No doubt you have experienced the effects of stress to some degree. You almost certainly know that stress affects us in various ways. But what is actually going on and why does ‘stress’ have such wide ranging effects on our bodies.
Our physiological response to stress is orchestrated by our hormones. Your hormonal (endocrine) system can be thought of as being like a deck of cards – when the card at the bottom becomes weak then the whole structure starts to topple.
Your adrenals are a key part of your endocrine system and can be considered as the cornerstone of your health and vitality. Our adrenal glands are often the first parts of our system which get over-used and exhausted, and can be thought of as the card at the bottom of the deck.
The adrenal glands are pyramid shaped glands found just on top of the kidneys. One of their functions is to release the hormones which regulate your stress response. These hormones tell your body to prepare for physical exertion, the well known fight or flight response. The body’s response is to shut down non-essential functions and direct all activities towards physical survival.
Your body will put all its energy into your heart, lungs and big muscles. It will divert energy away from digestive processes and reproductive functions. This is a standard physiological response based on the mechanisms needed for basic survival. After all the ability to digest food or reproduce will not be much use if you are dead, it is much more vital to be able to run away, or to stand and fight. Unfortunately the same basic response also kicks in when we experience a ‘perceived’ threat, of which there are many in our modern world. Continual perceived threats add up to a stress overload.
In more primitive times we would run or fight and so use up that extra energy. Nowadays we don’t do that but just suppress all the excitory hormones. Lots of physical activity such as running or a heavy training regime can have the same effect. In that case you are pushing your adrenals to produce continual stimulus for physical activity. The same applies to those people who work continuously, especially if they have a very demanding job.
Another vital function of the adrenals is to regulate the inflammatory response. Inflammation is now believed to be at the root of most chronic disease, (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis etc.), and so correct functioning and response of the adrenals can have a huge effect on your health.
To carry out these processes the body uses lots of nutrients in the form of proteins, essential fats, mineral and vitamins. If you don’t have good supplies of these, or do not continually replenish your stocks your adrenals will get weaker and weaker until some degree of adrenal exhaustion occurs.
Typically 3 stages of the stress cycle are recognised.
- The Alarm phase. Sudden shock, trauma, threat or a demand for exercise will trigger the release of the hormones – adrenalin (epinephrine), and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), cortisol and DHEA
- The Resistance stage. The body attempts to adapt to long term stress and counter the effects of residual high cortisol and low DHEA.
- The Exhaustion stage. The adrenals can no longer perform adequately. They lack the nutrients and energy to produce hormones effectively. Other parts of the body now come under pressure. E.g. the thyroid and the pancreas.
That it is why is so vitally important to look after and support your adrenal health.