Life, in our modern day world, can be stressful. I often marvel at how ‘being stressed’ has become a marker of being successful or even almost an achievement. In fact, many people sadly function in a constant state of stress and worry, and the health implications of this are disastrous. I speak from personal experience here!
Feeling ‘stressed’ has become an insidious undercurrent to so many modern day diseases and disorders. One of my key goals as a Naturopath in treating a patient holistically is to treat the underlying cause of disease. When I was in clinical practice, one of the most common drivers of many of the health complaints I saw was ‘stress’.
How does stress make you sick?
So the aim of this post is to help you gain an understanding of one aspect of the human stress response and how it may be impacting on your health. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and it has an important role to play to enhance our reactions (and improve our survival) in stressful times. In order to explain how cortisol affects your body, I’d like you to consider our stress responses as cavemen and cavewomen. Living in these times, your main stressors would have been three-fold – war (territory takeovers), drought and famine. The modern human, however, experiences many more stressful events and with much more frequency.
So where the caveman produced cortisol in these (rarely) stressful occasions, we now produce it often. Where being ‘stressed’ becomes chronic for many people and cortisol levels remain elevated and unchecked, a number of common health problems may result. So elevated cortisol levels or exhausted adrenal glands become a key consideration when holistically assessing any ‘chronically stressed’ person who is unwell.
To further explain…
Poor sleep and fatigue
Our cortisol levels generally drop at night time to allow us to sleep. When they are elevated, deep sleep is not possible – this heightened awareness is a primitive response to war or threat. Good in the short term (for a caveman needing to keep alert for any impending attack) but exhausting in our modern world where every night finds elevated cortisol levels and disrupted sleep patterns.
In a primitive man stressed by drought, famine and war, elevated cortisol allows the body to store fat (especially abdominal) – that is, to build a larder for tough times ahead. It also promotes the storage of extracellular fluid (to prepare for drought), we’d refer to this as fluid retention or bloat. The older you are the worse this becomes as, in primitive times, the elderly were last in line for scarce food. So elevated cortisol reduces your metabolic rate and acts as an antidiuretic to store fat and fluid.
Obviously, during times of war, drought and famine, having more mouths to feed was not so desirable to the cave man and woman. So elevated cortisol also reduces both male and female fertility by reducing testosterone, progesterone, and oestrogen. Cortisol plays havoc on the menstrual cycle, libido, ability to conceive and energy levels. In fact, it impacts on all hormone driven disorders including PCOS, endometriosis, PMS, thyroid disorders and also makes for a symptomatic menopause.
Anxiety and depression
High levels of cortisol cause anxiety and also suppresses the hormone serotonin (good mood hormone), which can leave your spirits low.
Cortisol drives up the blood pressure and blood sugar levels (leaving you with sugar cravings and a predisposition to diabetes); combined with the before mentioned weight gain, is a key factor in the development of cardiac disease.
Stress hormones also adversely effect all stages of digestion, weakens immune responses, accelerates ageing, joint degeneration and reduces muscle tone and bone density.
So a clinical example, a real anonymous case (but very common scenario). A woman presents with ‘bad menopausal symptoms’ – flushes, insomnia, weight gain, depression, fatigue, hypertension, arthritis, indigestion, and IBS. Her history reveals chronic stress. I do nothing but treat her adrenal glands, make some minor dietary adjustments and we discuss stress management techniques. Four weeks later, she no longer flushes, sleeps soundly, is happy, energised and has no joint pain or digestive upset. By simply addressing the underlying cause, she ‘feels like a new woman.’ This is one example that could apply to any number of cases I have seen over the years – from infertility to insomnia to depression, digestive disorder or any of the before mentioned disorders; by treating the individual holistically and addressing the adrenals, health can be restored.
This is by no means a complete list of all of the conditions caused or impacted by stress. The symptoms of adrenal stress are diverse and nonspecific and effect pretty much EVERY system of the body.
If you identify with this post (or know someone who might), there are many natural ways to address adrenal imbalance (and therefore treat the before mentioned conditions). Over the coming weeks, I will discuss solutions to support your body to heal and restore.
Treating Adrenal Stress Naturally, click here.