Adrenals Part 1: The Chemistry of Stress

We all know what stress is, and what it feels like. Even kids nowadays are aware of stress. Since the pandemic, stress has skyrocketed, and we are all affected, globally. Unless you’re a person who thrives on stress (see the next post), you likely experience stress as unpleasant. You know it’s contributing to your stomach issues, your back pain, your anxiety, and all the other physical complaints you have now and in the future. You know this.

But do you know:

  1. What actually happens to your body chemistry during stress?
  2. Your body can be stressed even though your mind doesn’t feel it?
  3. You can actually test how your body is handling stress?
  4. You change your stress chemistry without stressing about not stressing?

These are concepts worth exploring! It’s not helpful to say “stop stressing.” But it can be helpful to understand stress chemistry, bow to measure it, and how to protect yourself from its harmful effects. This is what I cover in this series on “adrenal fatigue” – which by the way is not a real medical condition, as you’ll find out.

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The chemistry of stress: how it’s supposed to work

When your brain perceives stress, it activates the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system, and signals your adrenals to pump out your first responder stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. This is your fight or flight response:

  • Blood flow goes to your large core muscles and away from your hands and feet, digestive system, and reproductive organs. This is so you can fight or flee. Explains cold hands and feet, indigestion and gut issues, and poor circulation to your reproductive organs for healthy cycles and fertility.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure rise, and blood sugar and fat mobilize. Explains anxiety, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar.
  • Blood clotting speeds up to prevent blood loss. May contribute to clotting and blood disorders.
  • Muscles contract for extra speed and strength. Explains chronic muscle tension and pain.

The fight or flight response, and your recovery from it, is a natural part of your biology. You need this robust response to run from a tiger or lift a car off an accident victim. After about 10 minutes, your adrenals make your second responder to crisis, which is the infamous cortisol.

Cortisol is a wonderful steroid hormone that puts out inflammation (think cortisone shots, asthma inhalers, and nasal steroids). Cortisol also helps you wake up and feel alert, and supports your immune system to fight infections.

This first and second responder stress chemistry is all good and meant to happen. You are meant to mount a stress response, and then recover from it and let your autonomic nervous system return to parasympathetic (aka feed and breed or rest and digest). Then you can digest your food well, warm up your hands, feet, and uterus, and make babies.

When stress is too much

When stress is too huge to recover from, or too sustained, you can get stuck in fight or flight and your autonomic nervous system can’t shift back into a parasympathetic state. This is “sympathetic dominance.” This includes anxious, hyper-stimulated, and highly-sensitive people. In this situation demand for cortisol production goes way up.

When cortisol is high on a regular basis, it starts working against you. It can cause body and brain inflammation, weight gain in your abdomen, insulin resistance, menstrual irregularities, and osteoporosis. It stresses the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal), and dulls the cortisol receptors on your cells (cortisol resistance). High cortisol causes multi-systemic dysfunction that this graphic shows:


These are real reasons why you should care about stress chemistry. Don’t stress about it, instead keep reading on to learn how to get a handle on this. Head over to the next post in this series which is When Your Body is Stressed and Your Mind Isn’t.

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4 Comments

  1. This helped me realize I had more stress than I recognized. Thank you, Laura! Very helpful!

    1. I’m sorry to hear that you’re experiencing stress Anjali. You are not alone! Stay tuned because I’m going to offer lots of ways to reduce stress later in this series.

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