We will all suffer from high states of stress at some point in our lives. In today’s busy society we are involved in regular stressful life situations, along with frequent and exhausting training schedules.
This stress is a burden on the body, and if the stress becomes chronically elevated and prolonged, we can end up massively fatigued and run down. It can also put a halt on any body composition changes.
What we don’t always realize is the potential damage this is doing on the inside of our bodies and how it affects our health.
To show exactly what happens internally during a typical ‘stressful’ situation which we may encounter, let’s look at an example:
Say you are walking on the pavement and start to cross the road after checking it’s clear in both directions. Suddenly a car appears out of nowhere and is forced to swerve out of the way to avoid a collision with you.
Shortly after this event, you will find your heart is racing, you are breathing heavily, sweating, and shaking. You are in a state of shock.
Here’s what happened internally:
Above the kidneys, you will find a pair of triangular-shaped glands known as the adrenals. Their main role is to help your body manage and survive during stressful situations, such as in the previous example.
At the time of noticing the car hurtling towards you, the brain has sent a nerve impulse directly to your adrenals, which will cause them to secrete adrenaline.
Adrenaline is the reason for the heightened state you feel after the event, as its role is to ensure you have the focus and energy to survive the life threatening situation. This results in high blood pressure, respiration and heart rate.
The brain also decides it requires more glucose during this stressful time, so that the body and brain has more energy to survive the situation.
Our bodies have actually adapted well to these sudden stressful events and can therefore effectively manage our near-death experience.
We also see cortisol being released during other stressful situations such as intense training sessions. Under normal conditions, cortisol rises rhythmically throughout the night, and peaks first thing in the morning.
These natural ‘one off’ releases of cortisol can actually be a good thing for the body, as they help regulate immune function, repair tendons/ligaments and may even accelerate fat loss.
The problems we see with cortisol are when the hormone is elevated for long periods of time. It is chronic, low level stress that never quite goes away that leads to physical problems.
What Is Stress
There are a number of stresses, whether we recognize them or not that we will come into contact daily with. It is the intensity of each stress, the frequency with which it occurs, and the length of time exposed to it that all combine to form our total stress load.
There are four major categories of stress:mmuh7n
Physical Stress – such as overworking, poor nutrition, lack of sleep or athletic overtraining, etc.
Chemical Stress – from environmental pollutants, food intolerances of IBS, poor diet, and endocrine gland intolerances.
Thermal Stress – from overheating or over chilling of the body.
Emotional and Mental Stress – from family, friends, money, work, etc.
It’s the combination of these stresses on the body over time that can cause stress-related illnesses. Research has shown that those identified with stress-related illnesses follow a series of events that occur as a reaction to chronic stress.
This series of events is known as ‘General Adaptation Syndrome’ (GAS) and consists of 3 key stages.
- THE ALARM REACTION.
This is the body’s initial response to stress and kick starts the amount of adrenal activity.
This pushes the body into ‘full alert’ mode, forcing the adrenals to produce extra amounts of hormones to respond to this heightened state of stress.
Following this state of alert, the body will need 24-48 hours to recover from this overactive phase, so it begins to down-regulate the over-stimulated mechanisms. The person will feel more tired and want to rest, while internally the hormones involved become resistant to more stimulation.
- THE RESISTANCE STAGE.
If the chronic stress is continued on long enough then the adrenals begin to adapt and to re-build themselves to deal with the added workload. This stage of resistance can last for many months or even 10-20+ years. This prolonged hyperadrenic response can exhaust and deplete the adrenals, leading to stage 3.
- THE EXHAUSTION STAGE.
This prolonged alarm reaction known as hypernatremia will eventually lead to hyponatremia, the point where the person loses the ability to adapt to stress. Essentially, the body can no longer handle any further stress and the person may experience a total collapse of body function or specific organs or systems. Professional medical treatment is necessary here.
Not everyone will experience stage 3, or at least not for some time, but they will probably experience a number of other negative symptoms:-
• Increased blood sugar levels (store more body fat)
• Suppressed pituitary function (low testosterone)
• Suppression of the immune function
• Reduced liver detoxification
• Increased inflammation
• Learning and memory issues
The above is typically what occurs on the inside, but spotting the issues on the outside can be difficult.
Common symptoms are:
• Difficulty falling asleep
• Feeling lethargic most of the day
• Suffering from allergies or falling ill frequently
• Suffering from mood swings or feeling emotional
• Excessive perspiration, dizziness or blurred
The Adrenal Glands
Our adrenal glands are the ‘common centers’ for certain hormonal operations throughout our entire life. There are two adrenal glands, with each being situated just above the kidneys.
They have a significant effect on the functioning and operation of every tissue, organ, and gland in the body. We cannot live without them, and how well they function has a drastic impact on how we think and feel. The adrenal glands largely determine the energy of our responses to every change in our internal and external environment.
From a nutritional stance, the adrenal glands closely affect the utilization of carbohydrates and fats, the conversion of fats and protein into energy, the distribution of stored fat, normal blood sugar regulation, and proper cardiovascular and gastrointestinal function.
When presented with danger, the adrenal medulla releases adrenaline and noradrenaline. The result is a higher state of alertness, with increased heart rate, strength, and metabolic rate.
The outermost zone is the zona glomerulosa from which the hormone aldosterone is secreted. This hormone is a major controller of the sodium and potassium levels, and thus fluid balance, within the bloodstream, cells, and interstitial fluids (areas between cells).
The next zone is the zona fasciculata in which cortisol is produced. Cortisol controls or greatly influences the metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to maintain blood sugar glucose within a narrow optimal range and keep it in there even under stressful conditions.
The innermost zone is the zona reticularis where androgens are produced. This zone produces ancillary portions of sex hormones for males and females.
Many consider cortisol to be a ‘bad’ hormone and that it should be always suppressed – this isn’t correct. Cortisol is responsible for many of the life-sustaining functions attributed to the adrenal glands.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because the body releases cortisol in order to help cope with stressful situations – we do actually need it. The immediate effects of cortisol are increased levels of fatty acids, proteins, and glucose in the blood.
The amount of cortisol circulating the brain at any particular time is regulated by an integrated series of reactions between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.
ACTIONS OF CORTISOL
As mentioned previously cortisol plays an important part in many bodily functions including:-
Cortisol is necessary for maintaining blood sugar levels, as when levels are low, the adrenals produce more cortisol.
Cortisol up-regulates gluconeogenesis which converts fats and protein into energy for the body.
Cortisol is anti-inflammatory and works effectively at reducing and preventing responses to allergies in nearly all tissues. This is why in those with autoimmune reactions or disorders, low cortisol levels are common, thus creating a higher inflammatory response in the body.
In reaction to an autoimmune response or inflammatory reaction in the body, when blood cells are sent to defend the body and attack the invaders. Cortisol also plays an important role here as it reduces the irritation such as swelling or redness caused by the attacking white blood cells.
Cortisol can also help regulate blood pressure through the contraction of the walls of the arteries. With high levels of cortisol in the body, the more contracted the mid-sized arteries become. This increase in blood pressure also directly affects the heart, and can, therefore, increase the strength of contractions.
Central Nervous System
Cortisol influences behavior, mood, excitability, and these behavioral changes are a result of excessive or deficient cortisol levels.
This leads us nicely back to stress and how to manage it. The body signals the adrenals to produce cortisol in times of stress. During stress cortisol must simultaneously provide more blood glucose, mobilizing fats and proteins for reserve energy, and modify immune reactions, heartbeat, blood pressure, brain alertness, and nervous system responsiveness.
Without cortisol, these processes do not occur quickly enough to help us deal with the stress and we would easily succumb to it.
When we over exhaust our system with too much chronic stress, the body responds by dampening down its response, resulting in low cortisol levels.
This is also known as adrenal fatigue or hypoadrenia.
Nutrition And Stress When the adrenals become fatigued, their cortisol output is diminished which results in lower levels of circulating blood cortisol. With lowered blood cortisol, the body cannot convert as much glycogen into glucose.
It’s therefore common for those with adrenal fatigue to experience low blood sugar levels, as their cortisol levels are low and their demand for glucose is high due to the increased stress.
This results in hypoglycemia, leading to increased cravings for sugar. Those with adrenal fatigue, therefore, are typically on a constant blood sugar rollercoaster and always looking for their next sugar fix. On top of this, they rely on stimulants such as coffee and sodas to see them throughout the day.
Hypoglycaemia also causes overeating, as the body constantly strives for homeostasis to balance blood sugar levels. As we know, overeating generally leads to weight gain.
It is important for those suffering from adrenal fatigue to therefore eat regularly with consistent meal timings throughout the day. The goal should be to never go hypoglycaemic.
Furthermore, these meals should be nutritionally balanced with adequate protein, fats, and carbs from foods that control hypoglycemia. They should also avoid sugary foods, caffeine, and alcohol that can all have a big effect on blood glucose levels.
Fasting should never be used for those experiencing adrenal fatigue as it will call on the adrenals to produce glucocorticoids to maintain a level of blood glucose, thus resulting in further overuse of the adrenals.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy usage, and this becomes more apparent during times of stress.
To help provide the energy to support recovery from the stress, the person should be following a high carbohydrate diet.
Low-calorie intake during stressful times or recovery from adrenal fatigue will only heighten the depletion of glycogen, breakdown of muscle tissue, and put more demand on the adrenals. Therefore, I should aim for some calorie surplus during times of stress.
Family, friends, career, and money issues can all be stressful issues at times, and it’s important to manage these as much as possible. Find the root cause(s) that may be adding extra stress in your own situation and then put procedures into place to reduce or eliminate these.
Remember to relax, laugh, sleep as much as possible.