Your stress response, what stage are you at? And can it affect your health? [Part 1]

My health journey

My first light bulb moment – learning about stress & adrenal fatigue

When I had my first really bad bout of fatigue in 2006 I had never even heard of the term of adrenal fatigue. At the time of my fatigue my B12 levels were low and I was diagnosed by my GP with “Pernicious Anaemia”. The B12 injections and some rest did help initially but then I found that any time I put my body under extra pressure e.g. working harder, running or studying for long periods I would hit that wall of constant fatigue again. It wasn’t just my energy levels that were affected but my digestion, liver function and hormones. I will talk more on the impact it had on these body systems in another blog. For now I’ll explain more about the link between stress and the adrenals.

What’s the role of the adrenal glands?
The adrenal glands sit just above your kidneys and secrete hormones called adrenaline, cortisol and DHEA. All hormones that give us that get up and go! Cortisol has powerful anti-allergy and anti-inflammatory properties through its action on the immune system, and also controls the way in which body proteins and carbohydrates are broken down to produce heat and energy.

When should Adrenal Fatigue be considered?
If you have a history of traumatic events, long periods of stress or illnesses in your life it is worth reviewing the health of your adrenal glands.

3 Stress Stages – which one are you in?
1) Alarm Stage
If you experience any physical or mental stress (e.g. a stressful day at work, an argument with a loved one, a job interview, running a marathon) then this will trigger an immediate set of reactions, initially called ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This results in the adrenal glands producing extra amounts of the hormones – adrenaline, cortisol and DHEA that have many roles. This will help to increase the oxygen supply to your organs that are involved in the stress response, e.g. the brain, heart, lungs and muscles. Circulation is moved away from your digestive system and it stops performing many of its functions, for example producing enzymes that help breakdown food. The body thinks it is going to fight that tiger and it diverts the energy to the muscles instead so you can run away! The immune system also becomes suppressed and inflammatory responses are damped. After the stress factor has been removed, everything returns to normal.

2) Resistance (adaptation) Stage
This stage is your long-term reaction to stress. If the stress factor is not removed, the resistance (adaptation) stage will begin. Examples of stressors in this phase might include a stressful childhood growing up, anxious type with busy mind, threat of redundancies at work – high pressured job, unhappy marriage, poor diet and nutrient deficiencies causing stress on the body.

During this stage, cortisol levels continue to rise at the expense of the hormone DHEA, which initially stays stable but then starts to fall. Cortisol levels have an impact on our other hormones e.g. DHEA, oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, as the body prioritises cortisol production over these hormones. During this stage our hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal Axis is activated which helps us deal with stress.

Some symptoms of HIGH cortisol
• Fat around the middle
• Irritability
• Cravings for sugar & sweets
• Mid afternoon slumps
• Sleep disturbances

Blood sugar levels also increase to sustain energy (resulting in symptoms above) and raise blood pressure. Eventually, though sometimes rather quickly, we adapt to stress, and there’s actually a tendency to become more resistant to illness and disease. If this adaptation phase continues for a prolonged period of time without periods of relaxation and rest to counterbalance the stress response (e.g. are you overworking for extended periods with little play or relaxation?) sufferers become prone to fatigue, concentration lapses, irritability and lethargy.

This phase of resistance might continue for several months or even years. It depends on the person – your physiology, life history. In my case this resistance stage lasted about a year before I hit the exhaustion stage. During the 12 months in my early 30’s I was constantly worrying about a situation in my personal life. I was running daily and not counteracting this with relaxation, and I wasn’t eating the right foods to help my body recover from the high impact exercise. My immune system started to weaken and I was getting chest infections that I previously had as a child.

If you can recognise the ongoing stressor in this stage and either remove it or learn to manage it, then you are preventing yourself hitting the exhaustion stage.


3) Exhaustion Stage
This occurs finally after the body has depleted much of its reserves, energy and immunity. You may feel that you can’t cope with anything mentally, physically or emotionally. You can’t cope with the slightest amount of stress that was never an issue previously. The adrenal glands become depleted and cortisol levels tend to remain low all day long. No-one experiences exactly the same resistance and tolerance to stress, but everyone’s immunity at some point collapses following prolonged stress reactions. By changing our body functions, stress disrupts the natural balance – the homeostasis that is so important for wellbeing.

Some symptoms of LOW cortisol:
• Tired all the time
• Hypoglycaemia
• Poor concentration
• Fatigued not relieved by sleeping
• Cravings for salt or sugar

A Nutritional Therapist or Functional Medicine Doctor can measure your Cortisol and DHEA levels through a saliva test, see gdx link below.

In my next two blogs I will cover some dietary and lifestyle tips to help prevent you reaching the exhaustion phase.

Further information

Disclaimer: The advice given in this article is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, and you should always consult your General Practitioner or primary healthcare provider if you require medical attention or have symptoms which are causing concern.