by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
In recent years, the word stress has taken on negative connotations, but from your body’s point of view, stress means any type of demand or challenge that requires the body to expend extra energy. Getting up out of your chair and moving across the room is a minor stressor because it requires more effort than remaining seated. Mobilizing energy and focusing on any given activity – getting dressed, playing with children or even preparing dinner causes your body to expend energy – and it’s an essential part of living. But our stress response was never meant to be a permanent condition.
In today’s world women are just inundated with stress - stress that doesn’t let up. Careers, relationships, kids, parents, the constant flow of electronic information, environmental stressors, hormone shifts, chronic health issues and even changes in our diets all add up to a heavy stress load on our bodies and minds. We’re all familiar with what causes stress, but what we aren’t so familiar with is our body’s response to this stress and the ways in which the stress we face today ends up depleting our energy and affecting our health.
Sometimes we are also acting out the effects of historical stress: reactions to present-day events that are made more difficult or intense because of our past experiences.
Do you find yourself unable to slow down during the day – feeling the need to keep up a pace which seemingly gets faster ever day? Do you lie awake at night physically exhausted but mind racing? Do you wake every morning feeling overwhelmed and exhausted? Do you struggle through your days feeling forgetful, depressed, tired and irritable? Do you reach for caffeine to jump start you at the beginning of your day or keep you going through the day? Do you crave sweets during the day? Are you losing muscle mass and gaining fat? Do you get frequent headaches?
If you answered yes to some or all of these questions, you aren’t alone! Thousands of women experience these same feelings every day. And getting more sleep just isn’t the answer. You may be experiencing adrenal dysfunction.
You may not think much about your adrenals, but they are crucial to your health, mood and well-being. Our adrenals are walnut-sized glands located on top of each kidney. These glands serve as important manufacturing centers for many of the body’s hormones. The innermost section of each gland produces adrenaline and noradrenaline. The layers outside the center, called the adrenal cortex, produce other hormones, including cortisol, DHEA, progesterone, estrogen and testosterone.
Cortisol is a great hormone which converts fats and proteins into energy, calibrates our heartbeat, balances electrolytes, keeps us alert and counteracts inflammation.
Under ordinary circumstances our adrenals are designed to give us bursts of strength from the little burst of energy that is needed to wake us up in the morning to the stimulating hormones that keep us alert, awake and focused throughout the day. Ideally as evening comes, our adrenal production is supposed to steadily decline and allow us to relax and eventually sleep.
When we experience a stressful situation like an unexpected crisis at work, or a car accident, your adrenal glands pull all your body’s resources together into the ‘flight or fight’ mode by increasing the production of adrenaline and cortisol. These instantaneously increase your blood pressure and heart rate, sharpen your senses, release your energy stores for use, and shut down digestion and other secondary functions. This is exactly what your body should be doing. But it shouldn’t be doing it for very long. When chronic stress repeatedly forces our adrenal glands to continually produce high levels of cortisol, the adrenals slow down in their ability to regulate your other hormones. And the continual flood of cortisol may start to damage healthy tissue.
Women with adrenal dysfunction often have trouble in a wide variety of ways: sex-hormone imbalances, thyroid abnormalities, blood sugar dysregulation, fibromyalgia anxiety, depression, cardiovascular issues, inability to concentrate, poor memory or poor immune function.
Stress just isn't uncomfortable and unpleasant - it can actually be dangerous. Numerous studies have linked chronic stress to such life threatening conditions as heart disease, diabetes, as well as migraines, thyroid abnormalities, digestive disorders and backache. Stress has also been linked to a variety of autoimmune disorders (sometimes making them worse or sometimes setting them off) such as Crohn's disease, lupus, asthma, multiple sclerosis and Hashimoto's thyroiditis. It makes sense that stress is dangerous because none of our body's systems operate in isolation. There is a lot of cross talk between all our systems, including adrenals, sex-hormones, thyroid, gut and brain.
Although men and women have the same basic biology, when it comes to adrenal function, I sometimes think that women carry an extra burden. Women often put other's needs before our own - both at home and at work. Women also may have more than their fair share of trouble saying 'no’, setting limits and taking time for themselves. This is something I always encourage my patients to be aware of - and to try to make changes accordingly. Mothers may also have an additional layer of stress. Child rearing has many demands that may not let up until your children are college age or even beyond! While caring for others is important, so is taking care of yourself!
If you think you may have adrenal dysfunction the first step is to have a full physical exam to rule out any serious underlying conditions which may be causing your symptoms. The good news is that once you have identified adrenal dysfunction as your condition, you can address all your symptoms and heal the underlying problem that is causing them. You can change your diet, adjust your lifestyle, and reprogram the emotional patterns which are stressing you out.
Marcelle Pick, author of The Core Balance Diet, earned a B.S. in Nursing and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of New Hampshire and an M.S. in Nursing from Boston College–Harvard Medical School. Certified as nurse practitioner for both OB/GYN and pediatrics, Pick has served as medical advisor to Healthy Living Magazine. She also writes a bi-monthly newsletter for WomentoWomen.com. Her radio show, Core Balance for Women’s Health, airs weekly on Hay House Radio.