Stressed? Tired? Craving sugar? Can’t sleep?
All of these can be related to the constant stress we feel in our lives. Because let’s face it…life is BUSY.
We know that stress can have a huge impact on our health and wellness. And, since your adrenal glands produce stress hormones, adrenal fatigue (or more accurately, “HPA axis dysfunction”) is a popular theme lately.
The HPA axis is part of the endocrine system that includes the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands, the glands that look like walnuts that live on top of both of your kidneys. This axis creates your stress response in the body, no matter how big or small the type of stress.
When you experience stress, the hypothalamus releases a hormone (Corticotropin Releasing Hormone – CRH) that stimulates the pituitary gland to release another hormone (Adrenocorticotropic hormone – ACTH). The ACTH then travels to your adrenals to trigger the release of the steroid hormone, Cortisol.
Cortisol prepares your body for “fight or flight” by flooding your body with glucose for energy while suppressing the digestive system, the production of insulin, immune system responses and the reproductive system.
The release of these hormones in the fight or flight response is your body’s normal reaction to stress. This stress can sometimes be positive, like when it helps you swerve and prevent a crash.
In these cases, after a short time, the flight or flight response dissipates and your body goes back to normal. All is good.
But what happens when this system becomes “overworked?” When you feel constant stress? Like all day, every day? Like “chronic” stress?
It wouldn’t feel like an awesome (once-in-a-while) “rush,” anymore would it?
And what do you think happens to this system when it’s constantly working?
It would get fatigued, right?
The HPA axis functions as a feedback loop, which occurs when the output of one of the glands loops around and becomes input to another part of the loop. Increased cortisol signals the hypothalamus and pituitary to stop triggering cortisol production in a normal response.
But with chronic stress, the HPA axis continues to release hormones on an accelerated basis. Over time, the glands of the HPA axis become desensitized to this accelerated response and they stop recognizing the signals to stop producing hormones. The feedback loop no longer functions the way it is meant to.
Do I have adrenal fatigue?
When the HPA axis starts getting tired of secreting stress hormones day in and out, you can start getting other symptoms.
Fatigue, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, brain fog, low libido, weight loss or gain, joint pain, sugar cravings, even frequent infections, like colds and the flu, are signs that your HPA axis is overworked.
First off, I have to tell you that there aren’t medically accepted blood tests for adrenal fatigue. In fact, it’s not recognized by most medical professionals until the point when your adrenals are so fatigued they almost stop working. At that point, the official diagnoses of “Adrenal Insufficiency” or “Addison’s Disease” may apply.
However, if you do have symptoms, you should see your doctor to rule out other conditions. He or she may even be open to discussing HPA axis dysfunction, or at the very least, wellness strategies that can help to reduce your stress (and symptoms).
And if you want more information, a functional medicine practitioner can help you check your hormone levels over the course of a day with salivary testing.
What to do if I have these symptoms?
There are many actions you can take to reduce your stress and improve your health and energy levels.
Ideally, if you think stress is starting to burn you out, stress reduction is key. There are tons of ideas how you can reduce your stress. My favorites are meditation/breathing, walking in nature, light exercise, more sleep, or taking a bath.
Of course, I also recommend reducing sugar and processed food intake and eating more fruits and vegetables. Better nutrition can only help your body. So go ahead and do it.
Your hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands produce hormones in response to stress. After long-term daily stress, they may get stop responding the way they are meant to.
Adrenal fatigue, or HPA axis dysfunction, is a controversial disease that doesn’t have a Western medicine-accepted test, nor specific telltale symptoms.
The most important thing you can do is to get tested to rule out other potential conditions. You can also try stress reduction techniques like meditation, walks in nature, light exercise, more sleep, or even a lovely bath.