Exhausted from Holiday stress? It’s understandable. The Holidays can be stressful for many reasons- dealing with relatives, getting all of the shopping done, trying to prepare food for many people with different tastes or sensitivities, and trying to arrange activities for visitors, all while attempting to keep the joy of the Holidays centered and completing work-related tasks before the end of the year. Whatever the reasons for your stress this time of year, how your body handles it can say a lot about the state of your adrenal system.
Stress is normal, and we’ve evolved our fight-or-flight response to deal with it. Our ability to call up extra reserves of energy, to experience a perception of the dilation of time, and to be able to make many decisions very quickly are all survival aspects. Sometimes these bursts of adrenaline can leave us feeling spent. Still, with a healthy adrenal system we tend to bounce back fairly quickly, and perhaps even thrive in the sense of accomplishment that derives from mastering dangerous, complicated, or hectic situations. Aside from adrenaline, another important adrenal hormone is cortisol- often called the “stress hormone”.
Cortisol plays several important roles in the body:
- Regulates Metabolism: Cortisol helps control the body’s use of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. It stimulates gluconeogenesis—the breakdown of protein and fat to provide metabolites that can be converted to glucose in the liver. This provides energy to the body as well as determining how we gain and lose weight. Proper glucose production can help the body deal with stress by producing the energy reserves necessary when adrenaline is released.
- Modulates Immune System Response: Cortisol suppresses inflammation throughout the body. The activation of the stress system, which causes a many-fold increase of cortisol in the body, is also seen during infection and is a mechanism that could prevent an over-activation of inflammatory response. This is why people who have compromised adrenal systems are often prone to chronic conditions.
- Regulates Blood Pressure: Cortisol helps in regulating blood pressure. Overproduction of cortisol can result in higher blood pressure, while consistently lower levels of cortisol can result in low blood pressure.
- Affects Sleep-Wake Cycle: Cortisol is involved in the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. A healthy adrenal system ideally sees levels of cortisol rise in the morning when you wake up, peak later in the day, and then fall again as you prepare for sleep. This cortisol cycle is very important to handling stress, getting proper sleep, and avoiding feeling exhausted throughout the day. While cortisol is essential for various functions, chronic high levels due to prolonged stress can have negative health effects, as can having an adrenal cycle where the rise and fall of cortisol is out of sync with your sleep-wake cycle.
Testing the Adrenal System
Cortisol levels and adrenal health can be accurately tested through saliva samples. The benefit of this method is that it allows the patient to self-collect at predetermined points during a 24-hour period, giving a much more complete analysis of the rise and fall of cortisol over the day. Testing methods that use blood are impractical for both patient self-collection and charting the cortisol cycle as they only take a glimpse at one point in time. This means they can give an inaccurate picture of the cortisol cycle and only measure total cortisol.
The Advanced Adrenal Stress Test offers a salivary, patient-collected test with four predetermined collection times in order to give the best picture of cortisol levels and patterns throughout the day. DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), and secretory IgA (sIgA) are also tested, and the combination of these markers gives the practitioner a robust check on a patient’s adrenal system.