When it comes to stress, we often talk about work pressure, personal issues or chronic disease. But there are other elements that influence stress as well. For instance, in your experience, have there been times when you constantly feel tired but can’t explain why? You feel overwhelmed by situations you could handle easily? Do you find yourself drained of energy you may have enjoyed once upon a time? Have you struggled to get out of bed in the mornings even after sleeping for long hours? If this sounds familiar, there is a chance that you are suffering from something called ‘Adrenal stress” or “Adrenal Fatigue”. Simply put, your adrenal glands may be under-performing. All that chronic stress you have been masterfully coping with has finally caught up! Your adrenal glands are responsible for supporting you and sustaining a level of vigilance. Adrenal Stress happens when they show signs of strain.
Is this a death sentence? No! But it is a sign of imbalance. Chronic stress is a part of life. But if left unchecked and unassuaged for too long, it can lead to hormonal depletion, exhaustion, and adrenal fatigue.
Adrenal Glands and Stress
To understand the above, we need to understand how health and metabolism are affected by hormones. One of the glands that play an important role in metabolism is the adrenal cortex. The adrenal cortex gland releases hormones which are vital for biological function. To be more specific, there are two parts which release hormones – Adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla. Adrenal cortex hormones regulate sodium levels, salt, and balances blood volume which directly affects blood pressure.
Another hormone (Cortisol) regulates metabolic rate of carbohydrate, proteins, and fat. It also regulates immune responses. It is responsible for suppressing inflammatory reactions. So it is a potent anti-inflammatory hormone. Finally, the adrenal glands are best known for secreting the hormone adrenaline, which rapidly prepares your body for action in a stressful situation.
When you are stressed, the hormones of the adrenal medulla are released after the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated. The adrenal medulla helps you deal with physical and emotional stress. You want these responses to happen. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s part of why we have survived for so long as a species.
If you encounter a stressful situation, you want your body to fire up stress hormones to feed you energy and adrenaline. You WANT to be able to run from a potential threat or beat it back. The problems come in when you have that relatively high level of stress but then don’t actually end up using that extra energy in the form of movement.
Adrenal Stress, Belly Fat and Weight Gain
During times of stress, there are actual physiological changes that happen in our body. Most of them are helpful for our survival (such as in the situation described above). But, if we continue to experience stress and we don’t actually end up running from our perceived threat or beating it back, those stress hormones increase our blood sugar (in an effort to give us energy) which then requires insulin to bring it back down.
In the short term, it feels like an energy crash. In the long term, it can lead to weight gain. When the adrenal glands are overworked, the body prepares itself by storing fat. We crave food, indulge in binge eating and we gain weight.
Adrenal imbalance causes a number of issues, including the abdominal fat deposition. When we have long term stress, both insulin and cortisol remain elevated in the blood, and the extra glucose is stored as fat–mostly in the abdomen. Studies suggest that fat cells have receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, and there are more of these receptors in our abdominal fat cells than anywhere else in our bodies. Moreover, belly fat is an active tissue, which responds to stress by depositing more fat. This cycle can not end until a step is taken to tackle the root cause of stress.
How to Break The Cycle
- Go Easy On Food: Eating small and frequent meals helps cortisol balance the blood sugar and take off some stress. Cortisol counterbalances the action of insulin. Under stress when cortisol levels are elevated, it results in a perpetual need for insulin. Eventually, our bodies can develop resistance to it. Hence the name “insulin resistance”. In other words, our body can become less sensitive to insulin, forcing it to produce more for the same effect. If it stops to work altogether, that keeps glucose levels high in the blood.
- Time to Eat: Our body has circadian rhythms which work closely with cortisol, which is highest in the morning and gradually declines throughout the day. When we eat we elevate our cortisol, so it is best to start heavy with breakfast and go light post evening. Heavy evening meals are the prime reason for an expanding waistline. A Higher waistline is associated with metabolic and lifestyle disease.
- Unplug: Give time to yourself. Unplug means a disconnect from cell phones, laptops, work, any digital devices. Take out sometime which you spend only with your thoughts. It makes you realize your priorities and your goals better.
- Sleep: As this gland also controls our circadian rhythms, it is responsible for our sleep cycle. Good 8 hours of sleep will make you take fewer calories through the day. Lack of sleep also makes one drowsy and ends in low energy levels creating stress. Maintain an 8 hour sleeping time for the body to regenerate.
- Workout: Exercise is the best remedy to reduce stress by releasing pent up energy. As stated earlier, the whole reason our bodies respond to stress by producing more cortisol is so that we have energy available to spend. Having more energy isn’t a bad thing if you actually use it.
The best way to reduce stress levels is to have fun! Having fun and laughing should become one of your top priorities in life! It has multiple benefits, one of them being stress relief. Looking at the day ahead, ask yourself what is that one thing you can do for your body to support your adrenal glands? Then ask yourself how you can set aside some time for fun!