ASK THE HEALTH EXPERT: Stress – the Adrenals and Cortisol

Stress can come in many forms. We all have problems; busy schedules, deadlines, family responsibilities, but we are able to cope, however becoming “stressed out” is a different matter. Stress is related to many things, like relationships, work problems, family upsets, chemical imbalances, hidden infections, hormone imbalances, blood sugar problems, toxins, processed food and our modern lifestyle.

The adrenal glands are situated on top of the kidneys and one of their primary roles is to regulate the body’s response to stress, and control of the stress hormone cortisol. The adrenals also produce sex hormones, progesterone and estrogen, and the neurotransmitters adrenalin and dopamine which are responsible for communicating with the brain, kidneys and the reproductive system.

Nearly every cell in the body has receptor sites for cortisol which has many different actions in the body. Cortisol controls blood sugar, helps the body to convert carbohydrates, fats and protein into usable energy, has an anti-inflammatory effect, regulates blood pressure and controls the levels of salt and water in the body, among other functions. However cortisol is probably best known for its response and effect on the body during periods of high stress. The “stress” response is triggered when we are faced with a stressor perceived as a danger by the body. This hormonal cascade starts in the hypothalamus, in the brain, which triggers the pituitary to signal the adrenal glands to release cortisol into the body. Cortisol prepares the body for “fight or flight” by flooding the body with glucose as an immediate source of energy for large muscles, inhibits insulin production to stop the body storing energy and narrows the arteries. While adrenalin increases the heart rate to pump harder and faster, cortisol shuts down functions like immune response, digestion and thyroid production and functions that are not required for immediate survival. When the stress has passed or been resolved, the hormone levels return to normal. The body and brain cannot distinguish the difference between a “dangerous” situation and the many other stressors like arguments, cyber bullying, and modern work pressures like deadlines and computer viruses etc. No matter what the perceived problem, the danger signals are sent out and cortisol rushes in.

The problem is that our lives are becoming more fast paced which keeps the body on alert and constantly pumping cortisol into our systems. This constant state of red alert has many detrimental consequences to our health. Cortisol provides the body with glucose when we are stressed, but elevated cortisol levels, over a long period of time, leads to high blood sugar levels, and the main function of cortisol is to reduce the effect of insulin, hence the cells become insulin resistant and this may lead to type II diabetes. This too may lead to weight gain in a twofold manner. Cortisol can mobilize triglycerides from storage and elevated levels of these over a long time through enzymatic process will create more fat cells leading to excess adipose tissue resulting in abdominal fat. Cells that have been triggered to resist insulin are starved of sugar and send hunger signals to the brain which can lead to over eating and demand for high calorie foods.

The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis is a feedback mechanism which allows the hypothalamus to send signals to the pituitary gland when the body is under stress. The pituitary then signals the adrenals to release the stress buffering cortisol. Cortisol then functions in a negative feedback loop with the hypothalamus and the pituitary and its presence tells them to slow down and to stop triggering additional stress hormones. The problem here lies in the fact that the hypothalamus and pituitary also regulate thyroid hormone production and so production on that too is slowed down. The stress hormones also affect the conversion of T4 to its active form T3 and also triggers T4 to convert to reverse T3, an inactive form of thyroxin. This in turn causes underactive thyroid symptoms. The stress response also releases inflammatory immune cells called cytokines which cause thyroid receptors to be less sensitive to thyroid hormones. This means that even though you are taking thyroid hormones and your levels are normal, you actually can still suffer all the symptoms of an underactive thyroid.

When your body is in stress, cortisol functions to reduce inflammation so that your body can concentrate on dealing with the stress and so prevent chronic inflammation. But a constantly suppressed immune function allows hidden viruses and other illnesses to arise, illnesses which have been lying dormant, just waiting for an opportunity to blossom. There is an increased risk of cancer, a tendency to develop food allergies, and also the possibility for other intestinal problems and even auto immune disease. Cortisol actually tends to suppress the body’s primary immune barriers like the blood brain barrier, the lung barrier and the gut barrier. The sympathetic nervous system is triggered by cortisol and that in effect shuts down the parasympathetic nervous system as they cannot work together. It is the parasympathetic nervous system which deals with digestion and when that is compromised it may lead to leaky gut and ulcers due to inflammation of the mucosal lining. This inflammation in turn can cause irritable bowel syndrome and colitis. All this inflammation triggers more cortisol to be released, thus exacerbating the problem.

Adrenal fatigue is a term applied to a range of symptoms such as anxiety, waking up with no energy, brain fog, memory loss, poor concentration, frequent infections, digestive problems and depression to name but a few. However, this term is currently not recognized by physicians as a medical problem and is considered a myth. This is because the symptoms do not match symptoms of chronic adrenal insufficiency such as weight loss, joint pain, anorexia, vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure and fatigue. However the adrenal fatigue syndrome is so common it seems to suggest that ongoing stress to the body could result in overdue strain on the adrenal glands and possibly lead to something akin to exhaustion. Regardless of what we call the problem, it appears that many people are suffering from the symptoms, so surely, that is what we should be addressing, and not quibbling over naming the syndrome.

Obviously, reducing stress is a major factor in trying to modulate the adrenals. Helpful supplements include adaptogenic herbs such as Rhodolia, Siberian ginseng, Ashwagandha and Schisandra and all of the B vitamins which are crucial to the chemical processes within the adrenals themselves. Fish oils that contain higher levels of EPA will help reduce inflammation and so lessen the response of the body to produce cortisol. Magnesium is calming, good for brain health and cognitive function and induces restful sleep. An anti-inflammatory diet lowers inflammation and balances blood sugar, but be sure to use full fat dairy products. We have many products on the market designed to balance hormones and help with stress, but I feel the main problem is to ask enough questions to get to the root of the problems and work out the primary stressors. It is important to start a healing regime from that point onward. I have found very interesting information on Amy Myers M.D. internet site and on the website,

Written by: Nathalie McNeill, Fountain Health Health Store

Author: LivingSpaces

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