When Chronic Stress and a Toxic Environment Create Adrenal Dysfunction

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

One of the most complex hormonal systems in the body belongs to the adrenal glands. These are small but oh so powerful regulatory organs located on the top of each kidney. A number of essential bodily processes that occur at every moment are influenced by the adrenals. For example, cortisol and aldosterone are hormones secreted by the adrenals that are vital to life—cortisol helps regulate metabolism and controls your body’s response to stress, while aldosterone helps control blood pressure.

When most people think of the adrenal glands, they think of the word “adrenaline,” and its reference to the “Superman” hormone, or the hormone that notoriously gives us, in high-energy or stressful situations, the ability to go a little harder or faster, or to perform with greater strength and athleticism. We also think of adrenaline when we think of energy, hyperactivity, and a state of excitability. Haven’t we all experienced the feeling of “butterflies in our stomachs” when we are facing scary or exciting situations? Those butterflies are the physical effect of our adrenals kicking in to secrete the hormones needed to get us through. As you will see, though, the problem with our body’s secretion of the adrenal hormones of stress and excitability arises when situational, environmental, and physical strains remain constant and never subside. Thus, the adrenal glands never rest. It is then that our hormonal systems become taxed and dysregulation starts to take its toll.

Adrenal Dysfunction

Our bodies were not designed to experience long-term physical or toxic stress. This is actually the original “fight or flight” reaction in the body, essential for survival. Unfortunately, when physical or mental stress becomes chronic or long term, the “fight or flight” response stays switched on, and the result can cause anxiety, nervousness, and sleeplessness. This adds to the devastation when one is ill. The “I’m safe, now I can rest and recover” signal is never given, so the body is not allowed to focus efforts on healing.

The effects of excessive adrenaline may secondarily cause overproduction of cortisol, the body’s natural cortisone. Cortisol is a buffer. It helps to shield the body against reactions and helps the immune system mount a defense against infections as well. Cortisol also regulates the salts in the bloodstream. If there is not enough cortisol, then sodium levels can drop, making it difficult to sustain normal blood pressure. If there is too much cortisol, then insulin is stimulated causing many drops and elevations in blood sugar. High cortisol also allows for fat accumulation in the midsection of the body. Cushing’s disease is a medical condition in which the body produces very high levels of cortisol due to a tumor or complete malfunction of the adrenal cortex.   Addison’s disease is the opposite, these patients do not have enough cortisol and ultimately may have dangerous drops in sodium, potassium and subsequently blood pressure.

The Effects of Mold on the Adrenal System

In mold-related illness, there is often a tremendous impact on the adrenal system, and this becomes a leading reason for fatigue in toxic patients. While most patients do not qualify for a diagnostic label of Cushing’s disease or Addison’s disease, many of their symptoms may mimic both of these conditions depending on the degree of adrenal stimulation. Over time, the gland simply becomes, not only fatigued, but completely unable to reregulate itself or other body functions as it should.

There are several ways that this may present. One is the patient who is “wired and tired”. This is common in the early stages of adrenal involvement in mold-related illness and is exactly what it sounds like. Patients may feel tired and exhausted, but when it comes to sleep, it is poor quality, not well sustained, and is not restorative.

Further down the continuum are those patients who become chronically tired with few moments of energy or the ability to carry out or sustain mental concentration and physical activity. Sleep may be excessive but non restorative, or pure insomnia may persist. It is important to understand that when the adrenals are not functioning as they should, then they are unable to stimulate and stabilize other hormonal functions, including thyroid and sex hormones.   These downstream hormones, as we refer to them, are also contributing to the level of fatigue. It is sort of the perfect storm, because, if thyroid and sex hormone imbalances are treated and the adrenals are not addressed, then the body still remains out of balance. Thus, improvement may be short lived or never even occur.

So, how do the adrenals become so fatigued as to not function well? Again, if the toxic exposure is ongoing and the body still has a significant burden of mycotoxins, these stressors continue to stimulate the adrenals to try to produce its protective hormones, which it cannot do.

Another important thing to remember is that the pituitary gland may have become compromised from the mycotoxins, particularly if there has been a fungal sinusitis present. As the pituitary is a control gland for the adrenals, it may need to be addressed concomitantly with the adrenal treatment plan to help the entire cascade heal.

Hacking Adrenal Dysfunction

There are tests that can be done to determine the level of adrenal hormone produced and may be done by blood, saliva or urine. Different practitioners may have their favorite method of testing, but if you feel chronically wired, tired, or exhausted, and you have had or currently have a mold exposure, then you very likely have some degree of adrenal fatigue.

What to do?

There are several steps, and it all begins with getting out of the mold! If this sounds like a common theme to these articles then you are getting the picture! You will not get better if you are still living in the place that made you ill are being exposed to mold-contaminated belongings. Please check previous articles to see the steps to take to determine if your environment is problematic.

If you are out of mold and still feeling the above symptoms, then start a slow and sure adrenal regulation program.

Action steps include the following:

(Note: All nutritional supplements listed below can be purchased through Dr. Tanner’s Wellevate online store.)

  1. Follow a balanced diet, with 40% protein, 30% carbohydrates, and 30% fats. I find that The Zone Diet helps describe this in the easiest and best way. Extreme, low-carb diets are generally not good for adrenal fatigue patients, but that does NOT give patients free license to eat sugary foods or lots of grains. It is about balancing macronutrients to give the body a constant and continual source of nutritional energy.
  2. Eat a small snack before bed to help regulate insulin levels. Almond butter on a piece of apple, half a protein bar, or non-sweetened, protein-rich Greek yogurt may be some options.
  3. Use a homeopathic treatment to help strengthen both the adrenals and the pituitary gland. CellTropin, which is not stimulatory, and does not contain synthetic hormones, works slowly and gently to help the body achieve balance.
  4. Supplement with Vitamin C. Vitamin C is the first tonic for adrenals. Start with 1000 mg daily and work up to as much as you can tolerate, dividing doses into three daily intervals. If you get loose bowels, cut back. Ecological Formulas makes a tapioca Vitamin C that is hypoallergenic and low in side effects. This can even be administered IV in a doctor’s office for more rapid results.
  5. Nourish adrenal tissues with Vitamins B5 and B6. 100 mg of Vitamin B5, and 25 mg of B6 are usually good starting doses. Pure Encapsulations brands of these are excellent.
  6. Regulate insulin/blood sugar shifts with Chromium Picolinate. 400 mcg twice daily helps to regulate the shifts that can occur with chronic adrenal fatigue, and may help with sleep as well.   I like Thorne brand as it seems particularly well absorbed
  7. Ashwagandha is a very gentle herb that can help the adrenal gland “adapt” and normalize function. One daily at night is a good starting dose.

There are also a number of “adrenal formulas” and many of these are very good, but I generally try to start low and slow and see how well recovery is occurring before adding more products.

In addition, following a good detox plan is extremely important. Removing the toxic load from the system allows healing of the glandular tissues. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Continual adrenal imbalance can lead to targeted organ effects, including brain fog, chronic fatigue, and even diabetes. One of my favorite books on this subject is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky, PHD. The book does a wonderful job of breaking down and illustrating just how important the adrenal system is.

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