Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Our adrenals are little glands that sit on top of our kidneys and produce some of our most important hormones. There has been a lot of hype over the years around the term "adrenal fatigue" and what it means when our body has been exposed to chronic stress and the way our body copes with that.
The main hormone involved in this process is cortisol, which is secreted in response to a stressful stimuli. Thousands of years ago we were exposed to incoming threats such as invading tribes or large animals such as a lion which resulted in an immediate increase in cortisol to help us survive the situation. Cortisol triggers a "fight or flight" response where we either decided to run away or gear up to tackle the physical challenge. Our body will prevent glucose being stored so we can use it for immediate energy, our heart rate will increase to ensure we have enough blood pumping to vital organs, our breathing gets faster to increase oxygen levels, our pupils dilate to view the danger with increased focus, and our non-vital functions such as libido and digestion halt. This is all very useful when trying to fight or escape from an attack, however, in 2020 we rarely come under threat from lions and instead we will experience stress from deadlines, mounting piles of washing and dirty dishes, busy schedules, paying bills, traffic jams, or dealing with challenging personalities in the workplace. These are all certainly stressful but they do not in any way threaten our life.Another major difference is that these stressors are not just momentary, they are day in and day out, meaning we are experiencing these fight or flight responses chronically rather than acutely and the result is a change in adrenal function - "adrenal fatigue". Having an increased heart rate or rapid breathing or reduced energy for our organs can result in serious consequences for our health. There are three stages to longer term stress exposure: 1. Alarm Stage: We feel alert and wired as would be normal in an emergency situation when cortisol is released, we can function and the catch phrase "running on adrenaline" may apply to this stage.
2. Resistant Stage: Increased levels of cortisol are being pumped out to try to cope with the never-ending stress resulting in major body changes such as memory impairment, changes to bowel movements, and increase susceptibility to infections. We are confused about why we can't push on and get the same results we used to.
3. Exhaustion Stage: After some time the adrenals are no longer producing as much cortisol, we have flatlined, resulting in feeling extremely fatigued and experiencing a lack of motivation or drive. This is what we would call burn-out.
While "adrenal fatigue" is not an accepted term in the medical community, this breakdown of stages would appear as a fatigue or wearing out of the adrenal glands that have been working overtime. Regardless of what we call it, this is real and I see it week after week. I know that when I read pathology which should show healthy cortisol fluctuations through the day (we need a certain level of cortisol to get up and go in the morning but this should drop off in the afternoon) but instead follows a flat line across the graph or peaks at the wrong time of the day, we have some major work to do on nourishing and reviving the adrenals.
If you would like to have your cortisol levels tested or you know that chronic stress is a part of your health journey, please get in touch and let me help you.