by Leisa Wheeler, N.D.
I’ve talk quite a bit about adrenal fatigue in my professional life, and what happens when the adrenals can’t keep up with the daily demands of stress and the stress hormone cortisol depletes. One thing I haven’t talked a lot about though, is what happens prior to that when cortisol levels are high and we are pushing the boundaries of what we can cope with.
There are three main stages of stress – the alarm phase (our fight or flight instinct), the resistance phase (the response that allows us to cope with longer periods of stress), and exhaustion, when we just can’t keep up anymore. Each of these phases have different symptoms and hormone patterns. In the resistance phase especially, we may not even realize how much stress we are under, unless we test our hormone balance and reveal what is truly happening in the body.
In resistance, the hormone cortisol rises to allow us to adapt to a situation that requires our focus. We might have to strategize, plan and come up with ideas to take us out of a situation that may be harmful. In nature, we experience this response and the changes that go with it, for a limited period of time. However, in the modern world we live in we can experience the resistance phase of stress for decades! The hormones that help us cope and adapt to stress are beneficial for us in the short term, but over the long-term can harm our health.
Excessive cortisol has a number of undesirable effects on the body - symptoms of which include fatigue, lethargy, depression, insomnia, PMS, inflammation and immune dysfunction. Over the long term we see a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. When we are in the resistance phase we have switched off the part of our nervous system, which is called ‘rest and digest’, so we see low digestive juices and issues with nutrient absorption, which causes more stress in itself.
Another negative effect from a high cortisol state is that the sleep hormone melatonin may not be released properly, leading to insomnia. We are meant to have a beautiful flow of hormones over the day and night, whereby we have a burst of cortisol early in the morning to switch off our sleep hormone and give us energy, and then it will slowly deplete during the day until in the evening, when our melatonin hormone releases, sending us to sleep. This pattern is the way these two hormones are meant to flow, and happens easily and normally, when we are not stressed and able to handle our day-to-day activities.
When we are stressed though, cortisol can remain high at night, leading to low melatonin levels. Not only can this affect our sleep, but low melatonin can also indicate low levels of serotonin (our mood elevation hormone), as serotonin is the precursor to melatonin production. Low serotonin is related to disorders of consumption (alcoholism, bulimia, anorexia), mood, sleep, anxiety, thought (OCD), learning, memory, sexual activity, aggression, and suicide.
So there are stages of stress that can be measured before we hit exhaustion! Being aware of our stress levels is very important in preventing both short-term and long-term health disorders. Exercise is important in managing stress levels, as is regular meditation, a whole foods diet, eliminating stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol and healing our emotional wounds and traumas. Eating in a resting state helps our digestive system, as does ensuring that we are well hydrated.