By: Dr. Mike Baker, ND
Stress: ever-present and an underlying cause of many health concerns. Can’t sleep at night because your mind won’t shut off? Heart racing? Sugar crashes? Hanger (hungry+angry)? You’ve got stress!
Our bodies and brains are evolutionarily geared to react to stress as an automatic response — the fight or flight response. When we are faced with a stressor, a series of chemical reactions take place that increase blood sugar and blood flow to muscles. This boost of energy in the right places allows us to run away from our stress or to fight it off.
Adrenal glands are partly responsible for this stress response. They are tiny pyramid shaped glands that sit on top of the kidneys. Although small in size, they are a powerful contributor to our well-being and survival. Adrenal glands produce sex hormones like testosterone; estrogen and progesterone; aldosterone, which helps to control blood pressure; cortisol which raises our blood sugar and quenches inflammation; and finally adrenalin, which increases the heart and breathing rates while promoting blood flow to the muscles.
Although this reaction is useful in the short term for ensuring our survival against predators, chronic stress is bad for our health! Stress has been linked to heart disease (atherosclerosis and elevated blood pressure), asthma, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, IBS, headaches and the list goes on.
Whether we realize it or not, we are faced with potential stressors every single day.
There are the obvious stressors such as deadlines, scary movies, abuse, and violence and then there are not-so-obvious stressors to consider as well. Non-obvious stressors include a high sugar diet, anxiety (where one makes mountains out of molehills), excessive exercise, inflammation, obesity, excessive screen time at night, and working night shifts. All of these stressors lead to increased levels of cortisol and altered cortisol production.
There is a complimentary medicine theory that excessive production of cortisol leads to adrenal burnout and a condition called “Adrenal Fatigue.” This term, however, is not currently recognized as a diagnosable medical condition.
The argument is that adrenal glands do not “burn out” unless you have a condition called adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease. Some of the latest findings suggest that adrenal glands do not burn out from fatigue, but rather chronic stress results in inappropriate cortisol regulation resulting in symptoms of fatigue, depression and chronic pain. A newer, better term for “Adrenal Fatigue” may be “Stress Induced Cortisol Dysfunction.”
Regardless of what you call it, patients who struggle with symptoms related to chronic stress may benefit from the following lifestyle changes:
• Sleep! Aim for seven to eight hours per night and go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day. This solidifies the circadian rhythm and helps to control appropriate cortisol and melatonin production.
• Avoid the nighttime “second wind.” If you are tired, go to sleep or wind down for the evening. Don’t wait for another boost of energy as this will also alter melatonin and cortisol production.
• Start a good nighttime routine. Two hours before bed, turn the lights down low, shut off the screens and read a calming book.
• Moderate exercise before noon — put that adrenalin and rise in blood sugar to good use: burn it off!
• Regular low glycemic meals. Low glycemic meals of fiber (legumes, leafy vegetables), protein and fats prevent sugar crashes and subsequent cortisol release.
• Calming exercises: Qi gong, yoga, meditation on a daily basis.
• Appropriate mental-emotional support. Visit with good friends and seek counselling when needed.
• Minimize caffeine to one to two cups in the morning. Savour the flavour; don’t rely on it to get you through the day.
Lastly, it should be noted that persistent fatigue could be a symptom of a serious underlying disorder. Talk to your doctor to rule out other causes of fatigue such as hypothyroidism, iron deficient anemia, or underlying chronic disease. But whatever you do, don’t stress out about it!