Do you ever wonder what actually happens to our body and adrenal glands with chronic stress? Are you experiencing more than one main stressor leading to "adrenal fatigue" aka HPA dysfunction? More studies are showing negative long term side effects from chronic stress so lets get to the bottom of it and heal the body.
Ever heard the term "adrenal fatigue"? The adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and one of their main functions is to produce and secrete a hormone called cortisol. It is stimulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary signals, hence HPA axis. There are many receptors throughout our body that respond to cortisol to stimulate a "fight or flight" response - aka helping us run from that dangerous tiger. However due to four main reasons, our bodies may constantly be running from the tiger when it isn't even there! This of course takes a toll on us.
Common symptoms of HPA dysfunction:
- brain fog
- anxiety, depression
- chronic colds and flus
- weight gain
How is your body responding to the stress?
The more I practice, the more I realize the importance of discovering the underlying cause and response of these symptoms for each individual and treating it accordingly. For example, if one patient has more anxiety due to an inability to clear free cortisol effectively due to poor liver or thyroid function, I would treat this much differently than with a patient who is fatigued and depressed due to a down-regulated response in the HPA axis leading to low metabolized cortisol.
Metabolized vs free cortisol what?? A DUTCH lab test, that I do in my practice and find very valuable, can actually differentiate these hormones and how they are broken down and metabolized. For example free cortisol is how much active cortisol is on our body, representing only 3-5% of our body's cortisol, and metabolized cortisol is what our adrenal glands actually produce, representing around 80%. Blood and salivary tests only test free cortisol, which is not the full representation of what is going on!
(The DUTCH test actually test test SO MUCH MORE than cortisol, including sex hormones and their metabolites, melatonin and liver detoxification function...all so helpful to see!)
So what is actually causing this HPA axis dysfunction? It typically is not only the day to day stress we experience at our job or due to our daily schedule. If we can decrease these triggers the normal feedback systems within our bodies will recover and symptoms will improve.
Four triggers of HPA dysfunction:
- Perceived Stress - This is the main trigger of cortisol dysfunction. Whether it be our go-go-go lifestyle preventing us from resting and recovering, or financial, job or relationship stress. Everyone perceives stress differently and some people may be less resilient than others. That trendy word mindfulness comes in here as well as simply taking time for yourself to recovery.
- Inflammation - This means ANY type of inflammation, including any autoimmune condition, an inflammatory diet full of sugar and inflammatory foods, gut issues, obesity, or chronic sickness. Inflammation of any kind up-regulates the HPA feedback system to put out the fire.
- Blood Sugar Dysregulation - High or low blood sugar affects insulin levels, which ultimately disrupts the HPA axis. This is why is it important to eat a low sugar diet with adequate protein, fat and fibre to slow down absorption of sugar and keep you full for longer. Look for foods with less than 7g of sugar, with full fat and good quality protein. Are you experiencing an energy crash in the afternoon? This means your blood sugar is not regulated! The first thing I suggest is changing your breakfast to include a protein and fat.
- Circadian Rhythm Disruption - I say it time and time again that our body LOVES routine. Too much exposure to light in the evenings, aka staring at a screen all evening, and not enough sun exposure during the day, aka too much time in an office and no sunshine, can affect the hormone cycles. Your cortisol can therefore be spiking at the wrong time.
Once we establish your main triggers and how your body is actually responding to those triggers, several Naturopathic treatment options can help along the road to recovery. I love adaptogenic or nervine herbs to calm or support the HPA axis (more to come on the difference). IV therapy can help to support the immune system and adrenals (still discounted for the month of August!). Addressing the pillars of health of diet and lifestyle are always important as well.
Questions about what was mentioned here or curious where your hormones lie? Come in for a visit! I am always here to help.
In health & happiness,