Stress is the #1 driver of all disease and imbalance—including “adrenal fatigue.” In fact, “adrenal fatigue” is a code word for “stress.”
Stress or “adrenal fatigue” is defined as: “A threat, real or implied, to the psychological or physiological well-being of an individual.”
Although stress is normal in our daily lives…when we experience too much stress, adrenal fatigue can happen.
4 Reasons Why We Get Adrenal Fatigue.
Reason #1: We Forget that Stress is Both Mental & Physical
Contrary to popular belief, stress is not just mental, it is also physical. Sometimes we forget this.
Stress impacts every system in the universe—which is crucial to understand when we talk about stress. Stress is both mental and physical.
Although stress is often thought to be mental (“all in you head”), stress actually affects us both mentally and physically.
For instance, a plant can be under the stress in a drought—without water. Your favorite Barbie doll encounters stress when your little brother ripped her head off. And our body was under stress when we broke a bone, falling off the monkey bars in the 1st grade. Stress is everywhere. These things do not need a mindset or neural pathways to be under stress.
Likewise, you personally don’t have to feel stressed for your body to be stressed.
You can be sitting on a beach in Costa Rica on vacation with seemingly no care in the world, but your body STILL be under stressed—running off 3 to 4 cups of coffee most days, fighting an underlying SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) condition and acne breakouts on your back, sleep deprived from your 6 hours most nights, and thrown off a normal circadian rhythm due to lack of natural sunlight and spending 8-10 hours most days on screens.
For this reason, recognizing that our bodies are stressed can be extremely challenging. After all, coffee, gut issues, skin breakouts, lack of sleep and technology addiction are common right?
However, just because something is common, does not mean it is normal.
Reason #2: “Normal” Stress is Not Normal
Many of the daily habits and exposures we encounter in our modern lifestyle are a far cry from what our human physiology is naturally wired to “deal with.”
For the former 200,000 years of life on earth, humans worked and played during the daylight hours, and rested and de-stressed during the nighttime hours. Humans lived in strong tribes and bonded communities; ate natural (unprocessed) seasonal and regional foods; and found meaning and purpose in spirituality, nature, work and family.
Our ancestors were not stress-free, but unlike us modern day humans who face handfuls of inflammatory stressors (ranging from pesticides in our foods to pollution, medications, environmental toxins in our tap water and cleaning supplies, the Standard American Diet, circadian rhythm disruption, EMF waves and blue screen light exposure), the primary stressors of “the good ol’ days” entailed natural disasters (storms), wild predators, food scarcity (drought, seasonal changes) and relationship or tribal disputes.
It really wasn’t until the past 200 years—a hairline fraction of humanity—that technologies like the lightbulb, indoor heating and air, automobiles (and rush hour traffic), iPhones and YouTube existed; and the chronic disease epidemic has continued to be on the rise.
Long story short, stress is not all in your head, nor is it normal for your physiology.
Reason #3: We Don’t Go on a Stress Scavenger Hunt
It’s important to recognize and identify all sources of chronic stress sin your life that may be working against you and adrenal fatigue.
Common Stressors in 21st Century:
- Bluelight screen exposure (long times on screens)
- Light at night time
- Less than 7 hours of sleep most nights
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Imbalanced exercise (i.e. doing HIIT or chronic cardio all the time without mixing it up)
- Exposure to chemicals in beauty, cleaning and hygiene products
- Plastic Tupperware/container use and other environmental toxins
- Mold exposure
- Lack of outdoor/nature and fresh air
- Endlessly Google searching answers to your health questions
- NSAID use (headaches, etc.)
- Oral birth control and/or long term prescription medication use
- Disconnection from community/meaningful relationships
- High coffee/caffeine consumption (more than 1 cup quality coffee/day)
- Disrupted circadian rhythms for sleeping, eating, working and resting patterns
- Artificial sweeteners (most commercial stevia included)
- High alcohol consumption or smoking
- Eating packaged, refined or processed foods
- Low water intake (less than half your body weight in ounces)
- Tap water (not filtered)
- Frequent eating out (more than preparing/handling your food)
- Stress over food/diet
- Low fiber (Fermentable prebiotic fiber foods)
- Lack of quality protein (amino acids for your brain)
- Conventional meat and dairy consumption
- Grains and “gluten free” processed products (with gluten-cross contaminants)
- Binging/Purging and disordered eating habits
- Jet lag
- Shift work
- Pain (joint, musculoskeletal)
- Infectious/bacterial disease
- Gut inflammation & Underlying gut conditions (SIBO, parasites, etc.)
- Type A personality—and difficulty listening to your body over your schedule
- Relationship stress (Divorce, argument, etc.)
- Financial stress/pressures
- Lack of control
- Not talking about your stress (bottling it up)
- Lack of play/fun
- Social Media comparison/endless scrolling
- Not doing things you love
- Serotonin suppression (“feel good” brain chemicals)
- Trying to be all things to all people/people pleasing
- FOMO (lack of downtime for yourself)
- Burning a candle at both ends
- News binging
- Emotional eating
Disclaimer: Not All Stress is Bad
Stress is and inevitable and normal part of life. We cannot live in bubbles or escape it, and not all stress is bad.
In fact, our stress response system is what helps us fight through a tough workout, finish our paper at 3 a.m. the night before it’s due, or get over a hard breakup (along with a little bit of dark chocolate of course).
Stress often works for you—not against you.
Too Much Stress is Not Good
That said, too much of a “good thing” is not a good thing—especially when it comes to stress.
In the face of unrelenting (ongoing) stress, we can lose our ability to adapt or recover. Our stress response activation is blunted over time, and we become less and less able to mount an adequate response to stress. The result? Chronic stress.
Chronic stress (the kind of stress that persists) is then defined as any load, event or threat that exceeds the body’s ability to recover from the stressor, often leading to chronic inflammation, disease and imbalance—often referred to as “HPA Axis Dysregulation.”
Have you ever heard the stat that “99% of all disease is stress related?”
This is where “chronic stress”—your inability to overcome that stress comes into play—which also happens to play a role in your physical health and gut microbiome.
Reason #4: Our HPA Axis Goes on Overdrive
Your “HPA Axis” is the term given for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that is your body’s central “stress response” system.
The HPA Axis is responsible both for how your body deals with stress, as well as keeping your body “balanced” and working like it should.
In an ideal world, your stress response system (your “HPA Axis”) helps you “fight and flee” from stress, as well as “manage” stress if it is more long-term (such as dealing with a difficult boss or keeping you alive even if you eat processed, nutrient-deficient foods—which was me for the first 26 years of my life!).
Here’s how both the short term and long term stress response works:
Short Term Stress Response
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased metabolic rate
- Dilation of bronchioles (in lungs for breathing)
- Increased blood flow
- Converting glycogen (stored energy from food) to glucose and release into the blood stream
- Increased alertness
- Reduced digestive system activity and urinaton
Short Term Stress Example: Running from a bear.
If a bear is chasing you, your HPA Axis kicks into high gear—producing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to run faster along with the “fight or flight response” (such as shortness of breath, a racing heart and sweat). Cortisol levels (our stress hormones) go up so our body is able to “fight” and “flee” from the stress.
When we escape the bear, our HPA Axis brings cortisol and adrenaline levels back down to “normal” down, like this nice bell-curve you see here.
The HPA Axis comes back to balance—also known as the “rest and digest” response or “parasympathetic” state, which is characterized by: muscle relaxation, decreased blood pressure and heart rate, pupillary constriction (get smaller), increased salivary and digestive enzymes, more energy and boosted immune system. All is well again (at least until another bear or storm comes).
Unfortunately, in modern day, “rest and digest” mode does not last long. Most of us find ourselves in “continual” fight or flight activation, eventually leading to a more “long term” stress response.
Long Term Stress Response
- Decreased insulin sensitivity and blood sugar imbalances
- Reduced thyroid hormone (T3) production
- Decreased growth hormone (poor muscle development/fitness, low energy)
- Increased fat and protein mobilization (your body needs more proteins and fats since its using energy stores)
- Decreased immune function
- Imbalanced hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol)
- Heightened inflammation in the body (more prone to chronic conditions and illness—from skin conditions to digestive distress, high triglycerides or total cholesterol, insomnia, mood imbalances, etc.)
- Retention of sodium and water by kidneys (craving salt; electrolyte imbalances)
- Suppressed body functions (such as too high or too low
- Failure to adapt and recover from stress over time
Long Term Stress Example: Chronic dieting
Yo yo and fad dieting is a norm in our society. First fats were bad and carbs were good, then carbs were bad and fat was good. You read that you should be eating 1200 or 1600 calories, and burning at least 500 calories in your Orange Theory workout. You try the intermittent fasting and fasting thing—only to reward yourself with an entire day’s worth of food in one sitting. You stick to only lean proteins and greens during the day, but come nighttime, you’re ravenous. This cycle goes on—for years and years and years.
You’re completely out of touch with your body’s cues. Your blood sugar is all over the place. PMS sucks during that time of the month. Your body seems to hold onto weight no matter what you do. You can gain 5 pounds just by looking at a piece of pizza. Your immune system goes down every spring when the pollen rolls in. Your doctor said you have low Vitamin D and T3 on your thyroid panel. And all you want is to just eat and be happy, healthy and free!
HPA Axis Shutdown
The long term stress or adrenal fatigue response leads to HPA Axis Dysregulation—aka “chronic stress” (too much stress). With little reprieve from the constant pounding and stress, HPA Axis is challenged to balance cortisol, primarily because your body thinks you are running from that same bear—at all times!
Your HPA Axis “shuts down” proper function—either continually producing too much cortisol OR eventually halting production of (enough) cortisol altogether to deal with the stress. It can’t keep up. The most obvious effects of chronically elevated cortisol or chronically suppressed cortisol are disrupted carbohydrate metabolism (blood sugar imbalance); impaired immune function; and chronic inflammation— the perfect setup for HPA-D and gut microbiota disruptions.
The result? You ultimately, don’t feel like yourself—left to cope with a host of ailments or less-than-ideal health imbalances.
Stress is inevitable and a normal part of life (from rush hour traffic, work deadlines or relationship disagreements), but when stress exceeds our adaptive response, all balance is lost, and HPA Axis Dysregulation comes into play.