Stress is defined in many ways, most commonly as any type of real or perceived disturbance, physical or emotional, which alters ones balance. This leads to a stress response activating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and various organs. A healthy acute stress response is an immediate short-term body response to an impending threat or challenge. Chronic stress is the activation of the stress mechanism over long periods of time when a person is exposed to stressors that cannot be escaped; they don’t recognize them or have no control over them. This persistent stress, which contributes to prolonged secretion of cortisol from the adrenals, can have detrimental effects. Many conditions are affected by and/or associated with chronic stress such as cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, immune dysfunction, asthma, inflammatory bowel conditions and abdominal obesity.
Chronic stress may exhaust adrenal gland reserves over time so people end up with low cortisol or adrenal fatigue (hypo function). This results in fatigue, reduced strength, salt cravings, headache, anorexia, weight loss, insomnia and loss of libido. Chronic stress may also cause excess cortisol production (adrenal hyper function), which can contribute to depression, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, osteoporosis and reduced natural killer activity.
Chronic stress has also been linked to low thyroid function with the most common cause being chronic autoimmune thyroiditis (Hashimoto’s disease). The most common symptoms associated with hypothyroidism are fatigue, cold hands/feet, depression, menstrual problems, constipation. easy weight gain and difficult weight loss. A recent study in the medical journal Archives of Internal Medicine found that women with low thyroid are 70% more likely to have arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and over twice as likely (200% increase) to suffer a heart attack.
Since the symptoms of stress, adrenal hypo function, adrenal hyper function and thyroid hypo function can be similar or overlap, the best option is to evaluate the adrenal and thyroid glands to diagnose a functional imbalance. The typical thyroid tests are blood tests, which have become the subject of some controversy, so I may request further testing which may include, Free T3, Reverse T3 and antibodies to diagnose or rule out Hashimoto’s disease. The most comprehensive testing for adrenal status is a saliva test that includes four samples of saliva throughout the day to evaluate the levels of cortisol and DHEA, the two major hormones produced by the adrenals and their ratio.
Once an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis is made there are many therapies to support healthy thyroid function, increase or decrease cortisol levels and manage stress. Lifestyle interventions include stress reduction, restorative sleep, stabilizing blood sugar levels and tolerated exercise. Acupuncture is very effective at reducing stress and promoting an improved sense of well-being. Many adaptogenic herbs have been used successfully especially in conjunction with various nutrients and homeopathic remedies to normalize the adrenal steroid and thyroid hormonal pathways. Eliminating environmental toxins that can interfere with the conversion of one hormone into another is critical. Omega –3 fatty acids may be of benefit in treating stress, depression, and anxiety.
Whatever treatment protocol is indicated, these natural interventions help to minimize the impact of stress and restore healthy endocrine function.