Adrenal stress, Cortisol & Fatigue

The topic of “adrenal fatigue” is rich with mystique and misinformation but we will endeavor to unravel this mystery as it stands as one of the key elements in overall health. The adrenal glands produce many chemical compounds, but the conversation classically focuses on “cortisol” our stress hormone. Cortisol is not evil, in fact without it we would all perish. But like all things in the human body, balance is key. When the demand of life is high our bodies respond with extra cortisol but if prolonged then this valuable hormone becomes destructive as it is simply trying to keep us alive.

Adrenal Fatigue – Understanding The Stress Response

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How do you make energy? There are essentially 5 energy systems that work together to enable us to feel vibrant and alive:

  • Adrenal glands make cortisol, DHEA and epinephrine
  • Thyroid gland makes thyroid hormones that stimulate all cells of the body
  • Sex hormones activate cellular function and repair
  • Gut creates energy out of the right foods, and generates B vitamins as it detoxifies us
  • Sleep recharges our batteries, promotes detoxification, and prepares us for tomorrow

Of all of these the adrenal glands stand as the leader, the king of the orchestra, that directs the thyroid, the hormones and all aspects of our energetic production. Technically it is the brains hypothalamus and pituitary gland that are detecting our level of stress and dictating adrenal cortisol production but for ease of discussion we will call this cortisol (stress) and circle back to the brains role in this later.  So, let’s better understand what we are doing on a daily basis to restore or destroy this delicate balance.

The adrenal glands produce valuable cortisol all night long, slowly releasing increasing amounts into the blood stream. You might think that since cortisol is what drives overall energy that this overnight production might awaken us but it doesn't . . . until . . . light hits your eyes. This is a key event. That's why sleeping in a dark chamber is so important. The body has a built-in mechanism to ignore nighttime cortisol elevation until light appears. Upon awakening, provided that your sleep was deep and restorative (more on that later) you should feel that familiar rise in energy and the zest to tackle the day within 10 minutes of being awake. That's normal.

Cortisol rises in the morning and then gradually falls through the course of the day and by 8PM it is normal and healthy to feel the body declining into a slower physiology. Cortisol has dropped and the body is preparing for rest and sleep. As the sun sets and the ambient light declines you will feel a natural calm as both the world and you mind should be slowing down as cortisol levels rapidly fall. That's right, your body was not built to naturally do homework, projects, house chores or be productive after 8PM. Yes, you may have forced it to, or developed a habit for doing so but now recognize that you are fighting natures plan. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. But if your life dictates that you must or if you have accepted a night shift approach simply recognize that your body is not going to be a willing partner. You may convince it to follow along initially but there will ultimately be a price to pay. That price will be a change in hormones, thyroid, gut health and sleep quality as the adrenal glands are king and will begin to alter how each of these other organs function.

Our Stress Mechanism – “Fight or Flight”

As cavemen and cavewomen we relied on our stress response to keep us alive. In the classic book by Robert Sapolsky, “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers” he shares the idea that zebras grazing on grass are relaxed and comfortable and that is the bulk of their lives. But as the lion appears on the horizon it quickly becomes life or death as they run for their lives. Within the next 5 minutes there is only one of 2 endings. They have been caught and serve as a lion’s dinner. Or they have escaped and go back to eating grass. Their stress lasted 5 minutes, not 5 days. Their body liberated extra sugar in the blood stream and activated the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for battle, the classic “fight versus flee”, but those defenses returned to normal within an hour.

We have that same mechanism as a survival tool. If our bodies face famine or tigers we too activate the system for survival. Well, here is the rub. We no longer live a society where we face famine or tigers. But you and I will conjure up our own tigers in the form of deadlines, schedules, family demands, soccer camp, wedding plans, extreme workouts, running marathons, sacrificing sleep to binge watch Netflix and more. We all have plenty of food, shelter, and clothing to be comfortable. Yet we create excess stress in the form of expectations, disappointments, anger, judgments, resentments, goal setting, and all sorts of mental dragons. If we create stress daily and live in a stressed state that is akin to the poor zebra running from the lion 18 hours per day which as you might imagine will never end in success and certainly is well beyond what our body was built to withstand.

This doesn't mean you should simply sit in a cave and gather berries, but we need to see the stark contrast between these 2 states. We can and need to make a declarative stand on what our lives mean and how we are going to choose to live them. We have unbelievable liberties so let’s engage the power of our mind to make better choices and stop falling victim to imaginary dragons and tigers.

When we endure seemingly endless stress our body will respond with an endless high level of cortisol. But this is not good in the long run as each day spent in stress leads to homeostatic changes in our body. As a result of high riding cortisol day after day the body takes evasive action and turns down hormones and thyroid as these are luxuries not afforded to the stressed body. Mother nature figures that if stress is high then it is not the time to make babies so kill the hormones. And if this stress is from famine, then the body will want to preserve fat to survive so kill the thyroid performance. Your body can’t tell if its tigers all day, famine for months or your silly fear of the future, it just feels “STRESS” all the time, so it is taking protective action.

Understand Your Reality & Adjust
You choose to stay up late and not get adequate sleep = STRESS. You feel a need to be “right” all the time and find fault in everyone else = STRESS. You decide that running a marathon every month makes you a warrior = STRESS. Your addiction to Starbucks and delight in cookies are something you have earned = STRESS. These are all signals that you are feeding to the body and brain (hypothalamus/pituitary) and they are being interpreted as tigers in your life. What are you actively doing to change that signal, to promote calm and balance? There is much you can do but often the first step is understanding how you created this life and taking responsibility for changing it. You can keep doing what you’re doing but if you have read this far then obviously you are seeking answers. Well, here they come.


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