How does your body cope with stress? 

What happens when you experience stress?

Do your palms or underarms get sweaty? Does your heart rate increase? Do your cheeks flush? Do you feel light headed or dizzy? These are common reactions to stressors and are signals that something inside you is indeed changing as your body reacts to a mental-emotional stressor.  More and more we know that the mind and our emotions are tied to a physical manifestations of health and disease; and the hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal gland (HPA) axis is a perfect example of this connection between mind-body. 

Chronic stress impacts health in way that we cannot see and sometimes can’t feel. Physical and biochemical changes happen in our bodies in response to stress, and these changes create the those reactions such as sweating, increased heart rates, and flushing.

Stress is a useful cognitive process that tells our body about dangers in our World. Stress prepares your body to deal with these dangers by priming and readying its neuro-hormone systems; getting your body into a “Fight or Flight” state. This is also called sympathetic nervous system activation and it’s a natural response to stress. Stress becomes a problem when it is chronic, constant or uncontrollable.

The organs involved in responding to stress are the adrenal glands. The “Adrenal glands” are special organs inside your body responsible for producing special hormones and neurotransmitters called cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.  They also produce aldosterone and DHEA.  These organs are located on top of your kidneys and you have two of them.  Cortisol is your chronic stress hormone, and it’s involved in most of the negative health consequences of adrenal fatigue.

So how do you know if you have an adrenal gland problem, such as adrenal fatigue? Here are some common signs and symptoms:

Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Insufficiency:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Caffeine dependence
  3. Energy dips at 2-3pm in the afternoon
  4. Sleep problems and insomnia
  5. Frequently waking between 2-5am
  6. Anxiety / Feeling overwhelmed
  7. Weight gain
  8. Abdominal adiposity (belly fat)
  9. Prediabetes
  10. Dyslipidemia (Increases in cholesterol)

Adrenal fatigue happens when our bodies have been put through a great deal of any kind of stress, such as:

  • Emotional Stress – a break-up, divorce, loss of a loved one, a big move
  • Mental Stress – a demanding and high pressure job, managing employees, years of education
  • Physical Stress – marathon training, impact sports, a car accident, a burn

The term adrenal fatigue comes from the idea that under intense, or chronic adrenal glands are over stimulated from stress and must make more and more cortisol until finally, they “Burn out” or cannot continue to make stress hormone (Cortisol) at such a rate.

Adrenal fatigue has three phases:

  1. Alarm phase – acute stressor, initial response, high cortisol, high adrenaline
  2. Adaptation – normal cortisol, “tired but wired”, inflammation elevated, many symptoms
  3. Resistance/Burn Out – abnormally high or low cortisol, exhausted, depression/anxiety

Cortisol has an important role, but also serious impacts on health. It can change the way your body works internally and it can lead to serious health consequences, as outlined below, when it is not managed well.

How Chronic Cortisol Affects Your Body:

  1. Increases blood sugars – impairing insulin sensitivity – predisposition to diabetes
  2. Increases blood cholesterol levels – predisposition to high cholesterols
  3. Increase blood pressure and pulse rate – predisposition to hypertension
  4. Promotes belly fat storage – Weight loss difficulties, increased CVD risk
  5. Breaks down muscle mass – body composition/lean muscle mass decline, difficulty losing weight
  6. Utilizes nutrient resources – stress uses up lots of vitamin C, Magnesium and B vitamins
  7. Impairs sleep and energy levels
  8. Impairs digestive function because it shunts blood flow away from the intestines and organs of digestion and towards the muscles in the arms, and legs.

So what can you do if you think you’ve got adrenal fatigue? Always speak to a Naturopathic doctor about your options, supplements, testing, and treatments. In the mean time, try some of these at home changes to assist in recovery from adrenal fatigue.

Lifestyle Changes to Assist in Recovery:

  • Limit alcohol use
  • Limit cigarette smoking
  • Limit caffeine consumption to 1 cup of coffee (250mL) per day
  • Limit consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugary foods – 0 servings if possible
  • Increase protein intake and eat frequently throughout the day to address glucose sugar dips/swings
  • Practise relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or artistic expression


Dr. Kristin Spark, BSc, B.Nat, CISSN, Naturopathic Doctor sees patients at: The Golden Mean Wellness Shoppe on Tuesdays & Thursdays, Waterloo Sports Medicine Wednesday Mornings and at Healthoholics on Wednesdays, Fridays & Saturdays. For information about appointments, or to book your appointment, click here

The content provided is not intended as health or medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a prescription. Always seek the advice of your medical provider with any questions you have regarding medical conditions. Dr. Kristin Spark, Naturopathic Doctor is released from any liabilities resulting from the use of information contained here.