The Impact of Stress on the Adrenal Glands
Being stressed has become a glorified status in our society—the more stressed we can claim to be, the more productive and accomplished we are. And so it is no surprise that we find more and more clients coming into our practices and stores seeking and begging for answers to their complaints of fatigue, sleep disturbances, body aches, amongst a number of other complaints that all point towards a depletion of their adrenal glands.
Sources of Stress
Remember that stress occurs when we have an inability to adapt to our external environment. So, while we tend to think mostly about long workdays, demanding bosses, and a hectic home as the main causes of stress, this rarely provides the complete picture. Always consider and ask about these other sources of stress.
- Emotional stress. Ask about relationships at home, at work, with friends, and with kids. Do not overlook financial difficulties and abuse.
- Diet. Think about sugar intake and high intake of other common allergens (gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, nuts).
- Insufficient sleep. Ask whether they are going to sleep after 10 p.m. (pitta time!).
- Chemicals and pollutants. Look beyond the outdoor environment and food. What cleaning products are being used, what kind of water is the client drinking?
- Infections. Any infection, especially chronic, can put a significant stress load on the body. Look in particular at gut infections, such as yeast, and ask about the stool to get a sense of their intestinal flora.
- Trauma. Consider both physical and emotional trauma. Even question about excessive exercise as that can induce bodily injury.
The Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands are a pair of endocrine glands that sit right on top of the kidneys. Though they only weigh about five grams each, these two small glands are responsible for producing a number of hormones that help maintain a system of balance within the body. As such, they are regulators of stress, in that they help us adapt to anything that has the potential to throw our internal chemistry off balance.
Aside from the infamous hormone, cortisol (the hormone that alarms stress throughout the body), the adrenal glands also produce mineralocorticoids (hormones that help maintain water and electrolyte balance), steroid hormones (such as testosterone, DHEA), and catecholamines (hormones that facilitate quick responses to stress and threats).
The Adrenal Glands and Ayurveda
The adrenal glands belong to meda vaha srotas, loosely defined as the channel of fat and lubrication. In fact, along with the omentum, the adrenal glands are the root of this channel.1 Therefore, the two doshas that work in opposing forces to maintain balance of this gland are kapha and vata.
In today’s society, we tend to tip the balance towards vata, as the adrenal glands work in overdrive to produce sufficient hormones to combat constant stress. Of the subtypes of vata, prana vata (the orchestrator of all vata subtypes, responsible for respiration, sensory perception, and the nervous system) is most impacted. Rather than flowing through the body, carrying hormonal messengers systematically, prana becomes scattered and disarrayed, much like we do when we are juggling ten tasks at once.
Kapha’s role is to nourish, and in a balanced state, the body is well nurtured and lubricated, particularly with good water balance. But in overdrive, as the adrenal glands burn out, we deplete healthy kapha and promote high vata systemically, especially throughout the nervous system. As kapha continues to drop, so does ojas, leading to poor immunity.
Eventually, the adrenal glands begin to pull on other endocrine organs. They pull on reproductive organs by stealing steroid hormone precursors away from the production of testosterone and estrogen, towards the production of cortisol and other adrenal hormones. The pancreas too is invited to help the adrenals maintain balance by providing blood glucose for much needed energy, only leading to insulin resistance with time. And as the adrenal glands become very fatigued, they pull on the thyroid to help provide that extra metabolic boost that the demands of stress are asking for. As we know, with time, the thyroid can become worn out into a hypothyroid state.
Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Exhaustion
As vata increases and kapha becomes depleted, you will notice more and more of these signs of a depleted meda tissue layer and ojas.2, 3
- Cracking joints
- Hyperactive thyroid
- Osteoporosis, osteoarthritis
- Back pain
- Sunken eyes and cheeks
- Subjective feeling of emptiness, loss of confidence, fear
- Poor memory, confusion, hyperactive mind, difficulty concentrating
- Susceptibility to infections (low immunity)
- Fatigue, difficulty waking up, needing caffeine
Additionally, here are more symptoms of an exhausted adrenal system.
- Decreased sex drive
- Trouble with sleep
- Irritability, mood swings
- Blood pressure changes (especially high blood pressure abnormally becoming low)
- Digestive changes
- Weight fluctuations
- Chronic pain
- Changes in the menstrual cycle
- Slow healing from injuries and bruises
Look for the next article where we will share some Ayurvedic tips to support and nourish your adrenal glands and maintain a sense of balance, despite stressors that your client may or may not have control over.
1 Vasant Lad, Textbook of Ayurveda Volume 1: Fundamental Principles of Ayurveda (Albuquerque: The Ayurvedic Press, 2002), pp. 288
2 Vasant Lad, Textbook of Ayurveda, Volume 2: A Complete Guide to Clinical Assessment (Albuquerque: The Ayurvedic Press, 2006), pp. 260
3 Lad, Textbook 2: Clinical Assessment, pp. 287