We know that stress actually causes disease — and not just heart disease, but also cancer and other chronic illnesses. But conventional doctors generally dismiss the idea that adrenal fatigue, better described as adrenal stress, could have any possible link to physical fatigue and illness. This symptom “blindness” is hard to understand when you consider how loudly women are complaining to their doctors about how they feel.
Fatigue, insomnia and anxiety are three of the most common symptoms affecting women every day. In fact, over 75% of women we talk to suffer from some form of adrenal dysfunction, ranging from mild to severe. Though their concerns are serious, they are receiving very little help for their symptoms.
If you’re suffering from adrenal stress, you’ve already gone pretty far down a path you shouldn’t be on. To figure out why you got here, and how you can feel better, you need to understand just how chronic stress creates adrenal imbalances, otherwise known as adrenal fatigue.
How stress creates imbalance in your adrenal function
Our adrenal glands have many responsibilities, including responding to stress and the situations that cause it. They give us the energy and strength for “fight or flight” in crisis situations by pumping adrenaline and cortisol throughout the body to mobilize resources for this effort. This life-saving mechanism has helped keep us alive for millennia.
But two big problems in our modern world have thrown a wrench into this well-tuned survival-based system:
Problem #1: Our physical bodies aren’t able to detect the difference between true life-threatening danger and emotionally-driven and self-induced stressors. Put simply, when we feel mentally or emotionally stressed, our bodies react physiologically as if we’re in real danger, and our adrenals still get the call.
Problem #2: Today’s stress is continuous — even relentless. Fight-or-flight situations are supposed to be short, giving your body the chance to recover from the negative effects of cortisol and adrenaline. But instead, stress is our constant companion and the adrenal glands must work overtime to keep up.
When scientists measure stress, they find that stress is a function of both demands and control: the greater the demands on you and the lower your control over the outcomes, the higher your stress. Think about that for a moment. (BTW, taking that kind of little pause is a good anti-stress mechanism!) A challenging job, taking care of children or elderly parents, skimpy sleep, eating poorly, over- or under-exercising, living in a troubled relationship — are all common examples of high-demand, low-control situations that many women are experiencing. No wonder adrenal stress affects women far more often than men.
Falling into the downward spiral of adrenal fatigue and stress
Generally the pattern for adrenal fatigue starts with a period of feeling wired all the time. This corresponds to the extended release of adrenaline and cortisol in response to a high stress load. You may even think you’re handling everything just fine because it feels as if you’re getting so much done.
But further down the line, as your normal daily cortisol cycle continues to be disrupted by trying to manage more and more stress, you can become both wired and tired. This is the phase when women say they feel so wiped out that they can’t get out of bed in the morning, but when it’s time to go to sleep at night, they’re wide awake for hours.
The final stage of chronic adrenal stress is exhaustion, when most women feel tired all the time with no energy at all. At this point, cortisol levels decline drastically as the natural rhythms between the brain and the adrenal glands become so disrupted that the adrenal glands stop functioning normally. At this point, women feel truly exhausted and find it difficult to carry out even simple daily activities.
Make a change now — stress is at the root of most major chronic diseases
Stress can be a killer because it is a driving factor in most major chronic diseases. It raises the rates of everything from unhealthy weight gain and hypothyroidism to early aging, heart disease and cancer. Stress-driven cortisol levels cause all sorts of issues over time, including:
- suppressing the immune system
- raising blood sugar
- ruining sleep-wake cycles
- wrecking digestion
Once cortisol becomes imbalanced, many other hormones and systems go off the rails too, and that’s why stress lurks at the root of most health issues, both minor and major.
You won’t find many answers for adrenal fatigue and stress in your doctor’s office though there are many ways to support your adrenal health — from targeted supplements to key lifestyle changes. When you address stress issues (both relieving them and working to prevent them in the first place) and support your adrenal glands, you’ll take yourself off the spectrum of adrenal dysfunction.
As you head in a healthier direction, your symptoms will recede and eventually be eliminated. You’ll feel stronger and more resilient, and your whole life will change for the better. So today, just start thinking about making some changes. You’ll be glad you did.
Selye H. Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome. British Medical Journal. 1950 June 17:1383-1392. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2038162/pdf/brmedj03603-0003.pdf.
Salleh MR. Life event, stress and illness. Malays J Med Sci. 2008 Oct;15(4):9-18.