The Science Of Stress: Getting To Know Your Adrenals

science of stress
February 9, 2016
by Shannon Keating

If you’ve been in the CrossFit game for a while now, chances are you may have heard the term “adrenal fatigue” thrown around.

Or, maybe “adrenal fatigue” is a completely foreign term for you, but the phrases: “burnt out”, “chronic exhaustion”,  or “too much stress for your body to handle” ring a bell.

No matter which phrase you’re familiar with, they’re all referencing the same thing: stress.

In order to maximize your overall health, it’s incredibly important for you to understand the basics of the stress process, and specifically the role of your adrenal glands.

Adrenal gland dysfunction/fatigue is a very real and serious issue that we are all susceptible to, regardless of how much we exercise or how “clean” we eat.

What Are The Adrenal Glands?

Your adrenal glands are two tiny endocrine (think hormone producing) glands, each about the size of a pea, that sit right on top of your kidneys. One “pea” per kidney.

To find them: place both fingers on your belly button and trace your fingers about two inches out and two inches up – that is, generally, where you will find your adrenals.

These two organs are involved in hormonal reactions throughout the entire body.

They are craaaaazy important.

When your adrenals are functioning properly, this allows all the other processes in your body to run more smoothly.

On the other hand, if your adrenals are “suffering” then you better believe other things will be suffering.

Signs Your Adrenals Are Out Of Whack

Issues such as digestive troubles, hormonal imbalances, mood disturbances, general fatigue, and trouble falling or staying asleep can all be traced back to the health and functioning of your adrenal glands.

If you have been experiencing any of the following…

  • Trouble getting up in the morning/ general morning grogginess
  • Cravings for salt or salty foods
  • Cravings for sugar/sweets, caffeine, or cigarettes (especially later in the day)
  • General/overall fatigue throughout the day
  • Decreased libido/sex drive
  • Weak immune system; frequent colds/illness/allergies
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Afternoon headaches
  • Dizziness/light-headed when going from sitting or lying to standing
  • Decreased ability to “deal with stress”/ feeling overwhelmed
  • Inability to recover properly/timely from exercise (exercise has you feeling “trashed” for days)
  • Brain fog or fuzziness
  • Decrease in motivation, passion, or desire
  • Decrease in memory and/or focus
  • Increase in irritability

… then you definitely NEED to give your adrenal health a bit more focus.

Basically, if you deal with any sort of emotional, physical, or mental stress, you can benefit greatly from giving your adrenal health a little bit more attention.

The Role Your Adrenals Play In Stress Management

But WHY?! Why can so many important health issues be traced back to these two tiny pea-sized glands?

Well — simply put — because the main job of your adrenals is to help your body cope with, and respond to stress.

And while the adrenal glands are very hearty, durable little organs — able to withstand a whole lot of stress coming at us from all different angles — they are designed to handle acute types of stress, not so much the chronic stress you deal with today.

With the very nature of today’s society, where the “go go GO” mentally is all the rage, stress is all around us, and therefore it is nearly impossible to not have a bit of adrenal trouble at some point or another.

Your Daily Stressors: More Than Just A Rough Day At The Office

Adrenal health and stress go hand in hand, simply because, like already stated, the main job of your adrenals is to help your body cope with and respond to STRESS.

Stress by definition is simply “a specific response by the body to a stimulus, such as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with normal physiological equilibrium”.

Stress attacks us at all angles – whether we like it or not.

Stress can be positive or negative; stress can be physical, mental, or emotional; stress can be acute or chronic.

Stressors are simply the things responsible for eliciting a “stress response”.

It’s important to know that stressors can be absolutely anything that is perceived as stressful by you and your body, but can commonly include:

  • Poor diet including an excess of inflammatory/gut-irritating foods (such as conventional meat, sugar, vegetable oils, grains, GMO’s – you name it)
  • Bacterial/viral/parasitic infection
  • A chronic or acute illness
  • Toxins (such as alcohol and drugs)
  • Lack of high-quality sleep
  • Anxiety/Depression or any overall negative/sad emotions
  • Excessive exercise
  • Pain/Injury

The umbrella term “stress” is used simply because your body responds to all these types of stressors, listed above, in the same exact way, every single time, by eliciting a “stress response”.

Because of this, one specific stressor such as exercise — considered “positive stress” — can quickly become “negative” if your body experiences too much of it, or if your body is simultaneously responding to tons of other stressors such as poor food choices, lack of sleep, financial stress, emotional stress, etc.

Elite athletes have this figured out.  They put absurd amounts of focus and devotion towards adequate sleep, proper recovery techniques (mobility, stretching, physical therapy, massage, etc.) and diet because if those things weren’t hammered down, their body (and specifically their brain and adrenals) would not be able to handle all the stress coming from their exercise regimen.

Stay tuned, next week’s post will dive deeper into what happens in your body during a stressful response, how this affects your adrenals, and, most importantly, what you can do about it.

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