Adrenal Fatigue, Homeostasis, and Adaptogens
Dr. Joseph J Collins, RN, ND
Your adrenal glands play an extremely important role in maintaining general health, and also contribute to the optimal function of your other hormone producing tissues. While your adrenal glands have many actions, they can be summed up into two major categories. First, your adrenal glands produce a specific amount of very important hormones on a daily bases to promote general health, and support the processes involved in homeostasis (which will be discussed below). Second, and as important, your adrenal glands can dramatically and quickly change the amount of those important hormones to protect you from the consequences of trauma, burns, infection or other severe events as part of processes called allostasis (discussed below). This dramatic change is coordinated by regulatory systems that affect adrenal function.
These changes then affect many more regulatory systems, so that the total response to stress ultimately affects at least a dozen different regulatory systems involved in homeostasis and allostasis. The following article will discuss, in detail, the dynamic role that the adrenal glands play in keeping the body systems properly balanced, while also assisting the body in responding to the demands of both acute and chronic stress. You will soon understand that the adrenal glands interact with various regulatory systems. You will learn about herbs called adaptogens, and how to use them properly. You will also learn about other things you can do to maintain optimal adrenal health, and recovery from chronic fatigue and chronically poor health. It is all about helping your body adapt properly – towards health.
Adrenal Dysfunction & Adrenal Fatigue
The ability of the adrenal gland to dramatically and quickly change the amount of hormones that the adrenal gland produces is important for your very survival. Increased amounts of adrenal hormones during trauma, burns, infection or other severe events actually prevent the body form going into shock.
Once the adrenal glands “rescue” us from these life-threatening events, it returns to its daily job of producing specific amount of the hormones needed to promote general health on a daily bases. However, when the adrenal glands do not go back to producing the right amount of hormones, troubles follow.
Unfortunately, there are many cases when the adrenal glands do not go back to producing the right amount of the hormones on a daily bases. This is mostly caused by how the body responds to different events. Although it is important that the adrenal glands respond quickly to trauma, burns, infection or other severe events, it should not respond as dramatically for events that are not life-threatening. Those life-threatening and non-life-threatening events can both cause stress, but the response should be different.
Stress is the body’s response to any requirement for change. The stress may be negative such as trauma, burns and infections, or even emotions such as anger, fear or frustration. However, stress (requirement for change) could also be positive, such as exercise, a job promotion or a new relationship.
Simply put, stress requires us to adapt or adjust to the required change. As noted above, one of the most important functions of the adrenal gland is to change hormone levels, and help the body adapt to change. Of course this change must only be temporary. It should only adapt long enough to get through the crises. After that, it needs to go back to the normal levels. That state of normal function is called homeostasis – maintaining normal body functions so that they stand / remain / stay (stasis) in a closely similar (homeo) state of function - which is ideal for optimal health. Homeostasis may be thought of as staying relatively stable, or near equilibrium. The adrenal glands play a very big role in maintaining homeostasis by providing consistent levels of hormones that promote health.
When the adrenal glands respond to stress, they actually move the body out of homeostasis so that it can adapt to the stress. That process is called allostasis, which means the body functions have to stand / remain / stay (stasis) in a variable / changeable /adaptable (allo) state of function. So, allostasis is the ability to adapt and change when adaptation and change is required for survival. Allostatic changes (allostasis) are not beneficial for long term health. They help the body make it through temporary demands and crises – but at a cost.
Adrenal dysfunction is taking place when the adrenal glands are no longer able to respond to stress and help the body adapt through allostasis, or when the adrenal glands cannot return back to normal function and restore homeostasis. So with adrenal dysfunction, you can’t adapt to stress, and you can’t recover from stress. Simply put: You can’t stand stress and you can’t get rid of stress. It can be quite exhausting and result is significant fatigue. This may be why it is called adrenal fatigue.