Anxiety and the Adrenals
Stress is such an integral part of all of our lives but we can lead busy lives without “distress”. It doesn’t have to make us ill, wreck our relationships or stop us from living life to the full. We can learn how to recognise when our bodies are telling us to slow down and, when we have over-stretched ourselves, how to recuperate without resorting to tranquillisers.
Our bodies have a couple of custom-built barometers on stress in the form of the adrenal glands. They help the body adapt to the stresses of life but there’s only so much they can take. I really don’t think they were meant to cope with what we put them through! Prolonged stress of any kind when not dealt with in a positive way, will deplete the adrenals and once that happens, symptoms of anxiety, insomnia and maybe panic attacks will ensue. It is a kind of chicken and egg scenario. Stress affects the body and the body affects the mind.
The adrenal glands are inextricably linked to stress. They act as the body’s buffers against it whether it is physical, mental, emotional, thermal, chemical or . Physical stress may be in the form of a virus, a poor diet, an operation or long hours of work. It may also be through lack of sleep. Mental stress is plain worry and we all know what that feels like. Emotional stress may be that which caused by divorce, redundancy or bereavement. Chemical stress may be exposure to toxic substances, nutritional deficiencies, excess caffeine or the misuse of drugs. Stimulants such as caffeine, cigarettes, marijuana and sugar all artificially stimulate the adrenals so anything but a moderate intake of these substances will overtax them. Thermal stress is exposure to extremes of temperature. As you can appreciate, we make them work pretty hard!
Now for the science bit. They are situated on top of the kidneys and each is divided into two parts, the cortex and the medulla. The two most important hormones of the cortex are aldosterone and cortisol. Aldosterone regulates sodium retention and potassium retention by the kidneys. Cortisol’s main function in the body is to increase blood glucose levels. This helps to normalise blood sugar levels, which is why a high intake of sugar or a will put a strain on the adrenals. Cortisol is responsible for breaking down fatty tissue and transporting amino acids to the liver to be converted into glucose. It also governs the constriction and dilation of the pupils and together with adrenalin normalises blood pressure. This last function is why, when the adrenals are flagging, the sufferer will have a tendency to low blood pressure a sensitivity to bright lights.
The medulla produces the hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin. Adrenalin prepares the body for action and is the body’s immediate answer to any kind of stress: the “fight or flight” syndrome. It has many nerves from the sympathetic nervous system leading to it ending on special cells. These cells secrete adrenalin whenever stimulated by the nerves. Adrenalin is then pumped through the veins to all parts of the body. Blood supply will be increased to the heart and muscular structure making the body feel tense and wired for action. Muscles lining the stomach will contract pushing the contents through to the bowel: this sometimes causes diarrhoea. Heart rate and respiratory rate will increase and insulin production will step up making sugars available to the muscles for energy. Adrenalin also makes the sweat glands operate.
From this brief description of the function of the adrenals, you can see how vital they are in helping you to react quickly and effectively in times of danger or when you need to be sharp and alert. For instance, if you are driving down a busy street and someone steps out onto the road, adrenalin is instantly released into your bloodstream and into your muscles making your reflexes quick enough for you to swerve out of the way When danger has passed, the spare adrenalin hormones pass into the liver to be processed out of the body and everything returns to normal. It is this process that causes those incidents of super-human strength such as a mother lifting a huge iron girder up off the ground to free her child and what gives us the strength and speed we never knew we had to flee from a raging bull.
Essentially, they act as our reserve batteries. You know those times when you are unable to sleep because you get “over-tired”? Your adrenals will recognise you are still operating in a waking state when your body’s energy is running down and they, in effect, kick in to keep you going and once adrenalin is flowing in the bloodstream, there is no way you will be able to go to sleep. Until it wears off, it will be as if you have just taken a shot of amphetamine. Adrenalin, as all of the hormones, has a drug-like effect on the body and it can make us feel high. This is why we can enjoy the “adrenal rush” that we get from a roller coaster or a scary movie.
However, if you were to experience the dramatic physical response which occurs with an adrenal rush without an obvious cause, it would be a clear indication that your adrenals are overreacting and are out of balance. The effects of adrenalin being released in inappropriate situations will cause very uncomfortable effects. It will feel like exam nerves but there is no exam; butterflies in your stomach, light-headed and you will wonder why. If the symptoms are more intense, you will experience what is commonly referred to as a panic attack.
Okay, now for the good news. The adrenals are very resilient glands (they have to be) and respond quickly to a little care and attention. There are two issues here; the adrenals are imbalanced because of too much stress and there are the symptoms of stress because of the imbalance in the adrenals. It’s important to treat the whole thing together - body and mind. It’s quicker that way.
Below is a list of possible symptoms. If you can tick off more than half of these, it is very likely your adrenals are depleted and could do with some TLC.
- Find bright lights/sunlight affect you.
- Occasional dizziness especially if getting up quickly.
- Catch colds/flu easily
- Feel nausea
- Occasional backache and muscle tension
- Night sweats
- Butterflies in your tummy for no apparent reason
- Low resistance to stress: short fuse
- Swing between anxiety and exhaustion (main symptom)
- Have sugar/caffeine cravings
So having identified the problem here’s what to do about it. Caffeine and sugar artificially stimulate the adrenals so it is important to avoid caffeine and sugar or at least moderate your intake. A cup of coffee may precipitate a panic attack even if your adrenals are healthy so you can imagine what it will do if they are depleted. Refined sugar is an empty calorie and although it may quickly satisfy your hunger (or craving) it does not contain any vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats or fibre. You will find, as your adrenals recover, that the cravings for sugar and caffeine will subside (honestly!). The body will quickly get used to being without these stimulants and it doesn’t take long for the taste buds to re-educate themselves and the individual will lose that “sweet tooth”.
Quality complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, whole grains, wholemeal bread, pulses, beans cause a slow impact on blood sugar levels. They cause blood sugar to in effect drip-feed into the system. These foods will boost your energy, reduce the tiredness caused by stress and calm the mind. Whole foods will also contain the proper balance of vitamins and minerals that are essential to carbohydrate metabolism and the maintenance and repair of the adrenals.
It is important to include a generous portion of complex carbohydrates with each meal. It is often useful, to cook up a big pot of brown rice and freeze it in portions. Defrost the portions before use and warm over a low heat with a little water. You can do the same with kidney beans or chickpeas remembering to soak them overnight before cooking. If you have a sandwich, choose one made with multi-grain/wholemeal bread. If you are making a soup, add lentils or beans. It just takes a bit of forward thinking. Porridge is an excellent complex carbohydrate breakfast. If you choose Muesli make sure it has no added sugar.
Have a whole-grain snack combined with a small portion of protein in between each meal: mid-morning, mid-afternoon and mid-evening. This need not be much; a couple of rice cakes, oat cakes (with no sugar; check ingredients), or Ryvita with cottage cheese or tuna fish will suffice. Boxes of oat cakes often have smaller packets of six inside so it is always useful to have one of these in your handbag or briefcase when you are out or at work. Include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet. They will be packed with Vitamin C that is an important anti-stress vitamin. A B complex will also be helpful.
Find a therapist that has knowledge of treating adrenals and learn ways of relaxing and dealing with stress in more productive ways. Perhaps instead of stewing over a problem you could go for a walk or listen to relaxing music and, of course, hypnotherapy is a wonderful way to reduce stress levels.
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