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Adrenal imbalance & stress

is a word we use and indeed feel a lot of the time and although we inherently know it’s “not good for us”, when I explain to clients is has physiological ramifications, particularly to the immune, endocrine and gastrointestinal systems they are genuinely surprised

Adrenal imbalance & stressStress is of course totally natural and our bodies are designed to deal with it very effectively. However, if stress occurs in excess, it is detrimental and can lead to a whole number of far reaching symptoms:-  insomnia, weight-gain, lowered immunity (particularly prone to picking up infections), gut complaints such as IBS, diarrhoea and reflux, scattered thinking and brain fog, PMS, cravings for sugar, carbohydrates and caffeine, low libido, and fatigue!!
It’s really important to note here that a stressor can be physical (like running a marathon, coping with inflammation from an infection,  or even a latent food intolerance like a sensitivity to gluten) or emotional (like being a new mum, going through a divorce or dealing with conflict at work).

As we can see, the negative effects of stress can be far- reaching. This is because stress causes changes in the body’s chemistry, altering the balance of hormones in ways that can have an impact your entire body. The glands that help us respond to stress are THE ADRENAL GLANDS, through the release of hormonal messengers:- Adrenaline and noradrenaline, cortisol, DHEA and aldosterone. However, when the adrenals expend these hormones at levels that are inappropriate (too high or too low) for what’s actually required, the adrenals quite literally become exhausted. You may have heard of “adrenal fatigue” or “adrenal burn-out”, but possibly a more accurate explanation would be “adrenal imbalance”- where the adrenal glands simply can’t cope with the constant demand and as a result, a host of symptoms start to emerge and hormonal anarchy ensues.

What the adrenal hormones normally do
Adrenaline and noradrenaline – Both are involved in the “fight or flight” response, also called the acute stress response, which quite literally prepares our body to either run away or fight.  They cause our heart rate & blood pressure to rise, blood sugar levels to increase to make more energy available to us and our gut motility is heightened. You’ll recognize these functions occurring when you’ve been in a stressful situation:- you feel your heart pounding, suddenly a burst of energy appears and often we feel the urge to empty our bowels or at least get “butterflies in our tummy.”

Cortisol – Also mobilises, stores and forms useable energy (glucose) and is our natural anti-inflammatory.
DHEA  -Literally works as a balance to cortisol and is also a precursor for the production of important sex hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone.

Aldosterone works to balance salt and water in the body. It balances the electrolytes sodium and potassium which in turn help to control blood pressure.

So, it is easy to see how when the stress response is triggered and if sustained, affects blood sugar control, immunity and blood pressure.

What happens when we are stressed?
To understand how adrenal imbalance develops, a little bit of biochemistry is required. When a stressor is sensed by the brain, a signalling pathway begins that stimulates the adrenal glands to rallying your body’s resources into a “fight or flight” response by increasing production of the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Remember, that a stressor can be physical or emotional. Like a finely oiled machine, these hormones function to enable you to: - quickly increase your heart rate and blood pressure and mobilise stored glucose from your liver and muscles into the blood stream for immediate use. Overall, your hormones heighten and sharpen your senses in preparation for dealing with the stressor - to fight or runaway!

This response is highly effective, fast and generates a vast amount of energy. It also takes priority over other metabolic functions -  those deemed non- essential activities such as digestion, growth and reproduction which, in essence, “shut-down” and therefore, (it stands to reason) don’t function as well.

When stress becomes a constant in one's life, people start to notice that their sex drive is lower than normal, they are getting bloated after eating a meal or experiencing loose stools - not surprisingly as the systems that govern these functions are literally “on-hold”! Instead, the energy normally fuelling them is being channelled into the muscles, lungs and heart etc., ready to take action – fight or flight!

Thriving on stress
This stress response has served us well for thousands of years and when our threats were more physical and immediate. In other words, the stress would be more short lived, and the body would have time to recover and balance be restored.  Today, we live in a world of 24 hour stimulation and “stress”. Every day, we are exposed to a number of physical and psychological stressors — a demanding job, the fear of losing our job, 24 hr access to media and graphic information, relationship dynamics, lack of sleep, financial pressures, suboptimal nutrition, dieting, skipping meals, over-exercise, illness or infection. These all signal the adrenal glands to produce  the stress hormones-  adrenaline and cortisol. The net result being that the adrenal glands are on constant high alert.

These modern day stressors don’t permit us to expend this vast amount of energy by fleeing or fighting and whilst the adrenals can deal with the increased demands short term, there is a negative impact on other systems and glands when the body is exposed to excessive levels of cortisol and adrenaline:-

  • Digestion and absorption of nutrients is impaired
  • The immune system is weakened
  • Blood sugar levels peak and trough - commonly weight gain occurs due to the huge energy pool generated.
  • Other aspects of the endocrine function – particularly reproductive and thyroid are impacted

As the stress becomes chronic this puts an incredible strain on the adrenals themselves and ultimately leads to adrenal imbalance or adrenal fatigue.

Could adrenal imbalance be causing your weight problem?

  • Do you feel bone tired during the day, only to perk up at night?
  • Do you love to snack in the evening and frequently stay up late into the night?
  • Do you feel hungry, confused, or shaky when under pressure during the day?
  • Do you habitually rely on caffeine and high-carbohydrate snacks to boost your flagging energy?
  • Have you noticed a “spare tyre” growing larger and larger around your waist each year?
  • Are you eating modestly and exercising, but still not losing weight?

If you answered to yes to two or more of the above, adrenal imbalance could lie at the core of your weight gain.

Women, especially with adrenal imbalance, often have a “spare tyre,” or what we call abdominal fat. This happens for several reasons. Under normal circumstances, when we haven’t eaten for a while, our blood sugar (glucose) drops and the brain sends a message to the adrenals to release cortisol. This cortisol mobilises glucose (via glycogen in the liver), amino acids (primarily from muscles), and fat (from fat cells). This prevents hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) keeping your brain and body fuelled with energy in the absence of food. So cortisol maintains glucose levels in the blood, while insulin helps usher glucose into the cells.

When we have long-term stress, cortisol and insulin remain high in the blood, and the extra glucose that isn’t needed for energy gets stored in the form of fat — primarily abdominal fat. And sadly, abdominal fat doesn’t just “sit there” doing nothing; it’s almost as if this fat is, itself, an endocrine organ that reacts to the stress response, spurring still more abdominal fat deposition because it hosts and releases inflammatory and appetite disruptor  messengers itself. So the cycle continues unless we take steps to heal the metabolic imbalance. A good place to start with a lot of weight management and loss is with the adrenal glands.

Functional tests I may use at Nutritional Values to aid treatment protocols in this area are:-
Adrenal Stress Profile
Insulin Resistance Profile

The whole picture
At Nutritional Values I use the Functional Medicine model to assess your health. This means seeking to identify interactions between different systems in the body through comprehensive case history taking, your presenting signs and symptoms and on occasion functional laboratory testing. The goal is to identify and address the triggers and underlying causes of your health problems, that often then cause imbalances in body systems, rather than simply focusing on symptoms.

To book an appointment or speak to Tanya click here.

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