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Stress and Your Adrenal Glands

Almost every time I ask a patient about their stress levels, they roll their eyes and tell me, “They’re too high”. Often when patients relate a particular health problem, they’ll add, “It’s probably stress-related”.

The adrenal glands handle most of the stress in your life. They’re located on top of your kidneys (ad=next to, renal=kidney), underneath your 12th (lowest) ribs. The adrenal glands produce several hormones which manage inflammation, blood sugar, blood pressure, electrolyte balance and mood, just to name a few.

Hans Selye, the brilliant researcher who studied the adrenal glands extensively in the 1930s, came up with his model of adrenal burnout, called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). He theorized that there are 3 parts to GAS: the Alarm Phase, the Resistance Phase and the Exhaustion Phase.

The Alarm Phase, due to a sudden new stress, is where the adrenals produce large quantities of cortisol, the major stress hormone. This allows a person to meet the demands of a crisis. This makes a lot of sense evolutionarily, since most of the real dangers to life and limb a million years ago were short in duration but required quick action and significant strength. We’ve all heard stories of people lifting cars to rescue a small child from beneath a tire. This is what cortisol can do: it makes you feel (and occasionally act) like Superman or Superwoman. This feeling of euphoria can lead some people to become “crisis junkies,” ensuring regular blasts of cortisol.

Next is the Resistance Phase, the body’s response to prolonged stress. In ancient times this could have been the longer-term danger of a rival tribe, pack of predators or a crisis in procuring food. These stresses would typically last days to months. In the Resistance Phase the adrenal glands can grow to twice their normal size, with a concurrent increase in hormone production. Today’s long-term stresses come in the form of mortgage payments, workplace demands, and teaching teenagers to drive (“No honey, that’s the gas pedal”). The Resistance Phase can last from a few days to several decades depending on the severity of the stress and the strength of the adrenals. In people with very strong adrenals, a prolonged Resistance Phase will lead to insomnia, hair loss (sometimes in clumps), water retention and a rounded upper back fatty accumulation known as a “buffalo hump.” Weaker folks will progress rapidly into the Exhaustion Phase.

The Exhaustion Phase is when the adrenals fail to meet the needs of the person. This leads to fatigue, allergies, asthma, inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. Rarely, a person in extreme Exhaustion Phase develops Addison’s disease, a complete shutdown of the adrenals. JFK suffered from Addison’s, which incidentally is accompanied by severe back pain.

The Adrenal Glands and Your Back, Knees, and Ankles

In 1962, George Goodheart, D.C., developed Applied Kinesiology, a system of muscle testing that identified muscle-organ relationships. He found that muscles that support the lower back, knees and ankles are related to adrenal gland function. Thus, if the adrenal glands are under stress, these muscles will selectively weaken, putting the person at risk for an injury to these joints. Whenever a patient presents with a low back, knee, or ankle problem, I ask what their stress levels were like at the time of first and subsequent injuries. Almost invariably it turns out to have been a time of particularly high stress in their life.

Treating the Adrenal Glands in these cases helps to stabilize the problem joints, allowing for a more complete return to normal function.

The Adrenals and Your Heart

The adrenals, when healthy, produce adequate amounts of cortisol, one function of which is to provide a level of tone to the huge veins in your abdomen and chest that lead to your heart. Veins in your arms and legs have one-way valves that only allow blood to flow back toward the heart (this is aided by muscle contractions which squeeze the veins). The large veins in the abdomen and chest have no such valves, so if insufficient cortisol is produced by the adrenals, the heart has to pump harder to increase the pressure in these big veins. It’s like using a garden water spigot to move water through a fire hose. People with weak adrenals can, therefore, suffer from postural hypotension (a drop in blood pressure when standing up quickly). Conversely, hyperactive adrenals can cause high blood pressure.

The Adrenals and Mood

The Adrenals produce DHEA, a hormone that your body can use to make Estrogen, Progesterone, Testosterone and Cortisol. When DHEA is low, it often leads to deficiencies of other hormones, leading to depression. This is very common in people who have gone through an especially stressful time, like the death of a family member or the loss of a job. Grief and sadness are normal in these cases, but people who have particular difficulty in getting over these events often suffer from low DHEA. Postpartum depression often has adrenal exhaustion with resultant low DHEA as its root cause.

The Adrenals and the Craniosacral System

Persistent adrenal overstimulation interferes profoundly with the normal function of the craniosacral system, which is the primary healing mechanism of the body. More than half of the treatments performed in my office begin with a procedure to normalize adrenal function, allowing for improved healing responses throughout the body.

Helping Your Beleaguered Adrenals

Generally, the things that help your adrenals recover are all the things your mother told you to do when you were growing up (alright, almost all of them):

Get plenty of rest/sleep:

8 hours of sleep is a good goal, with some additional mental and physical rest each day.

Have a period of mental calm before going to bed at night.

Take regular vacations! “Adventure” vacations are great, but I’m talking about the kind of vacation where you rest deeply. The change in your body and soul will amaze you.

Eat well: Plenty of vegetables, cut back on refined carbs like sugar and white flour; drink less coffee.

Avoid recreational drugs: THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, has a strong blood sugar-lowering effect (hence, “the munchies”). This causes the adrenals to make more cortisol, which raises blood sugar levels. Regular use of THC is a significant stressor of the adrenals. Other street drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin absolutely fry the nervous system and adrenal glands, even with very occasional use.

Avoid over-commitment of your time and your life. Most people in our society try to fit too much into every day. By the time they retire, they’re too sick to enjoy what’s left of their life.

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