Adrenal Exhaustion and Anxiety

Don’t let stress wear down your health. See if adrenal exhaustion could play a part in your anxiety.

| December 2018

  • From suggestions for lifestyle choices to nutritional supplements, “Natural Relief for Anxiety” offers strategies for overcoming anxiety without drugs.
    Cover courtesy of New Harbinger Publications
  • Anxiety disorders and adrenal exhaustion frequently occur together.
    Photo courtesy of Getty Images/humonia

Adrenal Exhaustion

Prolonged and unremitting stress taxes your adrenal glands. Hans Selye, a well-known expert on stress, has described how protracted stress on the adrenal glands results in a state of chronic underfunctioning or exhaustion (1984). Insufficient adrenal resources, in turn, tend to affect how you handle stressful situations, making it more likely that you will become anxious in the face of stress. Inadequate sleep; life stresses of all kinds; prolonged exposure to heat or cold; exposure to toxins, pollutants, or substances you’re allergic to; and taking cortisone over a period of time can also contribute to adrenal exhaustion. Sudden trauma or severe physical illness can initiate or worsen adrenal exhaustion. Notice that many of these factors, particularly sudden trauma such as losses or life transitions, also play a role in the onset of anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders and adrenal exhaustion frequently occur together.

Adrenal exhaustion develops in stages. When you’re combating stress, the adrenal glands tend to hyperfunction, producing large amounts of adrenaline and noradrenaline as well as steroid hormones such as cortisol. As stress becomes prolonged, the glands begin to be overtaxed and go into a state of temporary underfunctioning. If you are relatively healthy, the glands will try to compensate and can actually rebuild themselves to the point of hypertrophy (growing larger). However, if high levels of stress continue, the glands will eventually exhaust themselves again and then remain in a chronic state of underfunctioning. At this stage they can oscillate between overproducing adrenaline, which can cause panic or mood swings, and underproducing adrenaline, which is associated with fatigue and poor stress tolerance. The ultimate outcome of prolonged adrenal exhaustion can be health problems such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic bronchitis or sinusitis, and autoimmune disorders ranging from lupus to rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms of adrenal exhaustion include:

  • low stress tolerance (little things that didn’t use to bother you get to you)
  • lethargy and fatigue (often manifested in difficulty getting up in the morning)
  • light-headedness when standing up quickly (called postural hypotension)
  • light sensitivity (difficulty adjusting to bright light outdoors)
  • difficulties with concentration and memory
  • insomnia
  • hypoglycemia
  • allergies (to foods, environmental substances, pollens, molds, etc.)
  • increased symptoms of premenstrual syndrome
  • more frequent colds and respiratory conditions

Hypoglycemia and adrenal exhaustion. Hypoglycemia and adrenal exhaustion often go hand in hand. The adrenals function along with the pancreas in helping to maintain stable blood sugar levels. When the adrenals underfunction, blood sugar levels tend to become erratic. As adrenal fatigue worsens, the immune system is compromised, leading to increased susceptibility to allergies, asthma, respiratory infections, and colds.

Addictions and adrenal exhaustion. Addiction to caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, or recreational drugs is frequently associated with adrenal exhaustion, as is the physiological craving for sugar. Continued use of any of these substances tends to worsen the condition. If you have any of these addictions, your risk of adrenal insufficiency is higher than average.

Your day-to-day life and adrenal exhaustion. A day-to-day life that is chronically stressful and demanding due to perfectionism and self-imposed pressure to achieve also often leads to adrenal exhaustion.

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