Understanding the types of chronic stress that make the body feel insecure and lead to an overactive fight-or-flight response is the first step in reducing their impact on us. Remember, “stress” is widely defined as anything that interferes with the body’s natural equilibrium (known as homeostasis), but it’s not a pie-in-the-sky, fuzzy New Age concept, but rather a real, measurable, and predictable physiological response to a perceived threat that burdens the HPA axis.
There are four main types of accent.
- Inflammation (chronic or acute)
- Circadian rhythm imbalance
- Nutritional imbalances
- Psychological stress (past and present)
Let’s take a closer look at the top four.
Top Stressor #1: Inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s response to injury. When cells are damaged for any reason, for example, due to a wound, infection or toxin, the immune system helps repair the damage by increasing blood flow to the area and releasing healing chemicals and hormones (such as cortisol). This process causes redness, warmth and swelling (aka inflammation). If you’ve ever sprained your ankle and watched it swell painfully, you have a pretty good idea of what inflammation looks and feels like. However, not all inflammation is visible. Inflammation is considered chronic when it lasts a long time because the body can’t repair the problem area.
The most common sources of chronic inflammation I see are pro-inflammatory foods, including foods we are sensitive to, as well as intestinal permeability caused by intestinal bacterial imbalances (gut ecological dysbiosis), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and intestinal pathogens including Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), human bacillus, and yeast overgrowth/Candida.
Chronic inflammation can also be caused by a variety of obvious or less obvious causes such as injury, obesity, sleep apnea, environmental toxins (radiation, chemical exposure, air pollution, mold, substance abuse, alcohol, certain drugs, copper toxicity, iron overload), viral infections (e.g., Epstein Barr Virus), and lifestyle choices such as over-work, over-exercise, and under-exercise.
The constant need for anti-inflammatory cortisol to neutralize chronic inflammation can get rid of the HPA axis, which triggers adrenal dysfunction.
Top Stressor #2: Circadian Rhythm Imbalance
One of the fastest ways to cause adrenal dysfunction is sleep deprivation. Sleep is the primary healing time for our body and mind; when we don’t take enough, the hypothalamic axis suffers. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep (those with chronic illnesses may need more), including enough restorative “deep” sleep for the body and restorative rapid eye movement (REM) sleep for the brain to function optimally.
Many of us don’t get enough quality sleep because our circadian rhythm, the body’s natural 24-hour biological clock, is out of balance. When circadian rhythms are in balance, cortisol floods the body in the morning to help us feel energized when the sun comes up, then gradually declines throughout the day, reaching its lowest point at night to promote sleep.
When this rhythm is disrupted and cortisol’s optimal pattern is disrupted, we may have difficulty waking up, feeling tired during the day, and having trouble falling and staying asleep. In addition, we are more susceptible to infections, increased sugar cravings, digestive problems and nighttime hunger. Additionally, circadian rhythm imbalance has been linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder (or, as I like to call it, daylight and light deprivation).
Lights and screens that make the night seem as bright as the day, spending too much time indoors, lack of sunlight in the mornings, jet lag, and shift work all disrupt rhythms, negatively impact our sleep, and lead to adrenal dysfunction.
Top Stressor #3: Nutritional Imbalances
What we eat – or don’t eat! – can put a strain on the body. Nutritional imbalances can be categorized into two main groups: nutritional deficiencies and blood sugar imbalances.
Certain macronutrients and micronutrients are necessary for the proper function of the adrenal glands, and without an adequate supply, the adrenal glands will struggle to keep up with adequate hormone production. Nutritional deficiencies can be caused by.
- Eating nutrient-poor foods (including conventionally grown and raised foods, which are lower in nutrient content than organic foods)
- Eating foods that are less bioavailable (easily absorbed and utilized)
- Following a calorie-restricted diet
- Becoming inflamed due to an infection or allergy to food
- Taking certain medications
- Having an imbalance of gut bacteria
- Insufficient stomach acid stomach acid or lack of digestive enzymes
- Insufficient thyroid hormone for insufficient thyroid hormone
These nutritional deficiencies increase the body’s stress load, and the stress response consumes more of these nutrients, depleting them at a very high rate. If the supply is not replenished, the body goes into a catabolic state where it breaks itself down into nutrients to fuel the adrenal glands, which leads to higher stress levels. If we are in this catabolic state for an extended period of time, we can experience severe nutritional deficiencies and perpetuate and exacerbate our adrenal dysfunction. It’s a hard cycle to break.
Blood Sugar Imbalance
Blood sugar, also known as glucose, is an important source of energy for the body, providing nutrients to organs, muscles and the nervous system. It is obtained primarily from carbohydrates in the foods we eat.
When we eat foods containing carbohydrates, the carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is then released into the bloodstream through the small intestine. The elevated blood sugar signals the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps restore homeostasis by transporting glucose from the bloodstream to cells where it can be used as energy and by stimulating the liver to convert excess glucose into glycogen for storage.
The problem arises when we consume large amounts of sugar – and I’m not just talking about desserts – high-carbohydrate foods such as grains, and even starchy vegetables can be a problem too – -the pancreas has to release large amounts of insulin to lower sugar levels in the blood. The surge of insulin can cause blood sugar levels to drop too low, leading to nervousness, dizziness, anxiety, low energy, and cravings for more carbohydrate-rich foods. Hello, “coat hanger”! The cycle begins again when blood sugar levels go high and low.
The body prefers to keep blood sugar levels in a normal, stable range, so drastic ups and downs can stress the body, especially the adrenal glands, as it tries to regain its balance. When the adrenal glands are stressed, they release excess cortisol, and our liver gets the message to make more glucose by breaking down amino acids (gluconeogenesis) in our muscles, which can lead to high blood sugar and insulin resistance. In turn, when we don’t have enough cortisol, our liver can’t produce enough glucose and we end up with hypoglycemia.
Excess cortisol release also leads to increased production of inflammatory proteins, which have been linked to enhanced immune responses and autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s disease, celiac disease, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. Many doctors working to reverse autoimmune diseases describe blood sugar imbalances as “adding fuel to the fire”.
Stabilizing blood sugar is an important part of protecting the adrenal glands from excessive stress and treating autoimmune diseases.
Top Stressor #4: Psychological Stress (past and present)
It may come as no surprise that psychological stress can be at the root of an impaired stress response. Feelings such as sadness, guilt, fear, anxiety, excitement and embarrassment can all be categorized as stress. This stress is based on our perceptions, not on the nature of individual stress. Everyday chores can also cause stress – text messages from a demanding boss, a cluttered house, overdue bills, endless piles of laundry, or a computer glitch can put us in survival mode. Since these “threats” are almost constant most days, we can stay there much longer than we should.
Individuals with a history of trauma often experience an overactive “fight or flight” response. Traumatic events, such as accidents, abuse, or assault, put us into a constant “fight or flight” response that keeps us going, even when our brains and bodies need to rest, digest, and heal. Childhood trauma is especially important in setting the tone for changing hormonal patterns in adulthood. We may not think that past experiences (even ones we don’t remember) affect us, but the body remembers and tries to protect us through the stress response. If the trauma is not resolved and our emotions are suppressed, we may find it difficult to heal adrenal dysfunction even if we do our best to make physiologically driven lifestyle changes (supplementation, balancing blood sugar, suppressing inflammation). When we get caught up in the fight or flight response, our bodies continue to feel insecure. The chronic pattern of adrenal hormone dysfunction is likely to continue until we regain a sense of physical and psychological safety.
From my own experience and from my work with so many clients, I know that addressing psychological stress can be the hardest part of changing the adrenals. But it’s definitely the most important strategy, and I want to assure you: We can change our perception and mindset about stress to make it more manageable, address underlying emotional trauma, and restore balance to our bodies.
This is an excerpt from Dr. Izabella Wentz’ new book “Adrenal Transformation Protocol.” Dr. Wentz is a passionate, innovative and solution focused clinical pharmacist.