Back in the early 2000s, adrenal fatigue and cortisol steal (cortisol “stealing” progesterone) were thought of as the primary causes of stress. Research over the past few years has actually shown that the adrenal fatigue does not stem from the adrenal glands.
So what is the primary cause of stress in the body? Stress stems from the brain. To be specific, the HPA axis in the brain. HPA stands for Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenal. This is the connection point between the brain and the adrenals.
The HPA axis is a complex set of direct influences and feedback interactions among three components: the hypothalamus (at the base of the skull), the pituitary gland (a pea-shaped structure located below the hypothalamus), and the adrenal glands (small, conical organs on top of the kidneys).
The HPA axis is a major neuroendocrine system that controls reactions to stress and regulates many body processes, including digestion, the immune system, mood and emotions, sexuality, and energy storage and expenditure. It is the common mechanism for interactions among glands, hormones, and parts of the midbrain.
The HPA axis can become imbalanced as the result of chronic stress, poor sleep, and an overly stimulating diet. Promoting balance of the HPA-axis can help cultivate a healthy stress response and make you more resilient to the effects of stress.
I like to visualize the hypothalamus as the President of your body, and the pituitary gland the Chief of Staff. The hypothalamus (or President) makes the decisions and orders the pituitary gland (or Chief of Staff) to send out commands (hormones) to the rest of the body in order to execute those decisions.
If the hypothalamus detects that something is out of balance, it sends a new message to the pituitary gland to correct that balance. The pituitary gland then releases specific hormones into the bloodstream that can stimulate other endocrine glands, organs or tissues to do what is needed. Instead of the hypothalamus communicating directly with the body, it tells the pituitary gland to send out the messages. The hypothalamus monitors the state of the body, and when it detects that balance has been restored, it instructs the pituitary gland to stop sending out stimulating hormones, thereby stopping the corrective action.
Think of cortisol as nature’s built-in alarm system. It’s your body’s main stress hormone. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. Your adrenal glands make cortisol, based on instructions stemming from the hypothalamus and sent by the pituitary through the HPA axis. Cortisol is best known for helping fuel your body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis, but cortisol plays an important role in a number of things your body does. For example, it:
- Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Keeps inflammation down
- Regulates your blood pressure
- Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
- Controls your sleep/wake cycle
- Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterward
For anyone with chronic illness looking for transformation, we think about their HPA axis and how they monitor and manage their cortisol and stress levels.
There is an important link worth noting between adrenal function and level of progesterone in the body. Under increased stress, demand for the production of cortisol rises. Cortisol is ultimately produced from progesterone, so increased cortisol output will effectively ‘steal’ progesterone and cause its decline. In addition to increased irritability, there may also be increased levels of inflammation which presents as body aches and pain. Headaches and migraines can also be common in this situation, as are increased levels of anxiety.
Early life stresses can have a major effect on the function of the HPA axis and the way that people respond to events. So all of the stressors as a young person, even in the womb, can manifest in how someone manages stress, because it may affect their brain and the way that they perceive events.
“The HPA axis can become imbalanced as the result of chronic stress, poor sleep, and an overly stimulating diet. Promoting balance of the HPA-axis can help cultivate a healthy stress response and make you more resilient to the effects of stress.”
Working with me
My focus in working with people with adrenal fatigue is to support their brain, to help make them become more resilient to stresses and to improve their HPA axis function. The ultimate goal being decreasing stress in their body and creating balance.
We look at the timing of meals, the quality of meals (high-quality protein, good fats, unrefined carbohydrates, and fibre), ideal nutrients personalised to your requirements, implementation of lifestyle habits (including practices to reset the circadian rhythms, and lower stress levels) and supplements to help your body. I’m also a big fan of using adaptogenic herbs, which help your body adapt to stress by supporting the neurotransmitters and hormones that are associated with the endocrine system and affecting the stress response along the HPA axis.
If you are suffering with stress, or concerned about adrenal fatigue, please do book in for an initial consultation to discuss how I can help.