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Stress, cortisol, adrenal overload: Are these enemies of my well-being?

Stress is now part of our common day language, it almost seems like we are all stressed all of the time.  Is this correct?

Are you stressed all of the time?  Is stress always negative?

And what is the cortisol, what is its links to adrenal overload?  How do I know if stress is a potential issue for me?  How do I know if it is impacting my health and wellbeing?

What is stress?

  • Stress is a normal physiological response to what we/our bodies perceive as a threat.
  • When you have a fear or assess something as a potential threat, you trigger the stress response
  • Stress is one of the body’s survival mechanisms, it helps you take action to the potential threat.

What does stress trigger?

  • Stress is a specific state of physiology created in response to a perceived fear or threat.
  • The body creates the stress physiology regardless of the source of stress.
  • The body makes these changes so you are able to respond to the threat or fear.
  • Depending on the stage of stress, your body makes different and more/less stress physiology changes.

The stages of stress?

There are three stages to the stress response:

  1. Stage 1 is fight or flight stage; the body’s immediate reaction to stress, the changes will allow you to take immediate action to and/or run away from the fear or threat.
  2. Stage 2 is the coping stage; your body’s prepares to cope with stress over a longer time frame.
  3. Stage 3 is the overwhelm stage; where your body is unable to effectively cope with the prolonged impact on your body’s systems.

The stress changes?

  • Physiology changes prepare you for action and/or to run away.
  • They include an increased heart rate, breathing more deeply, dilated pupils, a dry mouth and increased production of energy.
  • The body also dials down activities not essential to action, these include reduced digestive activity.
  • As you move from stage one to stage two, the body makes additional changes to help your physiology cope with the longer term impacts of stress on your physiology.

Is stress always bad?

  • We often talk of stress in the negative however stress can be positive or negative.
  • Negative stress, stress that feels difficult or overwhelming, is called distress.
  • Positive stress, stress at the right level that feels motivating, is called eustress.
  • Wellbeing or health issues arise from prolonged or excessive distress; unresolved negative stress.

What are stress triggers?

The sources of stress are varied. They can include:

  1. A perceived threat or fear to something you encounter e.g. fear of losing your job, seeing snake or spider or a near miss car accident.
  2. A significant life event e.g. death of a loved one, coping with severe or ongoing financial problems or the breakdown of a relationship.
  3. Ongoing poor / unhealthy food choices that negatively impact your wellbeing e.g. predominantly eating refined/processed foods and no veg.
  4. Ongoing lifestyle choices that negatively impact your wellbeing e.g. lack of sleep or smoking.
  5. Continued excessive exercise that places strain on the body.
  6. An excessive intake of stimulants e.g. coffee, alcohol, drugs.
  7. The impact of a disease or a chronic health challenge on your physiology.
  8. Feeling like you are unable to cope with demands of your day to day life.

What is adrenal overload?

  • The adrenal glands are key organs within the stress system.
  • During stress the adrenal glands release key substances that help create the stress physiology.
  • One of these is cortisol, it sets off a chain of reactions that in simple turns acts like an energy turbo-boost to your body, enabling it to take action to redress or cope with the stress.
  • The release of cortisol is an expected and necessary response by your body.
  • Potential issues arise where stress is prolonged and/or severe; this is where the impact of cortisol can turn from a friend to a potential enemy of your physiology.
  • Cortisol released over a prolonged period of time, can take its toll on the health of your physiology.
  • Your body can begin to struggle to sustain its heightened action or working state.
  • When your physiology begins to falter, to struggle, it is can lead to a state described as adrenal overload.
  • In the simple terms, it is a state that arises because you have been requiring the adrenals work too hard for too long.

Potential symptoms of adrenal overload?

The potential symptoms of adrenal overload can include:

  1. Ongoing and unresolved fatigue not resolved with sleep or rest
  2. A seemingly permanent loss of stamina and vitality
  3. Digestive issues that will not resolve and worsen over time
  4. Loss of libido and/or interest in sex
  5. Unstable blood sugar levels; an increasing dependence on sugar and/or caffeine for energy
  6. Operating in an ongoing state of brain fog and poor memory
  7. A constant feeling of overwhelm and inability to cope
  8. Inability to resist or quickly bounce back from the latest flu, cold or bug
  9. Potentially experiencing anxiety, or at worst depression

Am I at increased risk?

  • Negative stress takes its toll on our physiology over time.
  • It is important to be making choices that combat or redress this negative impact.
  • The choices we make during periods of stress have the potential to decrease or increase risk of adrenal overload.

Choices that may increase your risk of adrenal overload include:

  1. Not investing in quality sleep
  2. Depending on excessive intake of stimulants (e.g. coffee)
  3. Consistently skipping meals or making poor food choices
  4. Using excessive exercise to unwind
  5. Not making time for downtime, to switch off from the busyness of life
  6. Relying on alcohol to unwind or switch off
  7. Not taking steps to redress, remove or curb the impact of stress

What are potential symptoms?

Take a moment to step back and understand what is going on with your body.

Ask yourself the following:

  1. What is the quality of your energy like; is your energy even and sustained?
  2. What is the quality of your sleep like; do you wake refreshed each morning?
  3. Are you coping well with the demands of day to day busyness in your life?
  4. How do you feel in your body; are you suffering from ongoing aches and pains?
  5. Is your thinking and memory sharp and clear, or are you experiencing ongoing brain fog?
  6. How would you describe your overall stage of being; do you feel vital?

If you think you are at risk, I encourage you to make contact.

My approach to understanding the quality of your wellbeing involves undertaking:

  1. An overall health and wellbeing review.
  2. A specific questionnaire to assess likelihood of adrenal overload.
  3. If it adrenal overload appears likely, you will do a test that assesses markers of being adrenal overload.
  4. If adrenal overload is confirmed, I create a tailored plan to redress the symptoms and its impact on your overall health and wellbeing.

Can I ignore potential symptoms?

Being in the ongoing physiological state of stress is not sustainable.

Our bodies have in built mechanisms to redress and manage stress present in our lives. However nobody should be in a constant and unending state of stress.

A constant and unending state of stress over time can increase the risk of developing a chronic disease.  These include:

  1. High blood pressure
  2. Weight gain, particularly around the abdomen
  3. Significant musculoskeletal pain/issues
  4. Blood sugar irregularities (e.g. insulin resistance type 2 diabetes)
  5. Thyroid imbalance
  6. Reproductive/hormonal issues
  7. Poor immunity
  8. Increased risk of developing autoimmune disease.
  9. Over time increased risk of cardiovascular disease

Can I get help?

Yes, absolutely!  I will work with you to design nutrition and lifestyle support to care for your adrenal health.

If you would like to find out more or discuss your situation with me please make contact to set up an appointment.

warm regards Jan

Jan McLeod, Clinical Nutritionist and Health Coach

References

Harvard Publishing. (2016). Understanding the stress response. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

Randall, M. (2011). The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. [online] Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Available at: http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/2011/02/the-physiology-of-stress-cortisol-and-the-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis/#.WrscsehuY2x

Wilson, J. (2014). Clinical perspective on stress, cortisol and adrenal fatigue. Advances in Integrative Medicine, 1(2), pp.93-96.