The adrenal glands are a key player in our body’s primal stress biology. While the perception of stress begins in the hypothalamus gland located within the brain, our response to stress is managed by the adrenal glands.
Our stress biology consists of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) which is directly hardwired into our central nervous system and the autonomic controls which dictate our sympathetic and parasympathetic energy phases. I like to think of our sympathetic response as our yang cycle and our parasympathetic response as our yin cycle, the first being an active phase of energy and the latter passive
Our parasympathetic yin cycle is when the body and brain are at rest and can divert energy into digestion, tissue growth, repair and immunity. Our modern lifestyle leaves very little room for resting both our mind and body at the same time. Even when we are flopping on the couch we are surfing the net or watching evocative media, keeping our brain and nervous system wired.
We may not know this but our brain perceives stress under a wide variety of circumstances. Stress can come from physical sources like weather, exercise, repetitive motion strain, poor posture, injury or surgery.
It can come from physiological sources like infections or viruses, gastrointestinal Dysbiosis (bad gut bacteria), toxins like heavy metals, metabolic waste and malnutrition from a poor diet or a pro-inflammatory response due to a lack of sleep.
Stress also comes from everyday emotional and psychological pressures or episodes of crisis, as well as the lasting effects of traumatic events. Trauma can sensitize our long-term stress response leading to periods of either heightened sensitivity to stress typical of PTSD or blunted sensitivity where we shut down as a defense.
Upon perceiving stress we flip into sympathetic yang mode where our body and brain become vigilant and ready for action. Stress tends to sharpen our mind and physical senses, like someone flipped the ‘on’ switch. It also triggers the adrenal glands to convert protein and fat into sugar, so stress floods our bloodstream with glucose in order to lift our energy levels. This is important to know for anyone struggling with weight or metabolic issues where blood sugar balance is involved.
Stress profoundly impacts the energy currency of the body, gobbling up our tissue storage of essential fatty acids that we need to prevent oxidative stress and control inflammation in key organs like the heart, brain and gastrointestinal tract (just to name a few).
Our stress hormones naturally rise and fall in daily cycles, being at their peak in the morning after waking up and then gradually declining into the evening. These cycles can go awry so that we are dragging our feet in the morning but lay awake sleepless at night – a sure sign that your adrenal health needs attention.
There can also be peaks and troughs in our stress hormones that span longer cycles of time where we see episodes of inflammation which can be interspersed with periods of compromised immunity which is typical in autoimmune conditions.
Though we have boatloads of studies on the effects of stress and how it underpins almost every major disease afflicting modern man, we have almost no medical strategies for managing its impact on our health. Becoming mindful about stress is something we need pursue on our own and it starts with gathering information. The next article in this series discusses how to balance our stress biology in winter. Read more: Winter Skills – Building Adrenal Energy