When a person experiences “stress” for long periods of time, it’s now well documented that this hormonal response contributes to most if not all chronic pain syndromes. Whether it’s an older person whose stress response is from an inflamed brain and presents itself as poor brain endurance, achy joints, and poor digestion (one of the first signs of poor brain function) or whether it’s a younger person who is pushing their brain too hard, working too long, overstimulating their brain with too many personal devices and TV time, and getting too little sleep, stress hormones are highly destructive to human physiology.
When the level of stress becomes “a problem” for people the majority of medical practitioners (unknowingly) and alternative practitioners (knowingly) first address the adrenal glands. Drugs for stress, anxiety, and panic attacks are among the most prescribed drugs in America. They mostly address adrenal function. “You can’t fix anything until you fix the adrenal glands” – has been an alternative practitioner mantra since the 1960’s. Adrenal Glandulars, B Vitamins, Adaptocrine Herbs, certain minerals are all attempts to return the adrenals to normal function.
However, the adrenals are not the problem. The true problem lies in the brain stress pathways and general brain degeneration (wear and tear, inflammation). The adrenals themselves are simply cortisol (stress hormone) factories, putting out stress hormones in response to directions from the brain. Chronic stress causes them to over produce cortisol, bombarding both the brain and the body with stress hormones. The adrenals may become over exhausted from wear and tear and then begin to be unable to make enough cortisol. (The body needs not too much or too little cortisol but just the right amount) Then the body cannot muster enough energy (because the adrenals work to make energy too) to respond to even mild life chemical or pathological stressors such as a common viral infection or a bad day at work, and fatigue sets in. Although there are times when adrenal glands indeed need and respond (temporarily) to nutritional support, it is better to address the true core cause – that is to strengthen and support brain function and if present, slow brain degeneration. Treating the brain will relieve the over activation of the adrenals – and a number of other neurological imbalances at the same time.
How does one do that? Our mentor taught us to first look at poor brain endurance and its causes. Is that person getting enough Omega 3’s or Methyl B-12? Do you have low serotonin or GABA (neurotransmitter chemicals that calm your brain down)? Do you have anemia (the brain needs enough O2 not to get stressed or degenerated) or do you have blood sugar imbalances (the brain needs blood sugar to work- but just the right amount – kind of like cortisol)
Or do you just need to calm down. Easier said than done. But on a practical level, maybe your brain just needs more of the proper type of stimulation – such as walking outside, engaging in social activities, working on intellectually stimulating problems, making more time for yourself or more gentle exercises and less of the detrimental stimulations: overly full activity schedules, too much television, IPhone, computer time, and too little sleep. These are legitimate baseline lifestyle strategies that may help.
If these stress strategies are not sufficient for your level of brain stress, then it may be appropriate to move on to the next “level of” addressing brain stress mechanisms.
Should these levels of care not calm the overwrought or fatigued adrenals then – and only then – should you turn to the next level of care. This approach starts with the adrenal adaptogens. Although they are called adrenal adaptogens, these herbs do not work on the adrenal glands, but instead on the stress pathways in the brain (the correct target) particularly the hippocampus (short term memory loss and circadian rhythm, poor sleep area, and off button for the stress cycle). Starting to see the non-adrenal first pattern? Even the herbs that work best address the brain. These adaptogens include ashwagandha, Panax Ginsing, Rhodiola Rosea, Holy Basal Extract, and Eleuthero Extract. These are all powerful botanicals that impact brain chemistry and brain pathology stress responses in a positive way. Some work better for one person than another and for some others these botanicals will have a greater effect when used in combination. It is best to consult a professional on this point.
Should you continue to experience “stress” symptoms after this step, then proceeding to herbal and nutritional compounds for brain inflammation (extremely common) can offer further support and improvement. Supporting brain inflammation should be considered especially if in addition to classic adrenal fatigue or stress symptoms you are experiencing brain fog or have some other systemic inflammation (i.e., gut, burning nerves, autoimmune problems). If your entire body is inflamed you may also have aches and pains everywhere as an indicator of systemic inflammation affecting brain function.
Chronic stress hormonal responses can also cause constriction of blood vessels leading to poor oxygenation of the brain. The brain needs proper stimulation, lack of inflammation, proper glucose (not discussed in this article but refers to hypoglycemic insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, syndrome x, pre-diabetes, diabetes 1, 2, and now 3) and proper oxygenation to heal and function well. Oxygenation to the brain can become impaired by anemias, COPD, asthma, bronchitis, heart failure, and chronic stress, thus impairing the brains’ rest and digest system and causing the brain to overstimulate and produce inflammation. When any of these situations occur, the adrenals take the hit. But they, not the adrenals, should be the focus of treatment first.
Strategies to reduce the stress response, dampen brain inflammation, and support blood flow to the brain, in conjunction with supporting brain health and brain activity, have the potential to halt the nosedive into escalating brain degeneration and to restore healthy adrenal function. For those who knowingly lead stressful lives but are not in a position to change things, taking adrenal (and even brain) nutritional compounds can help buffer the effects of a stressful schedule and thus help prevent brain inflammation, degeneration, and fatigue. But those compounds for the adrenals (and brain) cannot create long term results in the presence of or make up for a poor diet, blood sugar imbalances, and food intolerances. A good diet is critical. They also cannot make up for a lifestyle or career that is creating excessive mental and emotional stress. Stress inducing life styles must be modified for best results. Only then can the overstimulated brain calm down and give your adrenals the opportunity to recover.
1. Kelly GS. Nutritional and Botanical Interventions to Assist with the Adaptation to Stress. Altern. Med. Rev. 1999 Aug:4:249-65
- Rege NN. Thatte V.M. Dahanukar SA. Adaptogenic Properties of Six Rasayana Herbs used in Ayurvedic Medicine.Phytother Res. 1999 Jun;13(4):275-91
- Kharrazian Datis. Why Isn’t my Brain Working?, 2013-pgs 102-103