Adrenals & Stress

Your adrenal glands are busy! Their primary function is to respond to stress. For example, say you suffer an injury. Your adrenals will produce cortisol to act as a protective anti-inflammatory and antioxidant hormone. Cortisol helps minimize negative and allergic reactions from injuries, alcohol, drugs, foods, environmental allergens, cancer, infection, autoimmune disorders, etc. But that’s not all the adrenals are responsible for. They also….

  • Help convert proteins and fat into energy
  • Regulate blood sugar
  • Participate in cardiovascular function by constricting blood vessels, regulating sodium and potassium, controlling the strength of the contraction, etc.
  • Produce sex hormones (and are the main source after mid-life)
  • and more…

But the adrenals are best known for releasing hormones to allow us to react to danger by actions such as dilating our pupils so we can see better, generating and getting sugar to our muscles quickly, and shutting down nonessential processes like digestion. This response is designed to be short term to allow us to run from “the tiger”. But what if “the tiger” is everyday life?? Since elevated cortisol levels affect all areas of the body, they have become one of the most common functional disorders seen in our society today.

What causes adrenal stress?

Anything the body perceives as stress be it physical, emotional or spiritual. Therefore, any systemic imbalance may lead to adrenal issues. Each form of stress can lead to other types of stress, like strands in a spider web. According to Dr. Gant, MD, there are many types of stress that can make up our web of “distress”.

  • Emotional stress
  • Cognitive stress (remember the way we think matters)
  • Sensory stress (pain, posture, etc.)
  • Lifestyle stress (diet, alcohol, exercise, sleep, social life)
  • Metabolic stress (blood sugar, methylation, nutrients, etc.)
  • Toxic stress (heavy metals, fungicides, herbicides, trans fats, etc.)
  • Inflammatory stress
  • Endocrine stress (hormones, thyroid, and adrenals)
  • Neurotransmitter stress
  • Oxidative stress (reactive oxygen species, anemias, etc.)
  • EMF
  • Infectious stress

What effect does continued stress have on our health?

Our bodies are designed to keep us alive at all costs, so if you experience stressor that seem overwhelming, the body responds by doing all the things it needs to do to “run away” from the source. One of the mechanisms used is the release cortisol to provide sources sugars for the muscles to fight or flight. But if you don’t physically burn it off, blood levels stay too high–leading to systemic issues.

Adrenal stress can turn into fatigue and exhaustion so it is important to catch it early since it may lead to….

  • Insulin resistance
  • Compromised digestion
  • Inhibited sex hormone production and effectiveness
  • Increased sodium retention
  • Blood pressure issues
  • Suppressed immune function
  • Altered thyroid function, production, and effectiveness
  • Depletion of magnesium, zinc, glutamine, and B vitamins
  • Temporary infertility
  • Inflammation of brain cells
  • Overload of detoxification capability
  • Loss of collagen in skin (>10x over any other tissue)
  • Loss of lean body mass
  • Insomnia, anxiety, irrational thoughts and fears
  • Reduced digestive function
  • Reduced mitochondrial function
  • and more…

How does our body protect against long term stress?


In order to get ready for their deep winter sleep, bears eat tons of salmon and whatever else they can catch. Salmon runs are short-lived, though, so bears turn to berries and other plants to fill their metabolic needs.

Hibernation Mode

In order to get ready for their deep winter sleep, bears eat tons of salmon and whatever else they can catch. Salmon runs are short-lived, though, so bears turn to berries and other plants to fill their metabolic needs.

But what happens in late fall, when all of their food sources are gone? The abrupt reduction food supply leads to an increase in their manufacture of reverse T3 (rT3), an inactive thyroid hormone that slows down metabolism. Since the bear tucked away lots of body fat when there was plenty of food, it can sleep through the winter and not starve

It is no different for us. If our body senses that it is has been too low on its necessary resources for too long, in order to sustain energy and conserve resources, the adrenals block the thyroid from producing and activating hormones. This slows down our metabolism, enabling us to save valuable resources.


The body actually takes this one step further by initiating a “cell defense response”, that shuts down our mitochondria to conserve energy. With so few mitochondria, we become tired, weak, and “rusty” To make things worse, impaired mitochondria produce higher levels of free radicals leading to additional mitochondria depletion thereby, perpetuating the problem. No wonder the list above is so expansive.

The brain is especially sensitive to this. Since neurons are easily damaged by oxidative stress, they handle its suppression locally via antioxidant proteins, one of which are mitochondrial uncoupling proteins (UCPs). Their job is to slow the production of energy and instead use the resources to make heat, limiting the number of free radicals being produced. Since neurons require a considerable energy for their activities, this can lead to ongoing fatigue, brain fog,  and other brain symptoms as well.

Vagus Nerve

The mitochondria are not alone in their quest for preservation. Dr. Stephen Porges introduced a stress model that involves the vagus nerve known as the Polyvagal Theory. Until recently, we believed that the autonomic nervous system was divided into two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic system is our fight/flight response and the parasympathetic system our rest/digest function.

His idea is that our vagus nerve is actually made up of two nerves from different areas of the brain that although fused together, serve different roles.

The ventral vagal response is when we feel safe and everything is going along just fine. When things start to get a bit stressful, our classic sympathetic fight-or-flight response is initiated. Finally, when the stress response isn’t working and we just can’t deal with another physical or mental trauma, the dorsal vagal activates (downregulating the other 2 responses) which forces us to metabolically “freeze”. This response can be associated with signs and symptoms of giving up, both mentally and physically. 

Good news, treatment protocols and simple exercises to been developed to help reset the vagal response. Read more here.

Pregnenolone Steal

If that wasn’t enough, the body also initiates the Pregnenolone Steal to shunt valuable resources to the most important processes. This  lead to issues with hormones and blood pressure, etc.

How can you test your adrenals?

There are simple physical at home tests such as comparing blood pressure changes while going from a sitting to standing position or by monitoring pupil contraction when challenged with light.

Objective testing such as Blood Chemistry Analysis can give indirect early indication and well as possible underlying causes. Frankly, I am always surprised when doctors order a serum cortisol test. Wouldn’t the act of getting stuck by a needle stress you out? It may find frank disease, but possibly not the start of dysfunction.

I prefer urinary or salivary cortisol/DHEA testing which additionally provides status on tissue hormone levels, circadian rhythm, and stress’s downstream effects on sex hormone production, methylation cofactors, neurotransmitters, etc.

What can we do to help overworked adrenals?

Stress and its root cause are locked in a vicious cycle– each source of stress can lead to an increase in another type. Therefore, it is important to uncover any metabolic dysfunction, inflammation, and stealth infections. These may include but are not limited to food sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies, methylation issues, underlying infections and/or inflammation, oxidative stress, dehydration, toxic load (drugs, heavy metals, fungicides, herbicides, chemicals), EMF, autoimmunity, hypoxia (low oxygen), pain, hormone imbalance, or dysfunction to any system/organ such as thyroid, gut, brain, cardiovascular, and more. Please work with a practitioner to find the root of yours. 4

In addition you may want to try the following: 

  • Keep your blood sugar balanced
  • Eat balanced meals with correct composition of proteins, fats and carbohydrates
  • Never skip breakfast
  • Avoid coffee or other caffeine containing beverages
  • Stay hydrated
  • Get to sleep by 10 pm and avoid getting over-tired
  • Get sunlight upon waking
  • Avoid consuming allergenic foods
  • Exercise both the body and vagus nerve
  • Consider temporary supportive adrenal and mitochondrial supplementation (both level and regulation)
  • Stress reduction like yoga and meditation
  • Do WHATEVER it is you love to do, OFTEN!!
  • Laugh a lot!!!

Since the adrenals can affect physiology throughout the body. working with a experienced practitioner may really help pinpoint your specific cause.

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