategies in a later post. I’ve gotten ahead of myself again. Today I want to cover some basics. The point is I corrected. We’re human. We can make mistakes and we can usually correct them.
So last post I discussed the culture, in which most of us live, that glorifies stress and adrenal addiction. Poor diet and our stressful, do-it-all, always on the go, just tough-it-out, lifestyles, creates demands on our adrenals they were not designed to handle. Left unsupported they become unbalanced and then depleted. If this is left unchecked Chromes disease can develop, along with a variety of other chronic health conditions. Due to the fact that adrenal unbalance is difficult to detect in standard laboratory tests and western medicines focus on treating acute conditions, western medicine is just beginning to recognize and understand the problem.
It important to correct this problem not only from a human suffering perspective, but from a financial perspective as well. As we struggle, as a nation, with soaring health care and insurance costs consider that an estimated 80% or more of women suffer from adrenal imbalance making us less productive members of the work force and leading to costly chronic medical conditions. Additionally, many patients currently prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication are actually suffering from adrenal imbalance, which is easily corrected. Sounding familiar?
What Are the Adrenal Glands and What Do They Do?
The adrenals are little pyramid shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys. They respond to stresses, or changes, in our systems and produce and release, when appropriate, certain regulatory hormones and chemical messengers. They are best known, and sometimes only known, for the “fight-or-flight” response, but they do so much more.
The inner part is called the medulla and affects the sympathetic nervous system by secretion and regulation of two hormones; epinephrine (adrenaline) the “fight-or-flight” hormone and norepinephrine (noradrenaline)
The outer part is a little steroid factory called the cortex and it produces Cortisone, Testosterone, Estrogen, 17-hydroxy-ketosteroids, DHEA and DHEA sulfate, Cholesterol, Pregnenolone, Aldosterone, Androstenedione, progesterone and a variety of intermediary hormones. These hormones regulate pretty much everything about us.
Hydrocortisone is the most abundant — and one of the most important — of many adrenal cortex hormones.
Among the many functions of hydrocortisone are:
- Stimulates the liver to convert amino acids to glucose, the primary fuel for energy production.
- Counteracts inflammation and allergies.
- Prevents the loss of sodium in urine and thus helps maintain blood volume and blood pressure.
- Maintains resistance to stress (e.g., infections, physical trauma, temperature extremes, emotional trauma, etc.).
- Maintains mood and emotional stability
However, at elevated levels look what happens.
- Stimulates fat deposits and can result in weight gain. (Think our pro-stress culture contributes to the weight epidemic in America?)
- Increased fat accumulation around waist.
- Increases blood pressure.
- Increases protein breakdown that can lead to muscle loss.
- Causes demineralization of bone that can lead to osteoporosis.
- Interferes with skin’s ability to regeneration and heal.
- Suppresses the immune system resulting in reduced resistance to illness of all kinds.
- Immune shutdown: yeast, viral, and bacterial infections.
- Poor memory: Brain (hippocampus) atrophy
- Estrogen dominance, leading to PMS, uterine fibroids, and breast cancer.
- Increases blood sugar, which leads to reduced insulin sensitivity and diabetes
Then when the adrenals are chronically overworked and straining to maintain high cortisol levels, they lose the capacity to produce DHEA in sufficient amounts. Research has shown DHEA can help people cope with stress.
How does our body let us know our hydrocortisone levels are elevated?
- Fatigue/ decreased energy / weakness
- Impaired memory
- Impaired concentration
- Feelings of Hopelessness
6 Things You Can Do Today To Support Adrenal Health
I will be getting into more depth on this in later posts, including nutritional support. In the mean time here are 6 things you can begin doing today to support your adrenals and your overall health.
TAKE A STRESS INVENTORY
What are the sources of stress in your life? You need to be aware of them before you can address them. A study done at the University of Washington Medical School rated stressful situations according to their affects on physical and mental health. Highest rated was death of a spouse, followed by divorce, and also high on the list was getting married and personal illness. The study found the more stressful situations the person had, the higher the chance of illness.
A group of Dutch researchers studied a group of 80 people for six months. They found people under great stress had less than half the antibodies in their system as people with less stress. Some common causes of stress (in no particular order) are:
- Work Pressure
- Death of a Love One
- Changing Jobs
- Physical Illness
- Marital Problems
- Financial Problems
- Job Loss
- Major Injury
- Change in Loved One’s Health
- Serious Trouble at Work
- Increased Responsibility at Work or at Home
- Sexual Problems
- Child Leaving
- Overwork/ physical or mental strain
- Excessive exercise
- Sleep deprivation
- Going to sleep late
- Chronic inflammation
- Chronic infection
- Chronic pain
- Temperature extremes
- Toxic exposure
- Chronic illness
- Chronic-severe allergies
- Nutritional deficiencies
Notice the overall category though, all have to do with home, family, and health. They all have to do with our basic needs. So lack of, or perceived lack of, stability in our basic needs creates distress. This is where we need to look. What is out of balance here?
This will be another difficult one for some of you. Stressed out people usually rely on caffeine to get them going and get them through the day when their adrenals aren’t quite up to the job.
GET 3-15 MINUTES OF SUN EVERY DAY (depending on your skin type).
There is a close connection between sunlight and vitamin D. Vitamin D not only enhances the health of every cell in our bodies, it has also been shown to naturally reduce stress and increase the feel-good chemical serotonin; a hormone known to reduce anxiety.
(Hint: When the weather is nice I take my 200 steps after eating outside where I can get some sun too. That’s the kind of multi-tasking I can get behind.)
When we’re distressed we tend to breathe shallowly. According to Dr. Christiane Northrup “Breathing in fully through your nose instantly engages the rest and restore parasympathetic nervous system and helps the body metabolize stress hormones.”
DO SOMETHING PLEASURABLE EVERY DAY
It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to cost money, and it doesn’t have to take a lot of time; in fact just 15 minutes can make a difference. Clichés become clichés for a reason and laughter really is a great medicine. When we take some time for fun the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are reduced.
I personally think this is one reason companion animals are so good for our health. When I walk the cat (OK you can use a dog) it forces me to slow down, separates me from the hectic pace of daily life, gets me outside to breathe deeply, watch the sunset, see little amazing feats of nature. I probably would have missed the summer experience all together if it wasn’t for my little Zoe. And when I see the kittens up to some antic I laugh from my heart and with great joy.
The above suggestions, while recommended specifically for stress, are good advice for general health, so why not give them a try?
All information in this article is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. Please seek the advice of a qualified health care provider if you believe you may have a condition.