Our minds are truly amazing. The technologies of modern day are growing at warp-speed. Current generations are being brought up on computers and using machines all designed to make our lives better. Our creativity is seemingly our only boundary, but what about our bodies?
As hunter-gatherers, life was physically demanding and any cause for stress was due to a major concern: you were either trying to eat or not be eaten. Think about your stress levels in our modern age. Are you concerned about deadlines for work? Stressed out in traffic? Feeling panic if you forget your phone at home or lock your keys in your car? With the advent of new and faster technologies, humans are expected to perform at an advanced pace, but these pressures are having serious effects on our health.
Stress in our lives can cause or contribute to a long list of health concerns. Many of these concerns happen to also be prevalent concerns of first world countries:
- Auto-immune disorders
- High blood pressure
- Insulin resistance and diabetes
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Insomnia and exhaustion
While each of these health concerns that may arise will need to have different treatments based on the area that they affect, there is a common problem they all share that should be addressed. For this we need to examine the role of our lesser known endocrine organs: the adrenal glands.
The “adrenals” are a set of glands that are located on top of each kidney. They are small glands, usually growing no bigger than 5cm x 3cm x 1cm, but they have an important role to play in our health. Each gland is divided into two major sections: the inner part known as the medulla, and the outer part known as the cortex.
Both the medulla and cortex of the adrenals contribute to our stress response. The medulla is responsible for releasing substances called catecholamines, namely norepinephrine and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). The cortex is also capable of releasing types stress hormones, including one called “cortisol” which is part of a larger class known as glucocorticoids. These hormones help to regulate our metabolism, affect blood sugars and contribute to our resistance to stress. Also made in the adrenal cortex are androgens (male sex hormones) and mineralcorticoids (hormones that influence fluid levels through our kidneys and thus control our blood pressure).
Our bodies (and specifically our adrenal glands) are designed to function under our ancestor’s conditions, meaning we function well if we are exposed to an immediate stress and then able to relax. For example, we see a bear when we’re out in the woods so our adrenal glands kick into action by increasing our blood pressure and the sugars circulating in our blood so that are muscles receive a healthy blood supply. There are also other advantageous changes throughout the body. These changes enable us to run quickly through the forest and eventually get to a safe spot where our bodies eventually returns back to a resting state.
Stress doesn’t have to be something scary like seeing a bear or being in a car crash. It can be from poor nutrition, using stimulants, over-working and under-sleeping, which sounds like any given Canadian these days. Let’s look at a few different examples of how our adrenal glands are responding to this stress.
In this next example, let’s consider a 20 year old university student during her exam week. She is nervous and pulling all-night study sessions. Her body is releasing the stress hormones mentioned above, like epinephrine and cortisol. Normally these hormones would be pushed into the blood stream and be followed by a recovery period that would last 1-2 days. A more prolonged alarm reaction, however, has been observed in animal experiments and is usually associated with stomach ulcers, a lowered immune system and weight loss.
If we were to follow that same woman 5 years later, we might observe that she is working a busy job and raising a child. Her outward appearance of stress may look better than when she was under the intense pressure of exams in university, but her stress hormones are still elevated. Because of the chronically high stress, she may notice she is gaining weight now, instead of losing it. She might also notice her immune system is weak, her joints hurt and she is experiencing some depression, elevated blood lipids and sugars etc. If this continues, she may reach a point where her adrenals are not effectively producing the glucocorticoids and mineralcorticoids like they used to, so she may experiencing signs of pre-mature aging among many other health concerns.
There is a reason I chose to focus on a woman in the above example. If you recall, I mentioned that the adrenal cortex is also capable of producing male hormones. Adult males produce most of their sex hormones from their testes so the contribution from the adrenals is relatively small but in females male hormones from the adrenals are much more important. The male sex hormones are responsible for sex drive. Once women reach menopause and lose their sex hormone production from the ovaries, much more of their female hormone production stems from the conversion of those male hormones made by the adrenals.
Preserving the function of the adrenal glands is important for a variety of down-stream impacts on your body. That means keeping stress to a minimum is going to be important. Since many of us don’t have the option of quitting our jobs or moving to a remote area where there is no traffic, we need to find support in other ways. Support should involve addressing any personal areas that need improvement such as sleeping habits, a better diet, limiting toxin exposure, but support often also needs to involve certain natural medicines that can support our glands.
Treatment plans for stress may vary greatly and can be quite extensive. When dealing with hormones, you need to make sure you have proper guidance. I have seen many formulations for adrenal support and other hormones on the market which anyone is able to purchase off the counter. Our hormones rarely act in isolation, so be sure to seek professional advice before attempting any such product. For this reason, I will continue the discussion of stress, hormones and treatment of these issues in Part 2 of this topic. If you would like to follow this topic, I suggest following my Facebook page (Dr Hallee at Meditrine Naturopathic Medical Clinic), or check back in a couple of weeks for the next article.