Adrenal Stress and Adaptation

Adrenal Stress & Adaptation by Joseph J Collins, RN, ND

As discussed in the introductory page on Adrenal Health, this is one in a series of articles that will guide you towards a unique and comprehensive understanding of what adrenal health really means and what is actually going on in the condition that is popularly called “adrenal fatigue”. 

Adrenal Glands

The adrenal glands are the sentinel glands – the watch-guards that are the first response to any stress, any trauma and any change that may upset the delicate balance that we experience as health when every regulatory system in the body is working smoothly. The adrenal glands actually include two regulatory systems that you will learn about. The adrenal glands protect all other regulatory systems. When working properly, they will protect the other organs and tissues from the consequences of stress, and then guide all the regulatory systems through allostasis and back to homeostasis. When not functioning properly, the adrenal glands do not protect organs and tissues from the consequences of stress, and they may allow the regulatory systems to be stuck in an ongoing state of allostasis. Understanding what stress is, and the difference between homeostasis and allostasis will give us the greatest appreciation and understanding of what the adrenal glands actually do, and why they are so vital for our health, and our very survival.

Stress & Homeostasis and Allostasis

Stress was defined as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change” in 1936 by Hans Selye an endocrinologist. So stress is the generalized reaction of the body to any requirement the body to change. The change typically involves the body moving form a balanced and steady state to an imbalanced and unsteady state. Stress moves the body from equilibrium to disequilibrium, from homeostasis to allostasis. 

Homeostasis means “similar state” - the body has a balanced, rhythmic state of health. The balanced, rhythmic state of health includes body temperature, blood sugar levels, oxygen levels, balanced pH and every other normal physiological function. The “similar state” means everything is running smoothly – with no undesirable changes. There are natural health changes, such as a relatively constant body temperature that only changes slightly throughout the day.

Allostasis means “different state” – the body is no longer in a balanced, rhythm state of health. The body has changed how it functions to help the adapt to changes, typically to help the body survive. The changes in blood sugar levels, changes in heart rate, and the rate and depth of breathing, which are all caused by changes in the amount of adrenal hormones because of stress are examples of allostasis.

Adrenal Glands & Homeostasis and Allostasis

The adrenal glands help the body maintain a balanced state of health (homeostasis). 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 rhythmic basis to promote general health, and support the processes involved in the balanced, rhythmic state of health (homeostasis). This involves normal levels of cortisol, DHEA and other adrenal hormones.

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 stress (change) that may be due to trauma, burns, infection or other severe events result in the body no longer being in a balanced, rhythm state of health (allostasis).

Maintaining the body in a balanced state of health (homeostasis) and regulating how it responds to stress by guiding it through different states of health (allostasis) is an important function of the adrenal glands. As such, the adrenal glands can be recognized as an important regulatory system. 

Other Regulatory Systems

The changes in adrenal gland function 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. Homeostasis and allostasis will be discussed in the following short articles. The following articles will also discuss, in detail, the dynamic role that your adrenal glands play in keeping all of your body systems properly balanced, while also assisting your body in responding to the demands of both acute and chronic stress.

This series of articles on adrenal health will show you how your adrenal glands interact with various regulatory systems throughout your body. 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, by adapting towards greater health.

Next: Learn more about the Adrenal Glands