Feeling stressed and exhausted?  Wondering if your adrenal glands could have something to do with it?

Let’s start with a brief look at the role of the adrenal glands. Then I will consider the toll on the body of prolonged stress and what you can do to ease this and the exhaustion that may well result.

The adrenal glands

We have 2 adrenal glands, one above each kidney, which produce a number of different hormones which control many of our body systems.

The fight or flight response

The inner part of the adrenal glands produces adrenalin and noradrenalin which help us respond rapidly to sudden short-term stress.  This is the adrenalin rush you experience when running for a train or standing up before an audience to give a talk.  You may well have heard this referred to as the “fight or flight” response.

The effects of adrenalin

The release of adrenalin results in wide-spread physiological changes.  These changes are well adapted to the physical stresses of cavemen, exposed to dangers such as an attack from a wild animal.  For example, blood sugar levels rise, providing extra energy to run away from a foe and blood vessels constrict, increasing blood pressure and making us less likely to die of blood loss if a wild animal should bite us!

These changes still enable us to survive extreme physical challenges such as sudden injury.  However, they are less helpful if your stress if due to endless office deadlines or a tense relationship with your partner.  Stresses like these tend to be less physical in nature and may last longer so we don’t get the chance to recover between episodes.

Cortisol

The outer part (cortex) of the adrenal glands releases a number of hormones essential for life.  These include glucocorticoids, concerned with metabolism and resistance to stress.  Cortisol is the most abundant of these.  In health, cortisol levels fluctuate through the day.  Higher levels first thing in the morning help us get up and start the day’s activities, whilst reducing levels in the evening and night enable us to get a good night’s sleep.  Cortisol also helps to control inflammation.   Cortisol levels rise in the face of stress.  This also increases blood sugar and blood pressure, to prepare us to respond to an external threat.

Other important hormones produced by the adrenal cortex include some of our sex hormones and aldosterone which helps regulate the balance of water, sodium and potassium.

When stress levels are high, cortisol is produced at the expense of some of the other adrenal hormones.  Cortisol puts on hold processes that are not essential at a time of fighting or fleeing.   It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth.  You can therefore see how continued high stress levels interfere with the normal functioning of many body processes.

Prolonged stress & “Adrenal Fatigue”

Prolonged stress can be the result of a wide range of situations: overwork, emotional distress, chronic inflammation or illness.  If you have been subject to prolonged and unmanageable stress, you are likely to become very tired and to find it difficult to handle any additional sources of stress.  You may well have heard this referred to as “adrenal fatigue”.

The idea behind the term adrenal fatigue is that after a long period of stress and frequent high cortisol levels, your adrenal glands become depleted and you may no longer be able to produce adequate levels of adrenal hormones.  This is put forward as the reason for common symptoms of long-continued stress, such as:

  • fatigue despite adequate rest
  • extreme difficulty getting up in the morning
  • poor sleep – you may feel more awake in the evening and night than in the day
  • poor tolerance for exercise or any stress
  • hormonal imbalances (PMS, difficult menopause, infertility, miscarriage)
  • difficulties with blood sugar control
  • craving sweet or salty foods
  • light-headedness on standing up
  • brain fog
  • inflammation

However, adrenal fatigue is not a proven medical condition and its existence is controversial.  Some research has shown reduced production of cortisol in states of burnout and other research has found no evidence that adrenal fatigue exists.  (see ref 1 here and ref 2 here)

Emotional exhaustion, burnout and indeed just “stress” however are terms that are well recognised and encompass many of these symptoms.  They suggest strain in the adrenal glands or their controlling glands, the hypothalamus and pituitary.  Together these are referred to as our HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal) and handle our response to stress.

The link between adrenal and thyroid glands

Many of the symptoms listed above as linked to adrenal or HPA imbalance overlap with common symptoms of an underactive thyroid.  People with hypothyroidism who continue to feel unwell on artificial thyroid hormone may well benefit from measures to reduce stress levels and support adrenal health and overall endocrine balance.

Lifestyle changes for adrenal health

The most important change is to reduce your exposure to stress.  You can read tips for moderating your stress levels in my post on Handling everyday stresses well

Getting good quality sleep is also fundamental in counteracting the effect of stress.  If you find that difficult, read my post on natural ways to sleep better

Supporting your adrenals with homeopathic treatment

Homeopathy is a well established complementary therapy that uses gentle, natural medicines to restore balance.  A homeopath chooses a medicine, known as a remedy, for you according to your individual symptoms. If necessary, more specific remedies with an affinity for the adrenal, thyroid or pituitary glands may also be prescribed.  I have seen good results with patients who have come to me feeling overwhelmed by stress or concerned about their adrenal and thyroid glands.  Here are the words of 3 of them after just a few weeks of treatment:

“Before I was half a person energy wise – now I’m a whole person.”

“I just feel better in myself.  I’m really surprised how well I coped with all the walking on holiday.”

“It’s hard to pinpoint the difference but I just feel less stressed.”

Interested to find out more about homeopathic treatment for stress, fatigue and your adrenal glands?

just book a free phone call for any questions.  I look forward to talking to you.

References:
1.Oosterholt, Maes, Van der Linden, Verbraak, Kompier. Burnout and cortisol: evidence for a lower cortisol awakening response in both clinical and non clinical burnout.  J Psychosom Res 2015 May;78(5):445-51
2.Cadegiani & Kater. Adrenal fatigue does not exist: a systematic review. BMC Endocr Diso. 2016 Aug 24;16(1):48