Breathe: Stress, Breathing and the Adrenal Glands.
Stress runs rampant throughout our society. We all live fast-paced, on-the-go lives. Oftentimes we feel like the hamster running on his wheel—just going, going, going. From the moment our feet hit the ground in the morning, it can feel as if we are running a race. Drop the kids off at school, dash to work, hurry to meet deadlines, all while stuck in a sea of tail lights and traffic jams, and of course all on not enough sleep—it’s all a seemingly, never-ending stream of activity. It’s time to STOP what you’re doing. Jump off the daily roller coaster hamster wheel and take a deep, restorative breath.
Living a chronic, stressful life can have negative repercussions on both the mind and body. Having this constant amount of stress as a part of our daily routine can be detrimental in many ways. For those living this lifestyle, oftentimes it is only a matter of time before you hit the wall and face adrenal burnout. Our bodies and more specifically the adrenal glands can only take so much. What are adrenal glands you ask? The adrenal glands are two small glands and each one rests on top of each kidney. They are roughly the size of walnuts, each with their own shape. The right adrenal gland is shaped triangularly while the left adrenal is reminiscent of a crescent moon. Don’t let their tiny stature fool you, these glands may be small but they are mighty. They control the production of a number of hormones in the body, one being cortisol, our stress hormone. The adrenal glands have several components (or layers) to them as well, all with their own action and responsibility.
For starters, each gland is broken down into two parts: an outer cortex and an inner medulla. The outer cortex is composed of three layers. The outermost layer of the adrenal cortex is called the zona glomerulosa, the middle layer (which is also the largest layer) is the zona fasciculata, and the innermost layer of the adrenal cortex is the zona reticularis. Surrounded by the adrenal cortex and located at the innermost part of the adrenal glands is the adrenal medulla. Together all these working parts form the complex adrenal glands which are vital to our bodies in order for proper functioning to occur. Let’s further break down each part of the adrenal glands to examine their specific responsibilities.
The zona glomerulosa is primarily in charge of producing aldosterone which is vital in helping to regulate blood pressure as well as electrolyte balance. The zona fasciculata produces cortisol, an essential steroid hormone. Not only does this hormone affect the metabolism including levels of blood sugar in the body, it is also known as the “stress hormone.” The zona reticularis is responsible for producing androgens which are known as male hormones and are responsible for male characteristics. Androgens are found in both genders but in varying amounts and are converted to other sex hormones as well. Specifically these androgens include dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), DHEA sulfate (DHEA-S), and the precursor to testosterone, androstenedione. Finally the innermost component of the adrenal gland is the adrenal medulla. The adrenal medulla is responsible for the catecholamines, norepinephrine and epinephrine (which are also referred to as noreadrenaline and adrenaline, respectively). These are the hormones and neurotransmitters which provide us with the immediate and necessary “fight or flight response” known as the sympathetic nervous system in stressful situations. An example of this brings mankind back to the caveman days when we found it necessary to run from the lion, tiger, or bear in order to survive. These walnut-sized adrenal glands are in charge of and responsible for many hormones and processes in our body. The impact of their functionality is oftentimes unconsidered and unknown to the general public. Understanding the “stress” this gland is placed under everyday can help establish perspective of the taxing nature that as a stress-laden society we place on our bodies daily.
When people suffer from Adrenal Fatigue, they commonly have difficulties waking up in the morning and getting motivated to start the day, feel groggy and cognitively dull, irritable, tense, and can notice an increase in weight, to name a few. Reflect for a moment and consider your daily stress. You may just need to reboot your body and take restorative steps to health. First of all, breathe. Yes, breathe. Whether through meditation or deep-breathing exercises, taking just five minutes a day and devoting it to slow, calming, yet deep breathes can help slow down the firing norepinephrine and epinephrine. Slowing down and in essence “turning off” the “fight or flight” mode will then allow “rest and digest” to turn on, known as the parasympathetic nervous system. At some point our bodies need to recover from stress, take a break, regroup, and rebuild.
A category in botanical medicine known as Adaptogenic Herbs are very helpful in lowering constantly elevated cortisol levels. These herbs also are so aptly named as they target the adrenal glands and help you adapt and properly respond to stressors. Two of the more well-known adaptogenic herbs are rhodiola and ashwagandha. These restorative adaptogens are commonly used in practice to manage cortisol levels and to re-establish and strengthen the adrenal glands. (Before beginning any new medicine, consult your physician).
Stress. The word “rest” is found within it, it’s just jumbled around. Untangle the stress in your life to find the “rest”. You deserve it. Your body deserves it. (You are one in the same, after all). It can be challenging to find the time to slow down and breathe. Take a moment at night before bed to breathe. Breathing exercises before bed are beneficial as this can help prepare your body for sleep. Take five minutes and practice slow, deep breathing. Feel the stress decrease and welcome the calm and relaxation. When you are in the car, stuck in traffic, instead of stressing, breathe. Use that time to de-stress. Turn that negative stress into a positive and restorative moment. Now you are ready to get back on that roller coaster, just remember to breathe.