The Physical Response to Stress
The adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and are the main gland responsible for the stress response. The adrenals produce hormones that help to balance your blood sugar, which helps your body manage energy needs. When blood sugar drops, the adrenals release hormones that cause the blood sugar to rise, and increases energy. The adrenals also release glucose for energy that we need when under stress. This "fight or flight" response harkens back to days when we needed to run away from the dinosaurs, but is now a response to everyday stressors, such as traffic jams, arguments, and work pressures. Unfortunately, the excess adrenalin produced cannot be used up by running away from the boss and can therefore have serious consequences.
Chronic stress takes a toll on the adrenal glands. Eventually the adrenal glands cannot produce sufficient hormones. This is because, like everything in the body, adrenal hormones require nutrients to make them. If our diet is insufficient, then we simply run out of adrenal hormones. This is termed, in naturopathic circles, "adrenal exhaustion". This is something that calls for a visit to a naturopath. Conventional endocrinologists and tests diagnose only extreme dysfunction in the adrenals, such as the potentially fatal condition, Addison's disease, where the adrenals essentially shut down. Only nutrition can treat adrenal exhaustion.
A Little Deeper - Hormones of the Adrenal Glands
The adrenal cortex consists of an inside and an outside. These outside is the adrenal cortex and the inside is the adrenal medulla The Outside - Hormones of the Adrenal Cortex The adrenal cortex consists of three different regions, with each region producing a different type of hormones. Chemically, all the cortical hormones are considered steroids. These hormones are all increased when we ware under chronic stress.
- Mineralocorticoids are secreted by the outermost region of the adrenal cortex. The principal mineralocorticoid is aldosterone, which acts to conserve sodium (salt) and water in the body.
- Glucocorticoids are secreted by the middle region of the adrenal cortex. The principal glucocorticoid is cortisol, which increases blood glucose levels.
- The third group of steroids secreted by the adrenal cortex is the sex hormones. The innermost region secretes these. Male hormones, androgens, and female hormones, oestrogens, are secreted in minimal amounts in both sexes by the adrenal cortex.
The Inside -Hormones of the Adrenal Medulla
The adrenal medulla secretes two hormones, adrenalin and nor adrenalin. These two hormones are secreted in response to stimulation by sympathetic nerve, particularly during stressful situations.
The functions of adrenalin and nor adrenalin are to;
* Increase in the rate and strength of the heartbeat resulting in increased blood pressure
* Blood is shunted from the skin to the skeletal muscles, coronary arteries, liver, and brain * Rise in blood sugar
* Increased metabolic rate; · Bronchi dilate;
* Pupils dilate;
* Hair stands on end
* Clotting time of the blood is reduced i.e. the blood thickens.
Do You Have Adrenal Exhaustion?
When the adrenal glands have run out of steam, you can have a condition that is known as adrenal exhaustion. Adrenal exhaustion can develop after lengthy periods of intense physical or emotional stress. Chronic overstimulation if the glands leave them unable to meet your body's needs.
* Excessive fatigue and exhaustion
* Non-refreshing sleep (you get sufficient hours of sleep, but wake feeling tired)
* Nightmares * Feeling of being overwhelmed
* Feeling like you're at the end of your tether
* You live at night, having most energy in the evening
* Difficulty concentrating
* Chronic infections and weakened immune system
* Food or environmental allergies
* Premenstrual syndrome or menopausal symptoms (the adrenal should take over production of oestrogen after the ovaries have given up)
* Cravings for salty and sweet foods
* Poor digestion
Naturopathic treatment for adrenal exhaustion
As much as you may want them, stimulants are not the answer! Caffeine places further stress on the adrenals to work harder and produce more hormones resulting in yet further depletion the adrenal hormones. This includes ‘natural stimulants" such as guarana. Although if you have to guarana may be a better temporary option when burning the midnight oil as, whilst it is a central nervous system stimulant, it is not a nervous system irritant.
Balance Your Blood Sugar
Sugar and simple carbohydrates put stress on the adrenal glands due by rapidly shifting blood sugar levels. By switching to vegetables, fruits and proteins, and high fibre carbohydrates in the form of whole grains, blood sugar remains more stable, providing less strain on the adrenal glands. To maintain proper adrenal function, it is imperative to control your blood sugar levels. An excessive ratio of carbohydrates to protein results in excess secretion of insulin, which often leads to intervals of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Stress tolerance goes down when you're hungry. In an attempt to normalize blood sugar the body stimulates the adrenals to secrete increased levels of cortisol and adrenalin. This contributes to chronic cortisol depletion and consequently, adrenal exhaustion. In order to stabilize blood sugar, you must maintain a balance between two hormones, glucagon and insulin, which are produced by the pancreas. Protein in the diet induces the production of glucagon.
Carbohydrates in the diet induce the production of insulin. Insulin promotes fat production. When excess carbohydrates are eaten in the form of sugars, potatoes and pasta, the body produces large quantities of insulin and little glucagon. When insulin is high and glucagon is low, the adrenals are called upon to produce excess cortisol as a back-up response to help raise blood sugar. This occurs at the expense of the adrenal glands, contributing to adrenal exhaustion.
Dietary Advice for adrenal exhaustion
* Eat a small meal or snacks every three to four hours.
* Eat within the first hour upon awakening.
* Eat before becoming hungry. If hungry, you have already allowed yourself to run out of fuel (low blood sugar/ hypoglycemia), which places additional stress on the adrenal glands
* The optimal level of insulin to glucagon is achieved by a diet that contains carbohydrates balanced with proteins in a ratio of approximately two to one. This basically means meat should take up 1/3 and low GI carbohydrates 2/3 of the plate i.e. roast beef and vegetables (not potatoes). If the carbohydrate is rice or potatoes, they should only take up 1/3 f the plate and meat 1/3 also.
* A small amount (1 tsp) of cold pressed vegetable or seed oil will slow down the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream.
Complementary Medicine for Stress and Adrenal Support
There are a number of freely available natural remedies to help you cope in times of stress.
The herb valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is best known as a herbal remedy for insomnia. Valerian is also used in patients with mild anxiety. Valerian is usually taken an hour before bedtime, however, it can alleviate anxiety when taken 3 times a day. It not only relieves anxiety, but can actually feed the nervous system. It takes about two to three weeks to work and shouldn't be used for more than three months at a time.
The herb passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is used as a remedy for anxiety, insomnia and hysteria. Studies have examined the effectiveness of passionflower for anxiety. One study found passionflower to be comparable to benzodiazepine drugs such as valium. The good news is, is that it doesn't affect your cognitive awareness so you can still drive and operate machinery! Both passionflower and valerian should not be taken with sedatives unless under medical supervision. Passionflower may enhance the effect of pentobarbital, a medication used for sleep and epilepsy. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding it is best you see a qualified herbalist before taking any herb.
Do not underestimate the value of chamomile! I am talking about the flowers and not the teabags. (Chamomilla recutita) is used in the treatment of insomnia, anxiety and nervous tension. It is rich in magnesium, which nourishes the nervous system and is anti-spasmodic. It can therefore be used to treat period pain and migraine. This herb is particularly useful to treat digestive problems such as nervous dyspepsia and colic. It is a gentle bitter that stimulates digestive secretions. It is also mildly anti- inflammatory and can relieve conditions of the upper digestive tract such as heartburn that are often stress related.
Also called Devil's Shrub, Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) has herbal properties similar to those of Panax ginseng but it is not as expensive. Siberian ginseng has a wide range of health benefits attributed to its use. Traditionally it is used to increase endurance. Its' anti-fatigue effect is stronger than that of ginseng. It is also used to enhance memory and as an anti-inflammatory and immune stimulant.. People with high blood pressure should consult their doctor or health professional before taking Siberian ginseng.
Centella Centella (Centella asiatica) is an adrenal and cerebral stimulant. Not only does it tonify the adrenal glands and support energy, it is also improves blood flow to the brain and enhances memory. It is also used for wound healing, to improve circulation, detoxifying the body, protect against cancer, improve vitality, treatof skin disorders (such as psoriasis and eczema), revitalises connective tissue, burn and scar treatment and clearing up skin infections.
Gamma-aminobutyric Acid (GABA)
GABA is an amino acid that is known to play a role in the physiology of anxiety. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. This may be a useful short-term supplement for acute anxiety disorders.
Plant essential oils can be added to baths, massage oil, or infusers. Essential oils that are used for anxiety and nervous tension are: bergamot, cypress, geranium, jasmine, lavender, melissa, neroli, rose, sandalwood, ylang-ylang. Lavender is the most common and forms the base of many relaxing blends.
Supplements for adrenal exhaustion
Pantothenic acid B5
B5 is the anti-stress nutrient. It is involved in adrenal cortex function and nourishes the adrenals and replenishing adrenalin stores. The adrenal glands are hungry for it and use it to make adrenal hormones. Particular keynote symptoms that indicate the need for this vitamin are hand sweats, feet sweats, night sweats and insomnia.
Magnesium is often called the anti-stress mineral because it has a calming effect when taken. Its soothing properties induce restful sleep. It is specific for hot-tempers and those who are easily agitated. Magnesium is part of bones and cells, especially the smooth muscle cells of arteries. It regulates muscular contraction and can protect the arterial lining from stress caused by sudden blood pressure changes. Magnesium also assists in the absorption of calcium and potassium.
It is vitally important to increase potassium in times of stress. Proper balance of potassium in the body depends on sodium. Under stress the adrenal glands produce aldosterone, which causes the retention of sodium. We know that sodium is not good for our blood pressure. Therefore the requirements for potassium increase considerably. It also plays a key role in cardiac, skeletal, and smooth muscle contraction, making it an important nutrient for normal heart, digestive, and muscular function. A diet high in potassium from fruits, vegetables, and legumes is recommended.
A basic multivitamin or B Complex. will help regulate your blood sugar thereby reducing the pressure placed on the adrenal glands and sparing the adrenal hormones. B vitamins will also directly feed the adrenal gland and nourish the nervous system in general. A good B complex should stop hand sweats in a couple of weeks.
The adrenal glands also use loads of vitamin C to manufacture adrenal hormones. During times of stress, demands for vitamin C go up immensely. I suggest taking a good supplement, preferably a calcium ascorbate, whenever you experience increased demands. Bodywork Massage therapy, shiatsu, and other forms of bodywork are widely used to diminish muscle tension, relieve stress, and improve sleep.
Mind/body breathing exercises, physical exercise, yoga, tai chi, self-hypnosis, meditation, and biofeedback are just some of the stress reduction techniques used for anxiety. Instead of simulating aerobics, do something more calming, like yoga or tai chi.
From a naturopathic perspective there ois a plethora of dietary, lifestyle and supplement and herbal medicine advice that will adress the causes of autism and alleviate the symptoms.
Carina Harkin BHSc.Nat.BHSc.Hom.BHSc.Acu.
Cert IV TAE. ARCHTI mem.