One theory for why so many moms are exhausted is that their adrenal glands have been overworked. The adrenal glands affect every other organ and function of your body. The hormones produced by your adrenal glands are essential for life. If you didn’t produce them, you would simply die.
The most important adrenal hormone is called cortisol. Cortisol is present in almost every cell of your body, and its job is to restore your equilibrium after you’ve secreted adrenaline. Cortisol is produced by your body in amounts that follow a daily pattern, depending on the amount of light your eyes take in and the amount of activity you do.
Normally, your adrenals make the most cortisol around 8:00 in the morning, with less cortisol being produced as the day goes on, until around midnight, when your adrenals manufacture almost none at all. In a normal, relaxing day, your adrenals might manufacture around 40 mg of cortisol total.
However, when you are under stress, such as the kinds mentioned last week, your adrenal glands might manufacture up to 200 mg of cortisol in a day. This extra cortisol is designed to counteract the effects of adrenaline, such as jittery hands or a racing heart. The cortisol increases your blood pressure, helps keep your blood sugar up to give you energy, and helps your brain think more clearly.
Since your body is not designed to live on large amounts of cortisol long-term, your adrenal glands can only keep up this pace for a time. Eventually, if the stress continues, you won’t be able to make enough cortisol to keep pace with demand, and you’ll start to feel the effects. The adrenal glands control four major parts of your body, and these in turn affect everything else.
One of the liver’s functions is to be sure that your blood has enough sugar in it. Your brain requires an exact amount of sugar (known as glucose). If you have too much sugar in the blood, your pancreas releases a hormone known as insulin that removes the excess sugar and stores it. A few hours later, when your blood sugar levels have begun to drop, the liver will release some of the stored sugar so that the brain is continuously fed. Cortisol is the hormone that signals the liver to make this release.
If you’re not making enough cortisol, then your liver cannot replace blood sugar. Instead, your hormones will release adrenaline, in an effort to wake up your brain.
Symptoms of low blood sugar:
- Slow, sluggish, lethargic movement
- Mental confusion, fogginess
- Inability to regulate temperature
These are all symptoms of low blood sugar, known as hypoglycemia. (Hypo is a prefix that means low. Glycemia is a root word that comes from the word glucose, a type of sugar.) Most women notice the symptoms of hypoglycemia when they’re hungry in the late afternoon, but when the adrenal glands are more severely exhausted, women can also experience these symptoms in the middle of the night, as a burst of adrenaline wakes them from a sound sleep or scares them with a nightmare.
Just as the liver needs cortisol to maintain a proper amount of glucose in the blood, so also the stomach needs cortisol for proper digestion of your food.
It’s difficult for us to understand how a bite of food on our fork turns into carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, not to mention minerals and vitamins that nourish our body. We have a difficult time understanding that food is made of molecules that are built up into that bite of mashed potatoes that is heading into our mouth.
The mashed potatoes must be broken down into molecules that the body can recognize and use. Enzymes are the critters that break down the molecules.
Enzymes are manufactured mostly by the pancreas, and they begin working their magic in the stomach. However, if your stomach contains no enzymes, then your food just sits there. As it moves into the small intestine, it cannot be absorbed. Your large intestine then has a lot more work to do to eliminate it from your body. In effect, your food becomes a poison in your blood while you’re beginning to starve from a lack of nutrients.
Cortisol is the hormone that controls the production of enzymes in the pancreas. An excess of cortisol can cause too much stomach acid and other problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. Too little cortisol causes a reduction in the production of digestive enzymes.
Symptoms of not making enough digestive enzymes:
- Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting
- Abdominal and flank pain
- Joint pain
- Weight gain or loss
- Appetite loss or food cravings
When I first learned about the role of digestive enzymes, I finally realized why I had suffered through so many painful and bloated nights after a stressful week or an argument with someone. Why was I any different than a starving and bloated Ethiopian child?
Cortisol is not the only hormone produced in the adrenal glands. Aldosterone is another essential hormone (among many others).
Aldosterone controls the levels of sodium and potassium in the bloodstream. If the level of sodium in the blood falls too low, our kidneys cannot maintain the fluids in our body and our blood pressure will fall.
Symptoms of dysfunctional kidneys:
- Urinary tract infections
- Low blood pressure (defined as lower than 120/80)
- Profound weakness and fatigue
Low blood pressure causes a host of other symptoms, such as “seeing stars” when you stand up too quickly or reach for something in the shower. Low blood pressure also contributes to the famous sense of fatigue that accompanies tired adrenal glands. Fainting is another indicator of adrenal fatigue because of low blood volume.
Too much aldosterone has been shown to increase the risk of stroke and heart failure, but too little aldosterone is also bad for the heart. The heart needs aldosterone for a regular heartbeat and so that the output of blood is regular and firm. When aldosterone decreases, the heart struggles to regulate itself.
- Rapid heart rate
- Rapid respiratory rate
- Shortness of breath
I’ve noticed that when my adrenal glands cannot produce enough aldosterone, I struggle to have enough energy to carry a basket of laundry. My heart will race, followed by sleepiness. I avoid flights of stairs. I begin to wonder how small children have the energy to run and tumble. I’d rather just take a nap.
Exhausted adrenal glands aren’t the only cause of fatigue, however. Many parts of your body are involved, such as:
The Master Glands
Several glands in the brain control the adrenal glands. These “Master Glands” include the pineal, the hypothalamus and the pituitary.
Deep inside your brain is a gland called the pineal gland. This tiny gland, about the size of a pea, is responsible for producing a hormone called melatonin. Darkness stimulates the production of melatonin, and light tells it to stop. Melatonin is a powerful hormone that directs our circadian rhythms and even orchestrates our sexual development.
The retina of the eye receives light and transmits the signals from that light to the pineal gland. The patterns of daylight and darkness received by the pineal gland orchestrate the production of proper amounts of melatonin.
One of the purposes of melatonin is to regulate our days and nights. Halfway through the night, melatonin production peaks, gradually falling toward dawn. Depending on how close to the North Pole you live, you can experience up to 18 hours of darkness in the winter months. Now that we’ve become “civilized” with the invention of bright, artificial lights, we may only have eight or fewer hours of darkness a night.
- Night-lights, bright alarm clocks, and yard lights have all been shown to diminish the production of melatonin in our brains at night.
- Exposure to bright light at night, enjoyed by those in careers where they work the night shift, has been implicated in disorders such as cancer.
- Sitting in front of flashing television or computer screens, turning on bright lights to use the bathroom at 2 a.m. – all of these things upset the production of melatonin in our pineal glands.
Melatonin has many uses, beginning with the oversight of our metabolism. Young children produce more melatonin than adults, making scientists think that it plays a role in postponing sexual development.
Melatonin is a powerful anti-oxidant, and it has been shown helpful in reducing the damage caused by some types of Parkinson’s disease, in strengthening the immune system, in preventing migraine headaches, and in helping the heart beat properly. It has even been shown to help mice live longer! Melatonin helps us dream properly, which has been shown to keep us from going insane. (Read more about light here.)
The production of melatonin in the pineal gland goes on to affect the production of almost every hormone in the human body. Melatonin travels to the hypothalamus, where numerous hormones are produced. The hypothalamus then controls the pituitary gland, and a chain-reaction of hormones and responses goes off in your body.
The pituitary produces stimulating hormones that travel through your body to various glands. For instance, the pituitary makes a hormone called ACTH that travels to the adrenal glands to make cortisol and some other hormones. ACTH is often made in response to stress. When the pituitary is notified that the stress is over, it sends less ACTH to the adrenals so that less cortisol will be made. On the other hand, when more stress is present, more ACTH is sent to the adrenal glands and more cortisol is produced.
The same process holds true for other glands in your body as well, such as the thyroid gland and your ovaries. Your body is an amazing creation of God, able to analyze your situation in a moment and respond accordingly.
The Nutritional System
Hormones are messengers, sent out from the Master Glands to various parts of the body, with specific instructions that need to be carried out. However, hormones cannot be manufactured unless specific nutrients are present in your body.
Hormones are like the UPS drivers of your body. Imagine that they are carrying important boxes and parcels to cities (glands) far and wide. The UPS drivers need to be fed! If they never ate, they would never have the energy to carry their boxes.
What you eat, when you eat, and how well your body digests it are all critically important if your hormones will work properly. Food has to be broken down into its most basic parts before it can be built back up again into hormones, tissues, and bones. Pieces of food that aren’t digested properly become toxins (poisons) in your blood stream, damaging parts of your body and preventing hormones from being delivered properly.
When you feel great fatigue, the reason could come from a problem anywhere in your body.
- Maybe too much light is coming into your eyes at night, shutting off the production of melatonin in your brain.
- Maybe the pituitary isn’t responding correctly to the amount of hormones circulating in your blood.
- Maybe you have nutritional deficiencies and don’t have the proper materials needed to feed your cells.
- Maybe your glands have been overworked and just don’t have the energy to function any more.
No matter what the cause of your fatigue, the process of recovery is the same. However, before we learn how to conquer fatigue, next week we’ll talk about how to monitor our health.