The Adverse Effects of Stress on the Adrenal Gland

March 12, 2021
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Almost every health problem comes with stress as a component. The connection between stress and high blood pressure, heart disease, and many digestive problems is well‐established in the medical literature. Stress makes hormonal changes, blood sugar changes, causes the body to excrete nutrients, and adversely affects the immune system.

The adrenal gland is directly affected by stress. It is responsible for the ʺfight or flightʺ response. Hans Selye, MD, conducted some experiments creating stress in rats. The rats were made to tread water with their legs tied until they became exhausted and died.

Dr. Selye took the rats at various stages of their ordeal and dissected out their adrenal glands. He found that the adrenal glands responded to stress in three distinct stages. In the initial stage, the adrenal glands enlarge and the blood supply to them increases. As the stress continues, the adrenal glands begin to shrink. Eventually, if the stress continues, the adrenal glands reach the third stage, which is adrenal exhaustion.

When the primitive man walked through the forests and saw a wild animal, his heart rate would increase, his pupils would dilate, his blood would go out of his digestive system and into his arms and legs, his blood clotting ability would improve, he would become more aware and his blood pressure would rise. At that point, heʹd either run away or pick up a stick and try to fight the animal. The physiological changes brought on by the adrenal glands would make the body more efficient at either one of those activities. It is called the fight or flight response. If he survived the ordeal, chances are it would be a while before such a strain was put on the adrenal glands and the rest of his body. His adrenal glands would have a chance to recover.

Many people in modern society do not have the luxury of a recovery period for their overworked adrenal glands. The changes caused by the overproduction of adrenal hormones stay with them. The stimulation of the adrenal glands causes a decrease in the immune system function, so an individual under constant stress will tend to catch colds and have other immune system problems, including allergies. Blood flow to the digestive tract is decreased. Stress causes many digestive problems such as indigestion, colitis, and irritable bowel. Adrenal hormones cause an increase in the blood clotting ability, so prolonged stress can lead to the formation of arterial plaque and heart disease.

Selye described the progression of stress on the adrenal glands as the general adaptation syndrome. The first stage is called the alarm reaction. This is when someone (with healthy adrenal glands) can perform amazingly well when the need arises. The primitive man, seeing the wild animal, was able to run faster than he ever dreamed possible during the alarm reaction. If the stress continues, the body moves into the resistance stage, during which the adrenals become enlarged. The individual is responding to the stress and handling it.

He or she may feel keyed up. The person may have cold, clammy hands, rapid pulse, or reduced appetite, but hasn’t begun to feel any of the more serious symptoms of the next stage. During the exhaustion stage, the adrenal glands begin to fail to meet the demands placed upon them. During this stage, the individual begins to have a variety of symptoms including fatigue, digestive problems, obesity, depression, dizziness, fainting, allergies, and many other problems.

Situations are not always controllable, but stress is. Stress is cumulative. Emotional stress, structural stress, and chemical stress all affect the body the same way. The adrenal glands do not know the difference between an IRS audit, treading water, or excessive sugar consumption. Excess sugar consumption will add to the stress of the IRS audit.

By reducing the stress that can be controlled, stressful situations will not have as much of a physical effect. For instance, eating frequent meals and avoiding sugar will reduce stress on the adrenal glands. Mental focus is important; so the client must be told to not think about problems unless it is to directly do something to solve them.

Hanging on to anxiety over past situations is stressful. Thought has power. Worry produces all of the physiologic responses of Selyeʹs rats or the caveman facing the wild animal. It is a waste of energy and it undermines health. The adrenal glands simply don’t know the difference between imagined danger and real danger. Think about it; if you hear a noise at night and think it’s the wind, you can go back to sleep. If you think it’s an intruder, you can’t get back to sleep even after you get up to investigate. The thought of facing an intruder made the adrenal glands start producing their hormones.

Meditation and biofeedback have been of such value in controlling stress. They do nothing to control the source of the stress, only the response to it. Physicians are beginning to find that laughter helps the prognosis of cancer patients. They even have clients watch sitcoms in the hospital: ʺMr. Smith, it’s time for your chemotherapy and ʹLucyʹ reruns.ʺ

Minimizing chemical stress is also important. We have plenty of chemical stress today. Environmental pollution, food additives, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine contribute stress to the adrenal glands.

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