The adrenal glands and adrenal hormones play a vital role in how we deal with stress.
Your stress response system includes three endocrine glands (the HPA Axis – hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal) and the sympathetic nervous system. These glands and your nervous system work together to regulate your body’s stress response. This is called the flight-or-fight response. This is needed to quickly respond to a threat when you are in eminent danger. The limited release of the adrenal hormones cortisol and adrenaline into the blood stream prepares the body to react to the danger. Chronic stress, however, causes a continuous release of these adrenal hormones which can be damaging to the body.
Under normal circumstances, cortisol is produced when needed and DHEA, another adrenal hormone, acts to counter balance it. It is important that your cortisol and DHEA ratio remain balanced. The brain “feel good” chemicals, serotonin and gamma-amino butyric (GABA), also help to buffer your stress response and are important counter parts to the fight-or-flight chemicals epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. Too much stress over time depletes these relaxing neurotransmitters. Maintaining cortisol to DHEA ratios, as well as ample amounts of serotonin and GABA, is vital to keeping a positive mental outlook.
Our bodies are designed to respond to short bursts of stress followed by many days of rest and relaxation. For almost all of our patients this is not their reality. Many of them have been dealing with the effects of long term stress for many months or years.
Chronic stress can wreak havoc with your stress response system – the HPA axis.
Symptoms of HPA Axis dysfunction include:
- difficulty falling and staying asleep
- feeling tired or exhausted later in the afternoon or after dinner
- tired but wired at night
- nervous energy or jittery
- irritable and unable to control temper
- crying for no reason
- unexplained weight gain around the middle
- high blood sugar
- heart palpitations
- anxiety and depression
- food cravings for salt or sugar
- sensitive to noise
- very difficult to get out of bed in the morning
- experience energy crashes during the day
- need for caffeine or other stimulants during the day
- feeling stressed out almost all of the time
- falling asleep when you don’t wish to such as when watching a movie or reading
- sleep is no longer refreshing
- GI symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation, nausea, heartburn
- weakened immune system and get sick more easily and frequently
- worsening menopause or andropause (name of “male menopause”) symptoms
In the past, this condition has been erroneously called “Adrenal Fatigue” or “Adrenal Exhaustion.” Actually it is a much more complicated than your adrenal glands getting so tired they can no longer produce the stress adrenal hormones called cortisol and DHEA. Low cortisol and DHEA levels may be caused by stress and most likely reflect HPA axis adaptation (down-regulation) to protect the body from excess cortisol and have little to do with the continued ability of the adrenal glands to produce adrenal hormones.
Testing your cortisol and DHEA levels can be very helpful to determine if your HPA axis is functioning properly and to assess what stage of HPA imbalance you are in.
At Wise Woman Wellness we order baseline cortisol and DHEA testing to be done before your first visit so we can review the results with you at your visit.
Both cortisol and DHEAS are tested from saliva you collect in the privacy of your own home. Cotrisol is tested four times during the day – when you awaken, before lunch, before dinner and before bed – to assess your circadian or diurnal rhythm. It is expected that you will have the highest amount of cortisol in the am shortly after awakening and your levels will fall progressively until their lowest during the first few hours of sleeping.
Deviation from the expected results means you are experiencing HPA dysfunction and your levels help us to identify what stage of dysfunction you are in. Each stage requires different treatments.
The 3 stages of HPA Dysfunction are typically defined as follows:
Stage 1: Alarm phase (hyper-cortisol) or activation phase – “Tired and Wired” – agitated, anxious, restless, difficulty falling and staying asleep, weight gain, insulin resistance.
Stage 2: Resistance phase (cortisol – dominant) or Adaptation phase – “Stressed and Tired” – may be due to years of mild stress without adequate relaxation and recuperation. Moderately stressed and tired. May feel driven or over reactive. May increase alcohol and tobacco use.
Stage 3: Exhaustion phase (hypo-cortisol) or “Depression phase” – neurotransmitters are “burned out,” depressed, exhausted all the time and especially in the evening. May experience low pulse, suffer from pain, allergies, less able to handle stress and may shake in times of even small stress or crisis, anxiety, irritability, slow wound healing, other hormonal imbalances.
Stress is caused from more than mental or emotional stressors
When most people think of stress they usually define it as related to an emotional or mental event such as job loss, death in the family or going through a divorce. There are 3 other key drivers of stress in the body as well – blood sugar imbalances, inflammation, and inadequate sleep.
4 Key Human Body Stressors
- Mental and emotional stress
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Sleep cycle disturbances
At Wise Woman Wellness we assess your specific stage of HPA Dysfunction and key driving stressor(s) and determine specific actions for you to take to improve your symptoms and your overall health.
By getting to the root cause(s) and formulating your personalized treatment plan, we can significantly decrease your recovery time and help you feel much better! To get started, please join us for one of our End Hormone Havoc Seminars.