I define stress as any external or internal factor that challenges the body or mind to maintain equilibrium. Stress is the burden of managing external pressures from things like finances, relationships and your job. These external sources of stress place a greater burden on your brain and nervous system, and your body is put in a position to deal with these burdens.
Stress can also be caused from internal factors as well such as chronic infections, the effect that toxicity has on the organs, glands and nervous system, inadequate diet and numerous other health issues. The effects of internal and external stresses are very real, and can have very serious physical implications on your body.
Anyone who suffers from hypertension will tell you what happens to their blood pressure when they encounter stress. Or when your heart starts racing because you’ve been pulled over for going through a red light. The body’s stress response is equipped with managing these challenges with a slew of different hormones and neurochemicals. When there is a chronic stress response pattern, it seems to perpetuate over and over again like a rhythmic cycle.
We seem to get locked into patterns of behaviour and reactivity, all of which increase demands on the organs and glands of the body. Don’t think that disease can be caused directly by stress? Take Type 1 Diabetes for example. This condition occurs frequently during childhood and often takes place after a very traumatic event. I read a story once of a boy who while playing tug of war with his sibling, flew into a television, breaking the screen and giving himself a concussion. Within 7 days he was diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic. Some health professionals say that the pancreas is the “shock organ”, in some way is greatly jolted when there is extraordinary stress.
Stress & The Adrenals: A Mini Crash Course
Probably the most well known organ/gland that responds to stress is the adrenals. The adrenals, under direct control of the sympathetic nervous system are triggered to produce hormones that counter the burden and stimulus registered by the brain.
in reality, the adrenals are triggered to produce cortisol through the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) Axis. Upon receiving signals of “fear” and “anxiety” from the amygdala and hippocampus, the hypothalamus is called to release vasopressin and CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone). CRH controls the pituitary to produce ACTH, which in turn triggers cortisol production by the adrenals.
Cortisol, a major steroidal hormone, has numerous biological functions besides responding to stress. Cortisol:
- Is capable of elevating blood sugar
- Is the body’s PRIMARY and most powerful anti-inflammatory
- Can suppress immune function
- Decreases bone formation
- Assists in the metabolism of protein, fat and carbohydrates
Cortisol also antagonizes the effects of DHEA, another crucial adrenal hormone. Low DHEA levels have been cited as being causative in several chronic health issues. The key thing to remember is that when there is a chronic stress response, the body’s demand for anti-stress hormones increases! The more cortisol that gets produced, the more DHEA tends to decrease. What results is referred to as the “pregnenolone steal”. This is when the the pathway to produce DHEA is burned in favor of making more cortisol. This is a vicious cycle that results in low levels of testosterone, estrogen loss, progesterone imbalances and catabolic breaking down of tissues.
This cycle will continue to perpetuate until something stops it. The adrenals will continue to wear down. the body continues to do the best that it can under the circumstances. Over time, the adrenals are less and less capable of producing the cortisol they once were able to, in order to meet the body’s demand to chronic stressors.
On top of this, if a person’s diet is inadequate, if they are burdened with toxicity, have chronic infections, the ability to produce cortisol and other hormones diminishes further. Remember that cortisol is also a powerful anti-inflammatory hormone. If there is inflammation from intestinal permeability or autoimmune activity, it is cortisol that is used to halt the inflammatory response.
Getting Stress Under Control
In what seems like another lifetime, I was once a commodity trader at one of the world’s largest commodity exchanges. For hours on end I used to jump up and down, screaming and shouting with my arms flailing, throwing around tends of thousands of dollars at a time like it was monopoly money. My trading partners would scream over the headset giving me orders to buy or sell the commodity. For 4 hours straight my body trembled with adrenaline surges. It was a wild experience. I remember when I began trading, the commodity I was trading was at record highs. At times the level of stress and intensity seemed maddening. At the end of the day I would go home and pass out from exhaustion. Many others reverted to drugs and alcohol. I reverted to my daily yoga and meditation practice instead.
I learned to deal with physical stress in a positive way. Yoga and meditation was and still is an outlet for me to deal with stress, both external and internal.
When a person has a chronic health issue, stress is a primary component. The thing you want to do is to:
- Have a regular fitness/workout routine. Some people are so chronic even this is stressful. In such cases walking, seated meditation and slow deep breathing are probably the best and most tolerated. When you enter into alpha brain waves during deeper levels of meditation, there are deep internal shifts that take place. The more frequently a person enters into alpha brain wave states, the more fruitful the experiences. In deep alpha states, the brain tends to produce more serotonin and melatonin, as well as boosting DHEA.
- Have a strong nutrition practice. The more stress that the body is under, the more demand there is for nutritional biochemicals. The adrenals are dependent upon specific nutrients in order to properly function, especially cholesterol, Vitamin B-5 (pantothenic acid), Vitamin C and Zinc. Many people do well taking adrenal glandulars. For some people in stage 3 adrenal fatigue, they are essential. People who have high cortisol levels may want to be cautious with taking things like licorice root extract, as it will continue to keep cortisol levels high. In some cases, the amino acid Serine can lower chronically elevated cortisol, but this should only be done under supervision and in short duration because high cortisol is a response to something else, and not necessarily a cause by itself. Bio-identical hormones can also be used to “lubricate” or improve the “viability” of the steroidal hormone pathways. Although this method should be done carefully under proper supervision.
Testing for Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal function can be tested through saliva hormone biopsies. These will provide an assay into 7 total steroid hormones, including 4 cortisol readings, 1 DHEA, 1 progesterone, estriol, estradiol, testosterone and melatonin.
Another fairly accurate test to assess adrenal fatigue is through Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis. This test will reveal adrenal status through the tissue level minerals sodium and potassium.
Blood testing of steroidal hormones is less accurate because blood hormones are bound to proteins which prevent accurate measures. While not bullet proof, assessing sodium and potassium levels on blood tests can also reveal adrenal status.
Based upon clinical data, chronic stress can be managed through nutritional means.