How Stress Affects Your Adrenal Glands

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Most people do not think about their adrenal glands on a regular basis. However, whenever you get stressed, these two small glands work hard to support you.

This past month my adrenal glands have been in overdrive as we sold our old house and moved to a fixer-upper. We have been moving from room to room as a contractor works around us getting things in order. There are still boxes everywhere and work to be done.

One way to help overworked adrenals is to take a moment to breathe deeply, meditate, or pray. When life gets overwhelming, I try to stop for a few moments and center myself. But, when you are in the moment and in the middle of everything, it is not always as easy as it sounds.

Sometimes the adrenals need additional support. During our transition, my family has been concentrating on getting extra sleep, eating well, and taking extra nutrition specifically for our adrenals. Read on to find out more about your adrenals and how you can support and maintain them.

How the Adrenals Work

The adrenal glands are two walnut-sized glands that sit on top of your kidneys. They produce cortisol and other various hormones, which control our energy, weight, stress response, among other things.

The adrenals are there to protect our survival. In times of stress or threat, the glands divert resources from other body systems so that all your energy is focused on the stressor at hand. This worked great for our ancestors when they confronted a wild animal in the wilderness – their adrenal glands produced a surge of cortisol to get them through the ordeal. When the threat was over and the danger passed, the body systems leveled back out.

This increased production of cortisol is suppose to occur once in a while. It is a natural defense mechanism of the body. However, in today’s world where we are exposed to stress on a daily basis, our adrenal glands rarely get a break. If these two small glands do not get a chance to recover between stressors, they become fatigued and problems result.

Common Stressors

Some stressors in life are obvious. A death in the family, planning a wedding, divorce, and moving are all stressful. But, what about repetitive things that happen on a daily basis? These stressors become cumulative, and create what is known as your stress load. If this load becomes too great, without any time for recovery, your adrenal glands become compromised.

Children are not immune either. In fact, because adrenal fatigue is so common, children are often born with compromised adrenals – many Moms with adrenal fatigue are passing this on to their children.

Examples of life stressors include:

  • Unbalance of work and relaxation
  • Pressure in the workplace
  • Too much exercise or the wrong kind of exercise
  • Not enough quality sleep
  • Eating the wrong foods or too many processed foods
  • Too much work/homework and/or extracurricular activities
  • Too much screen time (TV, computer/games, cell phone)
  • Driving in rush hour
  • Physical or mental trauma
  • Divorce or marital separation
  • Death of a close family member
  • Continual feelings of frustration
  • Negative relationships with others
  • Self-sabotage or negative self-talk
  • Continual exposure to environmental toxins
  • Long-term/chronic or severe infection
  • Chronic inflammation in the body
  • Dismissal from work or retirement
  • Pregnancy and delivery
  • Infertility and/or sexual difficulty
  • Surgery or tooth extraction
  • Financial troubles

The Adrenals are Important Glands!

The adrenal glands and the cortisol hormone they produce significantly affect many processes in the body. Examples include:

  • Sleep Quality – High cortisol levels from too much stress interrupt the body’s ability to enter REM sleep. When this continues to occur it can affect your mental vitality and energy levels as well as induce depression.
  • Energy Production – Cortisol is necessary to maintain blood sugar levels. Abnormal adrenal function can alter your ability to produce energy at a cellular level, limiting the energy you have for activities of daily living.
  • Immune System Health – If cortisol levels are disrupted, especially at night when your body is suppose to be regenerating, your immune system does not operate at an optimum level. Adrenal hormones also help to minimize negative and allergic reactions to foods, alcohol, and environmental allergens.
  • Digestive Health – Elevated levels of cortisol diminishes the production of SigA (Secretory Immunoglobin A), which is needed for gut repair. A compromised intestinal lining can result in leaky gut, food intolerances, and bacterial/yeast overgrowth.
  • Bone Health – If night and morning cortisol levels are too high and bones do not rebuild this can result in osteoporosis and compromised teeth.
  • Muscle and Joint Health – Abnormal adrenal rhythms compromise tissue healing and increases tissue breakdown, which leads to muscle and joint injury as well as chronic pain.
  • Thyroid Function – The amount of cortisol at the cellular level controls thyroid function. Hypothyroid symptoms such as fatigue and low body temperature, for example, are typically due to adrenal maladaptation. (Adrenal function should always be addressed when there are thyroid issues.)
  • Sexual Health – The adrenals, in conjunction with the liver, are instrumental in keeping our sex hormones in balance. The adrenal hormones are also a major source for circulating sex hormones later in life for both men and women (after menopause for women).

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue

You may be surprised at how many symptoms are related to adrenal deficiency. It becomes a vicious cycle: constant stress compromises your adrenal glands and compromised adrenal glands will reduce your ability to handle stress, resulting in decreased productivity. Most commonly, sluggish adrenals result in a continual fatigue not relieved by sleep and great difficulty in getting up in the morning.

Here are some more specific signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue:

  • Hypoglycemic symptoms
  • Constipation
  • Poor tolerance for exercise
  • Irritability, mild depression and/ or rapid mood swings
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Dizziness or light-headedness upon standing
  • Lack of mental alertness and/or fuzzy/less focused thoughts
  • Easily catch colds and/or slow to recover
  • Sensitivity to exhaust fumes, perfumes, smoke, etc.
  • Edema/water retention
  • Eyes sensitive to bright light
  • Feel weak and shaky
  • Chronic fatigue or muscular/nervous exhaustion
  • Rapid heart beat/low or high blood pressure
  • Weak nails and/or brittle hair
  • Non-specific joint pain or arthritic tendencies
  • Excessive perspiration, or the absence of it, at exercise
  • Poor circulation
  • Easily gain weight
  • Crave salt or salty foods
  • Brown spots or light/darkening patches on skin
  • Allergies – food or airborne
  • Increased PMS
  • Decreased sex drive

Pretty much anyone who has had a major stressor or long-term stress has had some adrenal fatigue. Many chronic illnesses and autoimmune conditions are also preceded by reduced adrenal function. Common examples include hypoglycemia, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis as well as chronic and reoccurring respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Allergies and asthma can also be a result of adrenal fatigue. Even some cases of alcoholism can be traced back to compromised adrenals.

Support the Adrenals

There are a number of things you can do to improve your adrenal function. Below are some basic steps. You may also need to work with a health practitioner to determine a specific program, especially when it comes to particular foods and nutrition.

Lifestyle Changes – First, you need to take a look at your lifestyle and day-to-day activities, looking for the largest energy robbers. Reducing your overall stress load is the goal. Are there stressful activities you can eliminate or greatly reduce? Second, you need to reflect internally and see if you can change your outlook about a particular person or reoccurring event. Sometimes changing the negative talk in our heads can make all the difference – positive affirmations can help with this. Other helpful tools include prayer, mediation, breathing exercises, and other forms of relaxation.

Sleep Routine – Protecting your sleep routine is important. It is recommended that you create a consistent sleep pattern, going to sleep the same time every night, seven days a week. You can train yourself to wake up the same time each morning. You many need more sleep in the beginning, but eventually your body will adjust and start making cortisol at a consistent wake up time. When deciding on your bedtime, keep in mind that for the typical person, the physical repair of the body occurs while you sleep between the hours of 10:00pm and 2:00am and psychological repair occurs between 2:00am and 6:00am. If you don’t get consistent sleep, if you continually stay up late, or if you are a shift worker it will be difficult to optimize your adrenals.

Exercise and Rest Cycles – Creating regular exercise and rest cycles will help your body control its cortisol levels. More vigorous exercise in the morning, for example, trains your body to make more cortisol. Rest and wind down time should happen at night. Also notice when you typically get your second wind at night. For example, for myself, if I stay up past 10:00pm I get another boost of energy which makes it harder to wind down; it is best if I go to sleep before 10:00pm.

Food – First, you need to maintain regular meal and snack times. Your adrenals like constancy. Regular meals also maintain your blood sugar levels. (Stressed adrenals affect blood sugar levels too, which in turn affects anxiety.) Optimally, each meal and snack should consist of a protein, good fat, and good fiber. Second, you need to determine if there are culprit foods that are stressing your body. Some of the biggest food stressors include dairy, gluten, and caffeine as well as genetically modified foods such as soy, corn, and canola oil. A stressed digestive system affects your adrenals.

Toxin Overload – Eliminate toxins from your daily life. If your body is working hard to try to contain and/or eliminate a toxin, your adrenals need to work harder. The wrong foods for your body in addition to eating foods with pesticides and preservatives all create toxins. Other toxins cause stress too – things like using the wrong body products, new furniture and construction materials, drinking tap water, exposure to heavy metals, chronic infections, parasites, yeast/Candida, etc. Work to eliminate these extra burdens on your body. (You may need to work with a health practitioner to eliminate them correctly.)

Nutrients – There are also certain nutrients and herbs that can help support your adrenal glands. Examples include maca, roseola, and aswaganda and licorice; however, what is best for you will vary from the next person. A good balance of your omegas and a quality mineral supplement is also important. In some cases, one or more amino acids will be needed as well; but, again, this is dependent on the person. Working with a health practitioner is important to find the right balance for your body.


Your adrenals may be small, weighing only 4 grams each, but they are critical to good health. For my family, as we finish up these hectic few months, we will continue to be diligent about getting good sleep, eating right, and taking extra nutrients to support and build our adrenals.

In today’s society all of us are constantly bombarded with things to do, places to go, emails to read, cell phones to answer, children to tend to, etc. Our world tends to be non-stop. It is okay to slow down. Take a weekend day to put the computer and cell phone to the side. Allow yourself time in nature or a few moments of quality time by yourself. Take time to support your adrenal glands using the steps mentioned above and find the foods and nutrients that work good for you. In the long run, you will be glad you did!

This article was written by Sharon Harmon, founder of Life Design for Health. She has a passion for helping people find their way back to optimum health. Please contact her if you would like to know more. There is a great deal of health-related information in her blog articles and on her website.

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