On an evolutionary level your stress hormones are designed to help you run away from a sabre-tooth tiger or turn around and fight it, if you decided to! This is called the flight or fight response.
Today thankfully we don’t usually have to run away from sabre tooth tigers or any other scary creature, but we also don’t have long stretches of time between stressful life-and-death events like we would have in our ancestral past; relaxing in caves, walking in nature, and singing together around a fire. Instead of these little spurts of high-stress, we now have relentless medium grade stress every day.
The crazy thing is, our bodies can’t tell the difference between an actual sabre tooth tiger fight and the kind of relentless daily stressors we experience in the modern world; like work deadlines, sleepless nights as a young mum, or an overwhelming to-do list. Even heavy exercise routines can place chronic stress on the body.
You know that amped up, too much coffee feeling you get when under stress? Well just think what that does to our body – it gives you energy to deal with that sabre tooth tiger by flooding your body with hormones, which directs blood away from “non essential” stuff like digestion, at the same time increasing blood pressure and brain clarity to give us the extra brain-power and muscle power to fight or run… So aside from not absorbing our food well when stressed we are often left feeling a little exhausted from all this extra energy spent.
With chronic stress the adrenal glands effectively get less responsive to another hormone called “adrenal corticotrophic hormone” (ACTH), that comes from the brain and spurns the adrenal hormones into action.
The adrenal hormones also help regulate the sleep-wake cycle so often when you are chronically stressed you will often not have a normal diurnal pattern, feeling exhausted until around 10 in the morning, recovering somewhat, then crashing again in the mid-afternoon, recovering somewhat around dinner time and then feeling almost hyper after around 9.30.
Once upon a time we called this adrenal fatigue, but now we call it HPA axis dysfunction! This reflects the fact that it is not that the adrenals are broken or damaged in anyway, just that they are less sensitive to the ACTH than they should be. This is much like cells become less sensitive to insulin in pre-diabetes though over exposure. The term adrenal fatigue was poo-poohed by doctors, but now we are starting to see science actually demonstrating that the adrenal glands do start to show a decrease in sensitivity in chronic stress. So educated natural therapists have moved away from the term adrenal fatigue, toward one that is used in the science journals but it is the same thing!
The adrenal hormones also regulate inflammation in our body, so guess what also happens when you are chronically stressed and you reach this burn out stage? Your pain levels go up, your immune system can go awry and so can your other hormones and neurotransmitters. All of this shows just how much chronic disease has its beginnings in chronic stress. From autoimmunity to cancer to heart disease to type 2 diabetes and even mental health issues, stress has an impact in the formation of all of them.
So as you can see learning how to lower your stress levels, is oh-so-important!
As a naturopath and herbalist I am in a unique place to help you do this as I can help you discover the right herbs and nutrients to support your adrenals while coaching ways to actually increase your resilience to stress
Heim, C., Ehlert, U., & Hellhammer, D. H. (2000). The potential role of hypocortisolism in the pathophysiology of stress-related bodily disorders. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 25(1), 1-35. Abstract here
Miller, G. E., Cohen, S., & Ritchey, A. K. (2002). Chronic psychological stress and the regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines: a glucocorticoid-resistance model. Health psychology, 21(6), 531. Full article here
Silverman, M. N., Heim, C. M., Nater, U. M., Marques, A. H., & Sternberg, E. M. (2010). Neuroendocrine and immune contributors to fatigue. PM&R, 2(5), 338-346. Full article here