Stressed about your stress: Let's look at your adrenal glands

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis95% of my patients are abso­lutely stressed out. Our lives these days are tax­ing and busy, our jobs too demand­ing, our “ fun ” extra­cur­ricular activ­it­ies not fun but hec­tic, and our sleep dis­turbed with the chal­lenge and push to get less and less sleep to do more and more.

As I recently pos­ted, B‑12 is a vit­am­in that many dis­cov­er when trolling the inter­net for its fant­ast­ic bene­fits like improv­ing fatigue. However, it doesn’t always work. Why ?

The Small but Mighty Adrenal Glands

Our adren­al glands are two small tri­angle-shaped glands that sit on top of our kid­neys. Bet you didn’t know that ! I had no idea what they were talk­ing about in neur­os­cience class when I first learned about them ! The adren­al glands are part of what is called the hypo­thalam­ic – pitu­it­ary – adren­al axis — they are the back­bone of our hor­mon­al sys­tem and the sig­nal­ing that goes on in our body between our brain and the rest of the body.

The adren­al glands are incred­ibly import­ant in that they syn­thes­ize most of our hor­mones. The out­side of the gland, or the cor­tex, makes hor­mones like cortisol (our day­time hor­mone), all of our sex hor­mones ( estro­gen, pro­ges­ter­one, testoster­one ), and a hor­mone called aldos­ter­one that is related to the kid­neys ( anoth­er story for anoth­er day ). The inner part of the gland, or the medulla, makes epi­neph­rine and nore­pineph­rine or our flight-or-fight hor­mones and with cortisol helps us get through stress­ful peri­ods ( basic­ally they decide when we should rise to the occa­sion in a stress­ful event, or when it is appro­pri­ate to sit back and relax ).

My focus of con­ver­sa­tion today will be about this fight-or-flight and then relax­a­tion response that the adren­al glands can induce. You will all be famil­i­ar with the signs that the adren­al gland is in action, and I’ll paint a pic­ture for you to get famil­i­ar with the body sensations:

You’re camp­ing up north in Algonquin park and you hear rust­ling through the trees. At the end of a clear­ing, you spot a large bear behind you. Not know­ing if you are sup­posed to run or stay still, you race in the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion. Your heart is pound­ing ; the hun­ger you felt a minute ago is com­pletely gone. Your eyes feel more sharp, you feel agile, and you are breath­ing, hard.

After run­ning for 5 minutes and not look­ing back, you real­ize your one of your friends put on a bear cos­tume. You’re annoyed, but you start to calm down. You look down, and you real­ize your legs have small cuts all over them that you did not feel when you were run­ning (immune sys­tem sup­presses dur­ing stress so you don’t feel pain). You are sud­denly raven­ous and you need to use the wash­room urgently (diges­tion and bod­ily func­tions are put on hold). You are over­whelmed with fatigue.

The adrenal gland allows us to rise to the occasion in the face of a stressful event, and then calms as we are recovering from that stress.

What if your body can no longer tell the dif­fer­ence between run­ning from an actu­al bear, or the bear that is run­ning around in your mind? Virtual bears could be your ter­rible boss, your stress­ful com­mute, your three chil­dren who all wake up scream­ing at 3 am, or a stress­ful fam­ily event that occurs every month that you dread. Worse, you exper­i­ence many of these scen­ari­os all at the same time.

There are nutri­ents that the adren­al gland needs when it goes through stress-sup­port and stress-recov­ery, and these nutri­ents can be depleted eas­ily. Vitamin B5 or pan­tothen­ic acid is a major sup­port to the adren­al gland, as is vit­am­in C. However, with years of stress, these vit­am­ins are not often enough.

There are many herbs that can help the adren­al gland that can be very effect­ive, provided you are tak­ing the right one for your per­son­al­ity and body. Absorb some of this inform­a­tion, and look for fur­ther adren­al-sup­port­ive herbs to come.

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