Stress, Cortisol and Adrenal Fatigue
During periods of stress cortisol levels are increased, which in turn increases the metabolism of fatty acids to provide the body with enough glucose to respond to the fight or flight activation of the sympathetic nervous system. In cases of prolonged stress, increased cortisol levels may not return to normal leading to impairment of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and a blunted response to cortisol which may eventually lead to a flattening of the diurnal rhythm and a reduced output of cortisol.
With a reduction of cortisol over a prolonged period, glucose metabolism becomes impaired leading to hypoglycemia and a need for stimulants such as sugar and often coffee in an attempt to cope with the resultant chronic fatigue. A prolonged state of sympathetic nervous system dominance leads to dysfunction of the gastrointestinal system, thus leading to malabsorption of the proteins necessary to make neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and endogenous opioids resulting in anxiety, depression and sleep disorders. Prolonged low levels of another adrenal hormone, aldosterone, can lead to an increase in sodium loss through the kidneys and an increased retention of potassium leading to salt cravings.
In addition to chronic fatigue, particularly morning fatigue, other symptoms of adrenal fatigue include muscle weakness and pain, joint pain, impaired immune function, hyper-pigmentation of the skin around scars and joints, poor concentration, decreased libido and mild depression.
Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
- Weight gain, central adiposity
- Hormone imbalance, irregular periods
- Low energy levels upon rising and mid afternoon
- Brain fog, poor concentration, poor memory
- Mood swings, panic attacks, stress intolerance
- Salt cravings, coffee dependence
- Alternating constipation and diarrhoea
- Reflux, indigestion, bloating
- Loss of libido
- Constant colds and flu
- Ongoing fatigue and insomnia
- Muscle pains, joint pains
- Frequent headaches
The Adrenal glands are situated on top of the kidneys and release a number of hormones, which among other things, regulate blood pressure and our response to stress, whether that stress be real or imagined. One of those hormones, Cortisol, has a diurnal rhythm where levels are at their highest upon waking to enable us to cope with the day and decreasing in the evening.
A Complex Healing Process
Treating Adrenal Fatigue is a complex process involving correcting diet, improving digestive function, supporting the HPA axis with adaptogenic herbs, modulating the endocrine system and the use of stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness, meditation and spending time in nature.