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ADRENAL EXHAUSTION: The Chronic Stress Response and What You Need to Know

By: Dr. Marianne Beck

We live in a hectic and “stressed out” world. Life seems to move at a faster pace than ever, leaving us no time for ourselves—no time to relax or just have fun. Everywhere you look, people are ‘running around like chickens without a head”, going from one errand to another, driving to work and sitting in traffic, dealing with the kids, the in-laws and the ‘outlaws”, giving up on taking vacations, talking and texting on cell phones and computers 24/7, Tweeting and FaceBooking into the wee hours of the night—the list goes on and on. We seem to be “dragging’ all the time waiting for the weekend and when the weekend comes, we collapse on the couch-- too tired to do anything. “Stressed to the max” and “I’m on my last nerve” are now common expressions in society. But, this comes at a price. Constant and chronic stress takes a toll on our health.

Stress comes in many forms. Emotional stress such as overwork, a family death, divorce, loss of a job, anger, fear, lack of sleep etc. There are dietary stresses from consuming alcohol, eating too much sugar, fast foods, food additives and colorings and eating inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy and soy. And then there is stress in the form of tissue damage, inflammation and pain from head injuries, whiplash, liver toxicity, gastrointestinal infections, arthritis, surgery and illness. When all of these stressors come together in an individual, the adrenal glands can not keep up the production of stress hormones. They eventually “burn out” and chronic illness ensues.

Your adrenal glands are walnut size glands that sit on top of each kidney. Your adrenal glands help you cope with stress and survive. Your resiliency, energy, endurance and your very life depend on the proper functioning of your adrenal glands. When you are under stress, whether good or bad, your adrenal glands produce a surge of cortisol, DHEA and adrenaline which is protective in the stress response. But, when stress is ongoing, excessive and poorly managed, cortisol levels continually rise. If the stress continues, your adrenals can not keep producing adrenal hormones and you head toward adrenal burnout!

The Three Stages of Adrenal Burnout

Stage 1: Adrenal Stress/Hyperadrenia

When you are under high levels of stress, your adrenal glands produce more of the stress hormones cortisol and DHEA. Normally when the stress is over, the adrenal glands have time to repair and get ready for the next stressful event. If your stress remains high and chronic, your stress hormones remain high for a prolonged period of time, your adrenal glands can not recover and over time the adrenal gland’s ability to make cortisol and DHEA diminishes.

Stage 2: Adrenal Fatigue

If a person stays in Stage 1 and under high stress conditions for a long period of time, the production of cortisol and DHEA is compromised and begins to decrease. Depending on the individual, a person can have high cortisol levels for many years, however, prolonged stress will eventually cause a decrease in cortisol and DHEA. Chronic stress will then cause adrenal burnout as a person enters stage 3 or adrenal exhaustion.

Stage 3: Adrenal Exhaustion/Hypoadrenia

In this stage, the adrenals can no longer produce cortisol and DHEA in adequate amounts to allow the body to repair and recover. It is in this stage where we see extremely low cortisol and DHEA levels. Chronic fatigue and brain problems such as depression and memory loss are hallmarks of Stage 3 adrenal burnout.

Why Should I be Concerned with Adrenal Exhaustion?

Most doctors never think about the chronic stress response, adrenal exhaustion and how they cause major health problems in our society. Cortisol is responsible for so many of the body’s functions. Low cortisol and DHEA levels impact the female hormone production of progesterone and estrogen and testosterone function in males. Female hormone symptoms such as night sweats, hot flashes, low sex drive, infertility, mood swings, craving for sweets and other menopausal symptoms can be related to adrenal malfunctioning. Abnormal cortisol levels are also related to increased back, neck and joint pain as well as osteoporosis and arthritis. Our adrenal glands also are responsible for protein, carbohydrate and fat metabolism and the ”muffin top” associated with middle age stress! Proper cortisol and DHEA levels are necessary for normal brain function, memory, learning and proper sleep cycles. Imbalances in cortisol and DHEA lead to depression, anxiety and neurodegeneration. Since one of cortisol’s main jobs is to raise glucose levels, high cortisol is associated with high blood sugar and diabetes and metabolic syndrome (pre-diabetes). Chronic adrenal stress effects the functioning of your hypothalamus and pituitary gland which direct the production of thyroid hormone.

Adrenal Function and Your Immune System

One of the most important aspects of our adrenal glands is to regulate our body’s immune system through the manufacture of SIgA (secretory immunoglobulin A).

SIgA is a thin mucous layer that lines all the internal mucous lining of the body, which forms a barrier that protects us against infection from yeasts, parasites, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, toxic chemicals, heavy metals and food antigens that cause food sensitivities. With low SIgA levels in the gastrointestinal tract, we are more prone to “pick up” a parasite, pathogenic bacteria or yeast infection in the gut. We can also have reactions against the foods we eat! Large protein molecules from dairy, wheat and soy, among others, enter the GI tract and get into our blood stream where they don’t belong, and cause inflammation and food intolerances. It is the lack of SIgA protection that eventually leads to what is known as “Leaky Gut Syndrome”. When small holes are made in the mucous membranes with a leaky gut, this allows pathogenic organisms and food antigens etc to enter the blood stream. This sets up an immune reaction as our white blood cells attempt to kill these foreign invaders. It is this mechanism that leads to autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s Thyroid, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Scleroderma, Graves Disease, Multiple Sclerosis and others. If cortisol levels are abnormal then the production of SIgA is low. This is why we get sick so easily when stress levels are high. To summarize, chronic stress causes adrenal exhaustion and a depressed immune system which leads to gut infections, food intolerances and leaky gut syndrome which eventually leads to autoimmune disease and chronic illness.

Now For The Good News!

If you think you may be suffering from any of the 3 stages of adrenal problems,

Adrenal Stress/Adrenal Fatigue/Adrenal Exhaustion, the good news is that you can easily find out by doing an Adrenal Stress Index Test. This is a one day saliva test done at home and sent to a laboratory that specializes in adrenal gland testing. Once you know what stage your adrenal glands are in, then a program consisting of lifestyle and diet redesign and taking specific adrenal supplements tailored for your adrenal stage, should be considered. It would be nice if fixing adrenal problems was a ‘one size fits all” solution, but it is not that simple. For instance, some exercise is always good, however, it is a stressor to the body. Some stages of adrenal fatigue require hard exercise and others require less strenuous exercise like yoga and Pilates.

The best way not to fall into the sinkhole of adrenal problems is to:

Eat three balanced meals and two small snacks every day

  • Get to bed by 10:30 PM
  • Do light to moderate exercise (think: walking and weight training)
  • Don’t consume stimulants like caffeine and sugar for energy
  • Decrease alcohol consumption and get sugar out of your diet
  • Take time for rest and relaxation (even if you must schedule it!)
  • Don’t sweat the “small stuff”
  • Take adrenal supplements specific for the “stage” your adrenals are in

If you are having problems with chronic fatigue, depression, weight gain, insomnia, female or male hormone issues, gastrointestinal problems or if you just feel wired and tired, an Adrenal Stress Index Test may be the best thing you could do for your health.

If you are finally tired of being "sick and tired", contact Dr. Marianne Beck at Women's BestHealth today. Call 954-782-4855 to to set up an appointment.

Women's BestHealth is a functional medicine and nutritional health center specializing in women's health issues and wellness. Dr. Marianne Beck, founder and director, provides natural treatment for menopause, perimenopause, adrenal fatigue/stress, thyroid problems, Hashimoto's, osteoporosis, gastrointestinal problems and autoimmune disease.We offer our services locally in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties.

Serving: South Florida (South Fl), Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Sunrise, Oakland park, Pompano Beach, Deerfield, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, Miramar, Coral Springs, Cooper City, Pembroke Pines, Tamarac, Coconut Creek, Weston, Hollywood, Plantation, Wellington, Palm Beach Gardens. Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties.

Marianne Beck, D.C., Functional Medicine Practitioner and Director, Women's BestHealth