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.
In this article you'll learn everything you need to know about stress and its effects on the body.
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.
This causes the release of a hormone – corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) – which tells the pituitary to release – adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) – which tells the adrenals to produce cortisol.
The increased blood glucose levels we see associated with stressful events are due to the increased cortisol levels. Cortisol is one of a class of hormones called – glucocorticoids (GC’s).
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.
So lets look at this process again, but in a little more detail.
Stress and its effects on the body
One of the most common medical patterns seen in the health care industry is stress related illness.
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:-
Physical Stress – such as overworking, poor nutrition, lack of sleep or athletic over training, etc.
Chemical Stress – from environmental pollutants, food intolerances of IBS, poor diet and endocrine gland intolerances.
Thermal Stress – from over heating 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 know as ‘General Adaptation Syndrome’ (GAS) and consists of 3 key stages.
1. The alarm reaction
This is the body’s initial response to stress and kick starts the amount of adrenal activity, also known as a hyperadrenic response.
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 over active 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.
2. 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 many months or even 10-20+ years. This prolonged hyperadrenic response can exhaust and deplete the adrenals, leading to stage 3.
3. The exhaustion stage
This prolonged alarm reaction know as hyperadrenia will eventually lead to hypoadrenia, 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 are 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 vision
The adrenal glands
Our adrenal glands are the ‘common centres’ 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.
The protective activity of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant hormones secreted by the adrenals helps to minimize negative and allergic reactions to alcohol, drugs, foods and environmental allergens.
As we get older, the adrenal glands gradually become the major source of sex hormones circulating through the body in both men and women. These are strong and powerful hormones that cause a range of emotional and psychological effects, including sex drive and tendency to gain weight.
The adrenals are also linked to our disposition to develop certain diseases and ability to overcome them.
Essentially, the stronger the illness, the more critical the adrenal response becomes. This is why those with hyper and hypoadrenia will likely experience more frequent illness and longer lasting symptoms.
As previously mentioned, each kidney has an adrenal gland located above it. Each adrenal is divided into an inner medulla and an outer cortex. This inner medulla is responsible for synthesizing amine hormones (amino acids) while the cortex secrets steroid hormones.
Just like in our near car collision at the start of the article, stimulation of the medulla by the nervous system causes the ‘fight or flight’ response.
When presented with danger, the adrenal medulla releases adrenaline (or epinephrine) and noradrenaline (or norepinephrine), which are all derived from the amino acid tyrosine.
The result is a higher state of alertness, with increased heart rate, strength and metabolic rate.
The cells of the adrenal cortex secrete steroid hormones that fall into three classes:-
• Glucocorticoids (e.g.: Cortisol)
• Mineralocorticoids (e.g.: aldosterone)
• Androgens (e.g.: testosterone)
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, to add to those primarily produced by the gonads (ovaries and testes).
There is also considered to be a fourth zone, known as the interface zone, located between the zona fasciculate and the zona reticularic. It is now thought that this interface zone is the actual site of production of most sex hormones, including estrogen and testosterone.
The adrenal glands and those four zones collectively produce over fifty hormones.
The majority of those are intermediary hormones to help form other adrenal hormones, and only about a dozen of these hormones end up in circulation around the body.
It is the hypothalamus of the brain that influences both portions of the adrenal gland.
The secretion of glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex is regulated by negative feedback involving the corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) secretion by the hypothalamus.
CRH then acts on the anterior pituitary to stimulate adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) secretion, which then stimulates the adrenal cortex into cortisol secretion. Although cortisol is secreted by the zona fasiculata in the adrenal glands, it is regulated primarily from the brain.
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.
Furthermore, many of the symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue occur from decreased levels of cortisol in the blood or inadequate levels during times of high stress. It therefore plays a big role in a lot of things.
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.
It is a catabolic hormone, it takes protein from muscles, fatty acids from fatty tissues, it increases gluconeogenesis (the process of making glucose), and decreases the body’s uses of glucose.
The HPA system
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.
The regulatory trio operates through a negative feedback system and is referred to as the Hypothalamus/Pituitary/Adrenal (HPA) Axis or HPA system.
The HPA Axis shows how the body is connected as a whole, and is one of the most important systems of the body to control homeostasis. The HPA Axis adjusts cortisol levels according to the needs of the body, under normal or stressed situations.
This is done so via a hormone called the Adrenal Corticotrophis Hormone (ACTH), which is secreted from the pituitary gland when signaled to do so from the hypothalamus. This hormone then reaches the adrenal cortex, which triggers it to produce its various hormones.
Once this process occurs, it takes less than a minute after the initial stimulation by ACTH for newly synthesized cortisol to be circulating through your body. The concentration of the cortisol is then constantly measured in the hypothalamus.
We see peaks and troughs of cortisol levels naturally throughout the day with highest levels typically seen at 8am and the lowest between midnight and 4am.
Actions of cortisol
As mentioned previously cortisol plays an important part in many bodily functions including:-
• Blood sugar
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.
• Immune system
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.
• Cardiovascular system
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 behaviour, mood, excitability and these behavioural 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 hypoglycaemia, 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.
Eat little and often
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 hypoglycaemia. 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.
Eat your carbs
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.
A 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 someone should look to eat at calorie maintenance level or a slight surplus during stressful times or adrenal fatigue.
Diet can be a factor when it comes to some people’s problems with adrenal fatigue, as it is one reason for elevated 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 and have sex as much as possible, as these have a great effect on reducing the stress levels in the body. Reduce or eliminate the main stressors in your lifestyle and remember not to take life too seriously all the time.
Adrenal fatigue is not a popular topic in the healthcare industry and is often missed or ignored by practitioners. The truth is it is very real and does exist.
This article should help you understand stress and its effects on the body.