Stress can be mental, physical or emotional and there are often events or periods of time in our lives that we can point to as particularly stressful, such as a car accident, death of a loved one or job loss. In addition to these major events, there are many underlying “behind the scenes” factors that compile and contribute to a state of chronic stress. From infections, allergies, depression, overworking, guilt, and sleep deprivation, to toxic exposures, fluctuating blood sugars, and medications. We are constantly inundated with demands to our hormonal system.
Our bodies were built to handle isolated stressful events, and hormones including cortisol and DHEA
are an important part of that mechanism, however, the adrenal glands can only do so much. Just as you can’t continue to spend money from your checking account without working to put money in it, asking your adrenal glands to continuously produce stress hormones without giving them the opportunity to rest and regenerate will lead to hormonal bankruptcy!
Have you ever heard the old idiom “Rob Peter to pay Paul”? When our bodies are working to maintain sufficient cortisol levels to help us deal with all of our chronic stressors, there comes a point where we will pull resources from other places. Pregnenolone is the primary precursor hormone for all of the steroid hormones including cortisol, DHEA, progesterone, testosterone, estradiol and more. As a result of the increased demand for cortisol, our bodies will shunt more of the precursor pregnenolone down the pathway that results in more cortisol, leaving less starting material available to produce the other hormones. As you can imagine, the hormonal imbalance that ensues contributes to the overall stress burden and compounds the original problem.
Pregnenolone is the “parent” molecule for all of the steroid hormones and it can follow two pathways: one leads to DHEA and eventually to the estrogens and testosterone, and the other leads to progesterone and eventually to aldosterone and cortisol. When the demand for cortisol is increased, the progesterone/ cortisol pathway can steal the pregnenolone, but then a shortage of progesterone can also occur as more and more cortisol is needed. This process contributes to a relative deficiency in progesterone compared to estradiol, a condition that we often refer to as estrogen dominance.
Our endocrine system is designed very much like all other creatures on this planet, we are equipped to handle acute stressful events; prepared to protect ourselves from danger or to flee from it. While we rarely find ourselves fighting off a predator in this modern era, the constant barrage of micro-stressful events such as traffic, social stresses etc. often result in a chronically stimulated adrenal response. While our caveman ancestors would likely have rested safe in a cave after fleeing from a saber tooth tiger, we rarely give our bodies the actual break it deserves and requires! Over time, our adrenal glands just can’t keep up the pace and their production of cortisol begins to falter.
Adrenal exhaustion can happen to some people after a single stressful event, and for others it occurs after a long series of micro-stressors. We are all different, and the length of time we can “keep up the pace” is different depending on individual constitution as well.
Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Wilson JL. 2001 Smart Publications